Red Queen! – Low Tech Dev in a High Speed World

redqueenI’m currently fighting a battle with a hardware vendor to get a piece of equipment replaced. The particular equipment in consideration is a router to be used by a school in remote rural Madhya Pradesh that has been functioning for over a decade with very little resources. Should my efforts be successful, they get email access. However, at the moment, the device in question is refusing to cooperate with the design I am trying to implement with it, resulting in my needing to get a replacement or a resolution from vendor or manufacturer. Should I fail to get such replacement or resolution, I will be left with a choice between absorbing the loss of a router (i.e. INR 7000) or passing it on to the “customer” i.e. the school.

In a regular commercial scenario, this would be a no brainer. The dealer/vendor NEVER absorbs a loss. However, commercial scenarios often assume peer relationships where none exist. For a   corporation or research lab with a large technical budget the loss of one piece of equipment would not be a huge one. Collateral damages of research are considered an acceptable expense head in most cases. For low budget exercises on the other hand, each setback represents real expense and loss of opportunity to use the same resources elsewhere. As a result either I as the researcher or the school as the consumer has to take a hit.

Our current situation points to an increasingly prevalent situation faced by people who implement technology for low income/low commercial consumption groups. Open source technology, while cheap and free to use is seldom stable enough to be used by consumers with limited skill. The situation is not made easier by hardware manufacturers who sometimes by design and sometimes by accident develop hardware which does not meet existing standards, resulting in new development being needed before the hardware can be used with open source systems. Development, irrespective of who does it, comes at a price measurable in person-hours, which adds to the cost that has to ultimately be borne by the end user. Finally, governments have been increasing the level of control that they exercise on technology steadily, meaning that several open alternatives are now simply unavailable by statute.

As a result, groups like the Mojolab, who are at the border of technology development and usage are faced with the need to constantly evolve strategies and often use non intuitive means to achieve intuitive ends. It is akin to running very fast simply in order to stay in the same place. In evolutionary terms, this is called the Red Queen phenomenon, inspired by the Red Queen’s chessboard sequence in Alice in Wonderland

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Lewis Carrol, Through The Looking Glass, Chapter 2



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