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:
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.
Thereâ€™s lots of people on planet Earth doing lots of things for lots of reasonsâ€¦or no reason at all. All this activity takes place in a context of the personâ€™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,Â 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.Â