The Inventor’s Dilemma and Our Fix-It Faith

It seems that plenty of jesters in other domains are also raising the volume in questioning techno-utopian ideology.

A New Yorker article (May 17, 2010, p. 42) talks about MacArthur Fellowship winner Saul Griffith’s realization that “The real problem with eyeglasses in the developing world isn’t making lenses, it’s testing eyes and writing accurate prescriptions.”  Sound familiar?

Another New York Times article (May 28, 2010) discusses our society’s hubris in believing that technology can fix all problems, with regard to the oil spill. It quotes David Eyton, BP’s head of research and technology: “[Technology] becomes both an enabler, while at the same time being itself a source of risk.” Andrew Khout, president of the Pew Resaerch Center for the People and the Press, says “American have a lot of faith that over the long run technology will solve everything.” The article ends with a note about air passengers frustrated by the inability for volcanic ash delays. Khout says, “The reaction was: ‘Fix this. Fix this. This is outrageous.'” Indeed! How could it be possible that our technology can’t solve a problem caused by volcano?!

(The Jester, incidentally, was also caught in the Netherlands when the volcano struck and decided to take advantage of train and bus to reach Barcelona, and from there to fly home. The Jester is thus thankful for land-based transport technologies. He fears an all-too-soon need to return to animal-based transport technologies.)

One Response to “The Inventor’s Dilemma and Our Fix-It Faith”

  1. Anand Manikutty Says:

    So we have been arguing this for the longest time : it is about organizations, organizational mechanisms and organizational capabilities.

    MacArthur Fellowship or not, any person who comes to this sort of conclusion this late in the game surely has not done the sort of hard work that these hard challenges require. But really, these are some very hard social problems, and it takes hard work to begin to understand where the solutions may lie.

    And the other thing : it is not enough to say what the problem is. If this guy were really smart, he would talk about solutions. So let me get to it. There was a case study on the Aravind Eye Hospital in the “Fortune of the Bottom of the Pyramid”. Actually, only a part of the original case study even made it into the book. What not a lot of people realize is that the entire operations of Aravind Eye Hospital have been designed so as to serve the poor.

    The capabilities of the organization are different because the goals are different. In fact, it is not even enough to simply test eyes and write accurate prescrptions. Poor folks often don’t have money (and sometimes, don’t plan enough) to stay overnight in the city where the hospital is. Therefore, the hospital decided to develop the capability to make lenses in a single day.

    So, you can’t just think about technology in isoltion. You need to think about technology, operations and management all together.

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