Mahboob's Journal

Existential Thoughts, Experiential Inferences and Occasional Whacky Connections

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From Mr. Perfect to Social Technologist

Today, Sunday (29-May-11), I watched the Telugu movie Mr. Perfect at Prasad IMAX with my family. The movie is a hit, something of a rarity these days in Tollywood. One of the lines in the movie that stuck in my mind is said by K.Viswanath the veteran director who, in the movie, is grand father of Maggie (played by Taapsee). I don’t remember the exact words. He says (something to the effect) that the things technology is giving us are good, but is sad that it is separating people and widening/weakening human relationships.

Later in the evening while browsing the net, I chanced upon a video statement by Niall Ferguson on titled “Historians Can Predict the Future.” He refers to technology in his account:

"Now my strong belief is that for all the technological change that has happened over the last 200 or so years, and particularly the technological changes of the very recent past, at this time, is not so different from previous times that we’ve nothing to learn from the past. Just to give one example, I’m having this conversation with an anonymous, to me unidentifiable audience through the miracle of a digital camera and the Internet. Now, that’s certainly very different from the way in which Martin Luther communicated his ideas about Christianity to the German public in the early 16th century. The way that happened was through sermons which, of course, could only be heard by hundreds of people at the time, but were then communicated via the printing press and transcriptions to a much, much larger audience. The reformation came about in the 16th century because of a network effect. There was a viral quality to it and the printing press was to the reformation what the Internet is to our time."

Basically this means that what technology is doing today is not anything different from what it was doing in the past. The view on technology expressed in the movie is a limited one and to the extent that technology is changing the life style amongst a lot of Indians, it is true. These days it’s so common to have people work from home. Folks have less and less time for family customs and rituals. Children are getting glued to the computer and internet. But insofar as technology weakening human relationships is concerned, it cannot be taken as an universal axiom.

In fact, the essence of Facebook, as expressed in David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect is that “it has always been explicitly conceived and engineered by Zuckerberg and colleagues as a tool to enhance your relationships with the people you know in the flesh -- your real-world friends, acquaintances, classmates, or co-workers. The Facebook Effect most often is felt in the quotidian realm, at an intimate level among a small group. It can make communication more efficient, cultivate familiarity, and enhance intimacy.

Point is if technology can weaken human relationships, it can also do the opposite. As written in the book, “Giving people more information about people around them ‘should create more empathy.’ In this attribution to Facebook of a power to help people better understand one another, Zuckerberg has a surprising ally -- his mentor and board member Peter Thiel. The hedge fund manager and venture capitalist thinks Facebook is a key tool for a world necessarily becoming much smaller. ‘People in a globalized world are going to be in closer proximity to each other,’ he explains. ‘The key value in my mind will be more tolerance. What I like about the Facebook model is it’s centered on real human beings and it enables them to become friends with other people and build relationship not only in the context they’re already in, but in contexts outside of that as well.’

Various contexts, various facets to technology. It can leave a technologist modified in his/her self-perception. James Gosling, creator of the Java programming language, riffed thus: "The Web these days - and this is kind of cool - is now the domain of the artists and the social scientists," he said. "For myself as an engineer, I'm just kind of a plumber in the basement of the place.”  He's right. It comes into the discussion in different places and fora as an enabler for social change and government policy implementation.

For example, when Rupa Subramanya Dehejia blogged about cash transfer scheme, IT and debit cards figured in the readers' comments. At first, I read the blog and reader discussion mainly for the technology angle, but it rekindled my interest in the whole cash transfer scheme. Now whereever I do my reading - internet, newspapers, magazines - I am encountering it. I probably can condense a small article on cash transfer schemes. But that can wait for another day.

Another example, Union Labour and Employment Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, who had come to Hyderabad recently for an inauguration function, declared that below poverty line families in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka would be issued health smart cards. For Rs 70/-, each family would get two smart cards and each smart card enables them to get health care worth Rs 30,000/- annually. The scheme, called Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojan (RSBY) was launched in 2008 and is an IT intensive scheme. Its website explains the same: "For the first time IT applications are being used for social sector scheme on such a large scale. Every beneficiary family is issued a biometric enabled smart card containing their fingerprints and photographs. All the hospitals empanelled under RSBY are IT enabled and connected to the server at the district level. This will ensure a smooth data flow regarding service utilization periodically."

For people like me whose interest and day job is computer technology, this leads to increasing intake and interaction about subjects like sociology and economics. It’s kinda like the discussion about CIOs becoming business heads because they acquire so much operational knowledge which is wider and deeper than other function heads. One doesn’t have to stay plumbing at the basement. As Shashwat D C wrote in the editorial of ITNEXT's Feb 2011 issue, "The Next Generation CIO needs to be ready to don the role of the Next CEO as well."

Just like CIOs can become CEOs, geeks can become social thinkers and sociologists. So what does one do in the regard? There is no avoiding the social and sociology encounters. Probably the best thing is to read up on sociology or economics. That seems to be a good idea and since there are seven more months to go, I should be able to work through three or four books this calendar year.

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I have a problem with the overall premise of your article but I still think its really informative. I really like your other posts. Keep up the great work. If you can add more video and pictures can be much better. Because they help much clear understanding. :) thanks
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Nice one

Hi mahaboob, this ia a really good write...
I completely agree with you and feel that social encounters will govern the balance of power in all areas - corporate, government or personal. ANd how one uses the tools that are available - technology or no technology will define the success rate.
Please keep writing I do peep in once in a while. :)
Hope you are doing great..and come to Pune soon, its been long time..
Cheers - Hemant

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