Monday, April 20, 2009

Utopia

Usually, our triad indulges in morning tea sessions which are the breeding ground of odd discussions on a multitude of topics ranging from science and religion, to girls and sex. Today was a bit different though. All started from a very unique feature which one of us had on our laptop – a fingerprint scanner right beside the touchpad. We were suggesting the proud owner of this laptop to utilise it effectively. Unfortunately, along the course of our conversation, we learnt that he didn’t use passwords, let alone an advanced security feature like a fingerprint scanner.

This triggered a rather heated argument on how technology is so useful. The opposition party was of the opinion that technology doesn’t help maintain a system. To take for example, our government and its related arms. The opposition made the assertion that the system was sound; the people who implement it are not. Technology is not going to help at all in such situations.

From here on, I’ll let the debate that happened go into our own memory archives. I’ll branch off into this topic to delve into details and try to find an answer for myself. Let’s begin with the basics:

What is a System?
As defined by Wiki, a system is a set of interacting or interdependent entities, real or abstract, forming an integrated whole.

Wiki also goes on to say that a system has a purpose and an objective. And that all interacting entities work towards that purpose. So far so good. So where does our ‘system’ go wrong? If individual entities use the ‘system’ in an inappropriate manner, do we blame the people or the system? I’ll ask the same questions in a more ‘acceptable’ manner. When people take advantage of our system and use it for their own vested interests, is there any way that can be called decisive and purposeful to ensure that such an occurrence can be minimized?

Two schools of thought emerge from this instance – conscience and science. I’ll take a very rudimentary example to state what I thought was appropriate. Take India, a developed country and a country out of which I intend to make an example. In our motherland, a traffic signal is a pole where a light blinks and a vehicle is supposed to stop till the light turns to an appropriate colour. If I choose to break the law, the chances of me being caught are pretty remote. If I am caught, it is a matter of a couple of hundred rupees slipped to ensure that I am not booked for the crime. In a more developed country, the chances of determining that a crime has happened are very high. This is largely due to the fact that a vast number of cameras are installed along a certain interval of the road and a trespasser is caught and punished appropriately. Moreover, a notification is sent automatically to the offender’s address and a fine extracted in a very similarly effective manner. The perfect system is however, a long way away. I envisage a land where it is impossible to run a traffic light because as soon as you do so, your vehicle gets locked.

The point I am trying to make is that technology can help reduce crime and misuse of the system. And how is this technology developed? By a constant effort to ensure that a system is built which also invests resources to prevent errors rather than fine the offender. To use the above example, the worst system (India) is where an error can be easily made, it is rather difficult to detect that an error has been made and even more difficult to ensure that a penalty or punishment is applied fairly and justly. A better system (say UK or the US of A) is where it is pretty easy to make an error, but the chances of detecting that error are very high and the offender is almost always punished or penalised. The perfect system (one where I will run the show), is where it is almost impossible to commit an error in the first place and where if an error is detected there is a certainty that the offender is punished.

Let’s return to the conscience verses science debate now. If our systems were so robust, there would be no need for a conscience to make a decision; science would have made that decision already. A decision to indulge in corruption, vice, fraud, theft, the works would never be left to a particular individual’s conscience because science would have made that decision already by making all the activities mentioned above impossible to indulge in. Imagine a world, where selection to colleges is based on an automated weighted ranking system rather than quotas, imagine a world where a politician cannot apply for elections (applications will be computerised) if he does not hold a graduates degree. Imagine a world, where promotions are decided by a computer system which evaluates all performance parameters to make the right choice. Imagine a world, where security systems are so robust that thefts are unheard of. Imagine a world, where your PDA keeps you connected 24 hours of the clock to your home and your office to make your location redundant. And above all this, imagine a world where we know that a dedicated team of scientists is constantly trying to improve the system to ensure that it becomes all the more fool-proof.

So the last question, having determined that an error preventing system is better than an error fixing one, is, how do we get there? I honestly believe that the answer is in starting early. It is our responsibility to educate our next generation to the power of thinking along these lines, to the power of rationality, and to the power of the simple question – “Why?” I’ll give you an example here to elucidate my point. My father bought a computer when I was a kid and I used it when he wasn’t. In those early days of Windows 3.11, the file “autoexec.dat” was all important and helps Windows gain control from DOS. Somehow, I managed to delete it. Any other parent would have scolded his child for such an act, called an IT engineer and paid a hundred bucks to get the problem resolved. My father told me that since I had “broken” the computer, I had to fix it myself. I read books, asked people more knowledgeable than myself and found out about how Windows booted up to get to the root of the problem. Such an eventuality is much reduced in later versions of Windows with the concept of protected system files which the layman can’t delete even if he or she tried. My point is that if I hadn’t understood the system, I would never have been able to repair it; let alone improve it.

The last point that I want to make before I become too tedious is that to inculcate these principles and values in all our nextgen, so to speak, it is very important not to expose them to our age-old dogmatic methods and beliefs. It is our responsibility to shield them from superstitions like religion, the supernatural, non-value added traditions, and above all – give them the ability and capacity to recognise the people who uphold these so that they can be avoided.