Sunday, August 26, 2007

More on 'Back from India'

Further on this post. While I was in India, I re-read two novels about Indian society -- Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, and Rohan Mistry's A Fine Balance. In both, very bad things happen to some of the main characters, sometimes emerging out of long-standing historical circumstances (such as inter-caste hatred in villages, erupting in small but horrible ways), and sometimes out of pure chance (a momentary halt in a religious procession snowballs into a terrible accident on an overcrowded pedestrian ramp). In both novels, the bonds of love, trust, and cooperation between family and friends are tested, strained, sometimes broken, sometimes reconnected, in the face of big and small events. In both, social causes and "remedies" (such as the drive for voluntary vasectomies as a population control measure in Indira Ghandi's Emergency of the 1970s, or a campaign to give land to landless tenant farmers in the 1950s) are shown to be at best full of unintended consequences, and at worst leading to corruption and evil far worse than the social problems they purported to address.

Being back in India again, I was everywhere seeing the hyper-growth, speedy modernization (in some ways surpassing the U.S.), enormous expansion of a partially Westernized middle class over where the country was on my first visit in 1986, side by side with the remnants of traditional Indian society and culture as well as persistent poverty and struggle mixed in with the tremendous prosperity. Much is being lost, at least partially, along the way, just as it has been in the West, particularly the uniqueness of the culture (it is still there, but infused with Western, Asian, and Indian versions of modernity). People, at least in the cutting-edge sectors of society such as the IT engineers I spent most of my time with, are not as sociable as they were. My Indian colleagues and friends told me that the close-knit communities of families and friends that they grew up with, where everyone lived together and freely intermixed with each other's lives, houses, events, is still there but much reduced from what it was (even though still far more sociable and friendly than most US communities). Religion and ethnic identity are still enormous forces and tremendously more visible and pronounced than in the US, but again more diluted, the edges taken off, for many people. Kids play the same video games as in the US; fancy shopping malls in the big cities look nearly identical to their American counterparts; Western brands (manufactured in the East) are everywhere; personal cars (nearly absent 20 years ago) clog every street; everyone has mobile phones; IT as both employer and culture is pervasive; TV is laden with Scrubs, Mr. Bean, and The Simpsons. It is still unquestionably India, but India is now not as distinctively Indian in character.

And what would the value be if it was? It would be more unique, more poetic, more quaint, perhaps more appealing to visitors if it was more like it used to be, but none of that is of benefit or importance to the people that live there. Unquestionably much is being lost, but what is the value of that loss? Even when I point my camera at an oxcart, a Tollywood movie poster, or a woman making rice flour patterns outside her front gate in the morning, "capturing" some of unique Indian character that I can show to the folks back home, am I being any more than a tourist, consuming a bit of foreign culture, commodifying it for the amusement of family and friends? I like to think there's more to it than that, that I am telling a story, and that my photography is good enough to capture more resonance and character, more intrinsic identity, than just a voyeuristic snapshot, grabbing a piece of someone else's identity for American consumption, but I am not so sure. What is the narrative, the flow of history, which makes sense of what I'm doing when I click the digital shutter and post the results on PicasaWeb, emailing the URL back home?

Seth and Mistry write both from and about the India of the past even as it was changing radically from pre-Independence days. For them it was personal, in a way it can't be for me, but I have always had a personal attachment to India that I don't feel for most other countries. There is something about the way people are emotionally present, feelings and relations more visible and tangible than in many other places, that hooks me. This is not always a positive thing. As the books make all too clear, as I have seen and experienced myself, anger and cruelty and everyday frustration are as conspicuous as warmth, generosity, and openness. Things are less hidden there and that can be painful as well as wonderful, sometimes overwhelming. Both books show both sides, and there is something there that I need to better relate to my work -- there is some intrinsic connection that I feel, but have so far not been able to put into words.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Determinism and uncertainty

There is a tendency (usually unspoken and probably un-, or semi-conscious) in the 'software world' to write about approaches and technologies in a deterministic manner – adopt this approach and the benefits will be realized, the millennium will come. There is something of an imperative to research, develop, and write from this point of view – what you are trying to do is establish absolute cause-and-effect. What would be the point of developing a piece of software, or a method of using it, unless doing so in some prescribed way is going to bring about some definite, repeatable result? If and when you don't come from this point of view, it feels wrong, and is looked at as deficient.

For a long while I've felt that my general approach doesn't somehow fit in the software world, or any of the realms where there is an unquestioned kind of determinism underlying any effort -- that is, what you are trying to do is come up with a method, process, tool, theory, etc. that, if applied and followed correctly, will have a certain cause and effect, a predictable result. Doing X will produce Y, if you do it well and correctly enough. Claims are made for approaches on this basis. If only everyone blogged with tags, or used GOMS to analyze usability, or followed rhetorical principles in discussions, or (for that matter) used Compendium (with or without IBIS), you'd attain some kind of utopia, a better world, or at least better software or products.

I don't think that way. There are no silver bullets in human affairs and there never will be. There are, sometimes, incremental improvements (that often have unintended consequences), and there are tools and approaches that can sometimes help in some situations. Of course I believe (passionately, maybe foolishly) that Compendium can be helpful, that making it better, and helping to help people to apply and use it, can have beneficial effects, especially in understanding each other. But I don't think that even if we "perfected" it (not possible), and everyone used it, that the millenium would arrive, paradise regained, etc. That's not even an underlying assumption or fond hope for me.

I sometimes feel that this puts me, and my work, and my writing, in the wrong light, and puts me at odds even with some of my close friends and collaborators. If I don't have an underlying millenial assumption, an underlying conviction that what I'm after is the development of a deterministic, infallible path, then I am not writing, working, developing, researching the right way. Perhaps that is what is missing for people in my writing -- if I at least acted like I was convinced of the infallibility and rectitude, that getting to that state was my goal, people would get what they wanted (and what they are now missing) from the work.

Mark Aakhus recently recommended reading the first chapter of Colin Grant's "Uncertainty and Communication: New Theoretical Investigations." I was arrested in the first few paragraphs:
"the indeterminacy of the range of communication options we have at our disposal in different cultures, different languages, different media and different social roles is not actually determinable at all. The porous form of communication actually means that even when we think we choose a clear, stable form, the penumbra of unselected
information remains." (p. 2)
What I like about the way Grant puts this is his emphasis on what is unknown over what is known. I don't know where he is going yet, but I'm hopeful there is some useful framework here for research that, even though it tries as hard as it can to contribute to effective, useful, and generative forms of communication, recognizes that there are no absolutes, there will always be gaps. It is up to the people using those forms in their unique situations to try to fill the gaps as best they can, in temporary and provisional ways. It is not a failure of the research, or the forms, to recognize this. Maybe Grant's work can help to frame the research in a way that better characterizes its value than holding it up to an implicit deterministic yardstick.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Back from India

Just back from 5 weeks in Chennai and Hyderabad, mostly working, but also took my daughter along. She volunteered at a school and lived with a family, had an amazing experience. Mine was very different from my past two trips to India. Both of those times (1986 for several months, and Feb. 2006 for a week), I was voracious, drank everything in, couldn't get enough of the life on the streets, the crazy proliferation of signboards, the food. But this time I was there mostly in responsible-to-and-for others roles, as a parent and as a director with 23 employees there and an obligation to use the time, well, responsibly.

As a consequence I spent almost no time on research, Compendium, or personal activities except for the weekends and other times with my daughter and her host family. I did spend a morning with a UNDP group in Chennai introducing them to Compendium, which went well though we didn't get to spend more time. Despite working 12-15 hour days (both India time and US morning time (-9.5 hours from IST), I came back with a load of VZ work items and very little of anything else. In the little time between work and sleep I re-read A Suitable Boy and A Fine Balance, as well as the new Harry Potter book. I need to re-ignite the other (non-VZ, non-India) dimensions of my thinking/working life but they feel far away at the moment. And there seems like very little time to do anything.

Saw a black bear walk through our yard yesterday while on a conference call for work.