Thinking more about innovation and path pollution: A long post

I’ve never driven a car in my life. I need to learn how to. I will, soon.

In India, when I was growing up, if you were rich enough to have a car, you were rich enough to have a driver. So I didn’t drive. My father never drove, neither did my grandfather.

But my daughter does. My wife does. My other children will, when they come of age. And I will. Soon.

Even though I didn’t drive, I spent hours fascinated by Indian car mechanics. Many of them didn’t speak English that well, I was used to hearing words and phrases like “radiowater” and “jugger-bugger” and wondering what they meant. It took me a while (well, I was eight at the time) to figure out they meant “radiator” and “shock absorber”.

They made cars work. Without manuals or directions or even spare parts. They cannibalised and adapted and fashioned from scrap and made from scratch. Amazing stuff. So, although eight cars in ten in Calcutta in the 1960s were Hindustan Ambassadors (modelled on the Austin Ambassador of a decade earlier) I grew up with the following:

A Dodge Plymouth. A Studebaker Commander. A Standard (not Triumph) Herald Station Wagon. (Note: these are not the cars we owned, just sample images of the models we had, and not in the right colours either. Nevertheless my thanks to the image providers who hold all the copyright and golden keys and title to the jpegs.)

What’s all this to do with innovation and path pollution? You may well ask. Let me try and share what’s going on in my head.

It all started with LifeKludger commenting on a recent post of mine. (Thanks, Dave!). Then, while I was mulling over what Dave was saying, I happened across something Nolind Whachell wrote recently, on Perfect Equals Rigid.

Here’s a quote from Dave:

Contexts and Clues.

There’s lots of people on planet Earth doing lots of things for lots of reasons…or no reason at all. All this activity takes place in a context of the person’s life. The persons life itself is in the context of being on this planet.

All this activity leaves clues. This blog will try to look outside of the contexts the activity is in for clues on how it could be applied in a different context. To get from one context to another takes a Kludge!

And here’s a quote from Nolind:

When I looked at what I was doing I laughed at myself. What an idiot I was! In trying to create this “perfect” vision of what I wanted to achieve, instead of sharing this information with others, I instead ended up building a dam that not only blocked the flow of information to those who really wanted it but also built up my stress and frustrations as well, since I was trying to produce something “perfect”. When I saw what I was doing, I immediately said the following to myself:

Stop trying to be perfect. Don’t let things build. Let things flow.

And while I was mulling over all this, I started thinking about some of the problems Indian mechanics will face soon. [The kernel for this particular bit was a World Bank report on servicing of baby taxis in Bangladesh, where the writer observed that emissions didn’t always reduce after a service. And he found out it was because the mechanics kept using second-hand spark plugs out of sheer habit….)

Which brought me sharply back to the present, and I started thinking about what all this means.

Here’s where I am at present…..

1. One of the things we have lost as a result of miniaturisation and modularisation is the ability to “get under the hood” of many electro-mechanical things. Sometimes because we don’t understand it, sometimes because we can’t (everything is sealed), and sometimes because the manufacturer says Don’t Go There.

That’s not progress. Progress is when the things in the sealed units work, and we can continue to experiment at the edge of the seal. What we have today is sealed units breaking down and a frustrating inability to get in under the hood. This is as true of software as for hardware, when we place ourselves in proprietary lock-in contexts.

So Rule 1: Allow Us to Get Under the Hood

2. Similarly, even in places and states where we can get under the hood today, the edge is too structured and rigid. Our challenge is to allow edge innovation to take place without sacrificing the quality and reliability of what’s under the hood. And that means open toolkits rather than just APIs. Machine tools rather than machines. Opposable thumbs.

Which makes Rule 2: Toolkits not tools, elastic not rigid.

3. This is me wandering a bit further afield than is my usual wont. Since the issues to do with global warming aren’t going to go away, we have to find ways of letting people under the hood of things without having to replace things all the time. The disposable approach won’t scale, we have a problem with PCs already. There are probably more discarded PCs on earth than Sarbanes-Oxley consultants. We have to be able to fix things not discard-and-replace. Make replacement cycles longer by adaptation and extension.

Which makes Rule 3: Fix, don’t replace.

Some of this reminds me of Cat Stevens and Where Do The Children Play. [No he wasn’t Yusuf Islam then,  not on my LP…]

And that brings me to my coda.

Our children are denied a lot in terms of experimentation and kludging and adaptation, because we have gone and miniaturised things and sealed things and built a disposable approach to life. We need to leverage the right values from all this, in terms of safety and security and biodegradeability and lower emissions and renewable-ingredient product and all that jazz, but while we do all this we need to let play continue. Because play is learning. And learning is life.

I speak of “us”. But vicariously. Us is not me. Us is Generation M. So what stops them getting under the hood? What stops them experimenting at the edge? What stops them adapting and extending things?

Bad IPR. Bad DRM. Because they’re a digital generation. And that’s why they don’t like our attitude. We’re taking away their screwdrivers and soldering irons and microscopes and test tubes and magnifying glasses and telescopes and what-have-you.

We can’t do that. 

8 thoughts on “Thinking more about innovation and path pollution: A long post”

  1. The first thing the engineer does when my car is booked in for a service/fault is hook up a laptop with software and a cable worth more than the laptop and soon more than the car!!

    It makes sense what you say and more importantly the way you say it, but pause for thought…. it is our generation that got under the hood and it is the same generation that has decided to seal the hood. Our children are now growing up in an age where there is no repair, simply replace. Rules 1-2 and 3 will not sell in the 21st century and as you point out it will affect parts of the world that used to depend on hand-me-downs and reconditioning eventually.

  2. Frustrates me too, both the inability to get inside and the lack of desire of the younger generation to even want to do so.

    My take is there are two separate economic effects driving this state of affairs.

    1) It is cheaper to do massive system integration and mass production. No-one even thinks of building a CPU from discrete components any more (I can remember one electronics magazine running a construction project building a desk calculator out of discrete 7400-series logic gates, just about the time one-chip calculators were coming on the market). Generally a benevolent effect on society.

    2) There’s a nice revenue stream to be made from servicing equipment, with revenue proportional to parts cost. Or even more if you can persuade the customer they need a total replacement. Perhaps life-cycle economics and charging for disposal might help counter this trend. But I’m not optimistic.

    Have you seen the Groklaw debate over GPL v3? – especially see the comments. Linus Torvalds has issues with the proposed additions on DRM, but there’s plenty of polarised opinions there, debating round the point “should DRM-locked-down hardware such as Tivo be allowed to use GPLv3 software? Or does blocking its use also block beneficial uses too?” (with examples from certified medical equipment and privacy/security).

  3. Groklaw also has an article and followup on “The Generative Internet”. The author, Jonathan Zittrain, comments “I think it’s critically important that users retain general purpose PCs, even some with proprietary OSes, instead of “information appliances.” I fear these appliances, like TiVo, can come to predominate — or that the PC itself will morph towards becoming one, with new gatekeepers determining what code will or won’t run on them, rather than the users themselves.”

  4. Thanks for the comments. Chutki, you should say whatever you feel like, you don’t need my permission. I moderate comments only for two reasons: One, to trap spam that got past Akismet (which happens occasionally) and Two, to protect the blog on a common civility basis from comments that are violently inflammatory or discriminatory in terms of creed, colour, age, sex or race. I accept that the second filter is subjective.

    As soon as I have accepted a comment from someone, filter 2 disappears. That’s the best I’ve been able to come up with so far.

    Andrew, I’ve wanted to meet Prof Zittrain for some time now, and I guess it will happen one day. ….

  5. On rule 1

    Aren’t these the reasons they don’t let us get under the hood?

    1) Things are too complicated for us to fix (forgive the generalisation across both people and products)
    2) We expect our suppliers to be able to fix stuff for us and they can’t do that cost effectively if we have meddled

    And on rule 3

    Isn’t this a market forces and regulation issue? If you believe in capitalism then you have to trust it to allocate resources properly. It is then up to governments to regulate externalities, for example with a tax on disposing of PCs. There might also be value in regulating manufacturing to improve fixability, but you can’t expect firms to do this on their own. Their shareholders would be up in arms.

    I’m with you 100% on rule 2 though….

  6. Nic, I used to have no problem with modular only-replaceable-by-trained-experts hardware. Then I thought to myself, isn’t that what medieval priests and doctors and lawyers and IT people kept saying? “This is complex, you won’t understand it, leave it to us experts”.

    Now I’m not sure. Modularise and hide away and say Do Not Open. Fine. But only if it works six nines. And even then only if the safety issues are meaningful.

    Our suppliers don’t fix stuff for us cost-effectively anyway. In fact the usual response is Throw It Away And Buy a New One.

    Even if what we get is a consumer experimentation space at the edge of the sealed unit that’s better than now.

    Rule 3 is a back-door attempt to price the ecosystem impact of obsolescence and tag it on to the price of the replacement. If we did that then we would extend replacement cycles more easily.

    And anyway all I really wanted was to have all three “Rules” treated as analogous, to show how Generation M experiments with their stuff and how bad IPR and bad DRM comes in their way.

  7. Hi JP, thanks. What I meant was, I didn’t want to dump on you a long personal reflection.


    We share much in common! I’ve never driven a car either, though I did buy and use a bicycle in the early 90s. In my student days in London (82-84) I had a bicycle. At one point, both the brakes had snapped, and I was too lazy to take it for repair and so I was going about my routine, including on important roads, using my shoes for brakes!

    Here’s some thoughts triggered by your post.


    Yes, things that involved all the brilliant tinkering etc have changed, and so that whole mode of activity has passed. But at the same time other things have come up, including those in the young gen’s use, which also involve deep immersion, discovery, learning, experience, skill, knowledge. E.g. One’s own PC. Or music related gadgetry. How many heavy PC users of Outlook know where their email files reside within Windows? Those who “know” are less likely to be paralysed by PC difficulties, or lose valuable information, than people who simply use a PC (or drive a car).

    Our bodies

    Like those who learn about their own bodies and rely fundamentally on observing and listening to the body, self-healing, naturopathy – are likely to be in better health than others. But this is growing rapidly – even as the hi-tech healthcare sector and pharmaceuticals also grow. I wanted to use the metaphor of “like brushing one’s teeth” to refer to the deep instilling of certain practices and habits in childhood. But the fact is that on account of abominable oral hygiene, large numbers of people suffer from dental problems.


    “Mechanical”, tactile things and aspects have come to be replaced. Perhaps the mechanical faculty will go to the domain of art, and we will have “artists” making ingenious mechanical devices and machines, and maintain and repair them… Or go to the “games” or “hobby” domain. Like we had the old fabulous Mechano sets. I did manage to build one of the highest level models when I was 9, a crane, with my somewhat rusty high-level set (received from my father who had this when he was a boy; the whole thing had been transferred to a small suitcase). Now we could have intricate metal machining, shaping, turning sets. Or carpentry (another sector where the gifted carpenter has been replaced).

    Calcutta had a huge, elaborate, highly-skilled industrial ancillaries sector, meeting the needs of the large medium and large engineering industry. The whole industrial economy of West Bengal has shrunk and languished over the last 4 decades. Consequently today one finds the skills base for vital ancillary operations is just not there. A lathe machine operator – would rather drive an auto-rickshaw, he would earn more.


    My younger son Rishiraj (aka Chotu, 11) wanted me to play Monopoly (or Business, as I think its Indian equivalent is called) with me a couple of months back. To humour him I did sit with him. I used to be addicted to the old (English) Monopoly, with all those places in London. The image of that board, the place names, their colours, their relative rental / value are all engraved in my mind. When I arrived in London, I also had those place names in my head as I became familiar with the city. I used to play with the servant boy in our house, and become greatly agitated and feel murderous when I was losing.

    My father – probably to ease his boredom – had shown me a shortcut or quick way in Monopoly. You shuffled all the place cards and dealt these out among the players. So every one began with an initial endowment of real estate. Instead of building it up dice-roll by dice-roll, transaction by transaction.

    But playing with my son – the whole operation of distributing the currency notes, in various denominations, making physical payments, getting change etc etc was so irksome and boring! So I took out a note book and made entries for the transactions instead.

    Times have changed! And different people live in different times. On account of age, and also exposure. So when I read about swipe cards in Monopoly on your blog – I was glad to know that, that made sense.

    But as a boy, I actually enjoyed the physical, tactile, visible, literal activity of handling the “money”, receiving it gleefully, winning or losing was also about the visible, physical aspect of having and your opponents not having the money.


    The question here is also that of deep (awed) immersion and continuous learning.

    The new gen – is the channel flicking generation. There is a satiation, and an attention span deficit. And one will learn and understand and innovate only after deep immersion. That quality, that effort, expressed in whichever sphere, is what needs to be instilled.

    Conscious choice is also exercised here. Like one can choose to be gravitas, as opposed to levity, because the occasion requires that. Or one can choose to be austere, simple living high thinking, though one can afford much more.

    Large numbers of children labouring through the weighty Harry Potter volumes – is a good sign. Though a friend of mine did tell me that this was also faddism and media hype, that many of the HP books bought may not actually have been read!


    Schooling and education must instill zestful deep immersion. The whole school and university education system – with the information and internet revolution, one can see much of what happens now is entirely redundant. They have to be reconceptualised altogether. And “teaching” – will be the most demanding, the most difficult, the most creative vocation. But we are not going to see the results of this for a long time, sheer inertia of what happens will make it lurch on. Meanwhile little bubbles of alternatives will keep happening. And yes, eventually the mainstream will become marginal.

    Motor garage

    Coming back to the car mechanic case – several years ago, when I was working in Jerusalem, I accompanied my friend Lou to a car garage to get his tyre puncture fixed. I was immediately struck by the mechanisation in everything that was done manually in India, with simple tools, including by child-workers. So a whole new set of tools also existed – such as electric screwdrivers and spanners, tools to remove the tyre from the hub etc. Cars too had changed, so the task for the worker was also much simpler, and routine. The whole operation of maintenance and repair had become more efficient, and the whole enterprise – I assume – has grown and become more profitable. And that garage was run by an old lady – she could have been my grandmother! – the widow of the owner. She sat in a cabin, with a PC in front of her.

    But it will still be a long time before we see the spread and penetration of that in India. It is there, in the depots of Mercedez-Benz etc. When this happens in India, the employment of workers, and especially child-workers, will shrink. But the larger operation could in fact grow, and total employment, enterprise, revenue and profit could all grow. Currently the whole business is subsidised by child labour, low wages, ability to pollute, artificially low space rental costs (which in turn distorts urban management). A small garage in a residential neighbourhood could e.g. become a deposit-collection centre for tyre-fixing. And each such unit is linked to a large mechanical repair centre, which could be off-city, and which could have quite a no. of workers because of the scale of operation. For a large city like Calcutta, there could be a good no. of such large repair centres, each in turn with its network of local outlets. As with couriers (already in existence now). With growing use of cars, a neighbourhood could perhaps also support more than one local outlet. Competition will bring in greater benefits to customers. The activity of carrying tyres to the main centre will also generate employment. Over time, the main centres will develop sub-centres, for particular operations. The sector would also benefit greatly through use of computers, and related software. So the full operation, all the new linkages and activities – will eventually be superior and more wholesome in every way to the old order.

    A visionary, committed person, empowered within the system, could actually build and bring about the whole thing, draw a new landscape of car-tyre repair over the current scribble and scrawl of that activity on the existing landscape. All the people currently in that sector, including the child-workers and their parents, could find a place in the new, with better terms. A lot of new skills have to be imparted, ranging from computer application to entrepreneurship. The places in the city polluted by proliferating garages – could be redeveloped into salubrious places.

    Likewise with another sector that you can see in the streets of Calcutta – scrap metal dealers, and car scrap. You sell your dead car to the scrap dealer, and he dismembers it completely, keeps all salvageable parts and components, and then breaks and cuts the metal frame. All such outlets can move off-city, and inside the city one could have merely small booths with a computer. And the property could be redeveloped.

    Capital has to be driven by a wholesome, inclusive, aesthetic, intelligent, system vision, rather than simply by quick and maximal profit; and private profit and public / system benefit have to be synchronised. That doesn’t happen on its own.

    We’re moving from a labour-intensive mode to a capital-intensive mode, but with the existence of masses of labour, and huge unemployment. Thinking holistically and in system terms can make for a solution for all, rather than a solution that benfits some and leaves others in the bog!

    But yes, something precious would also have been lost, the skill of the motor mechanic. That precious thing can move out of that sector / domain, but needn’t be lost to humanity. Some people can work to create a place for that, in art, or games / hobbies.

    Some will be lost forever. Like building construction masons’ skills. The specialised artisanal skill of the mason – bricklaying, plastering, mosaic work etc etc – does not exist any more, skill has altogether gone from construction work, replaced by new products and machines and techniques. Hence old buildings in Calcutta are aesthetically superior to new machine-aided constructions, and the emerging landscape is dreary.


    A final thought. You talked about mechanical skills. Physics. There’s also chemistry. Perhaps the only thing I carry from all the “science” I studied in school – is the chemistry practicals in the laboratory, playing with chemicals and fluids and heat, and in particular “titration”. The higher secondary chemistry practicals had that. One liquid is added in minute drops into another, with no outward effect, until out of the blue, one drop leads to a transformation of colur of the host liquid. Until that last drop gave the final nudge, surely something was cooking in the womb of the matter!)

    Titration is a powerful metaphor in terms of which life and the world can be thought about, especially towards transformation.

    Thanks for your ear, eyeball! chutki

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