Posts Tagged ‘reinventing the wheel’

Why We’ll Keep Reinventing the Wheel in M4D and Otherwise

May 5, 2015

The Jester was recently consulted by consultants to provide input on a large upcoming mobile-for-development (M4D) project. At one point, it emerged that the client wanted to solve one of those problems that yours truly believes is “development-complete.”

And, what is development-completeness, you may ask? For this, the Jester must make a digression into technical computer science. One of the few areas of computer science that is actually a science (as opposed to hacking or engineering) is the theory of computation. Its practitioners prove mathematical theorems about different levels of problem complexity. For example, some problems like sorting a list, can be performed in a reasonable amount of time (with a non-quantum digital computer) relative to the length of the list. Other problems, like the canonical “traveling salesman problem” — in which the goal is to find the shortest possible route to visit a set of cities — are believed to take dramatically longer to solve as the number items in the list increases. What exactly is a “reasonable” or a “dramatically longer” amount of time? That’s one of the things that computational theorists explore, and in this case, they are quite confident (though not yet certain) that there is a hard line separating sorting from optimal route planning. In addition, on the more complex side of that line, there is a subclass of problems which have the following interesting quality: If you could solve any one of the problems in that class in a “reasonable” amount of time, you could solve all of the problems in that class in a “reasonable” amount of time. That class of problems is called NP-complete (where NP stands for “nondeterministic polynomial time,” in contrast to the polynomial time it takes to solve reasonable problems). Yes — until he was demoted, the Jester’s previous occupation was court Geek.

Thus, computer scientists have an admittedly poor inside joke in which whenever they encounter a situation in which in order to solve one problem, you’d have to be able to solve a set X of other problems, whose solving would obviate the need to solve the original problem, they call the original problem X-complete. So, if a problem is development-complete, it means that if you could solve that problem, you could solve all of international development itself. End of digression.

So, what in this case, raised the Jester’s development-complete alarm? In this case, it was that the consultants’ client wanted to end what is formally called “too many pilots,” or “reinventing the wheel,” or “total lack of coordination” among those who work on M4D projects. Ah, yes. The recurring problem of people ignoring history and each other in international development! Can’t we just spend a few million bucks and end this problem once and for all?!?!

Before the Jester goes into why this problem is development-complete, it’s worth considering its root cause. It’s very simple, actually: There is no single entity in charge of global development. There is no world government either dictatorially or democratically deciding what development projects will be undertaken or not. The “or not” part is essential, because in order to avoid too-many-pilots and reiventions-of-the-wheel, someone must stop those pesky other people (and they are always other people) who start unneeded pilots and reinvent wheels. But “or not” can only be imposed by an entity who can coerce compliance, and of course, there is no such entity on a global scale.

Without a world government, anyone who can afford an air ticket can fly to a random urban slum or rural village and start messing about. And importantly, they can do so without ever having studied or even having heard of any other development projects. It’s quite possible, for example, for someone to start a new cookstove project without ever having heard that the history of international development is strewn with failed cookstove projects.

Imagine if tomorrow, through some miracle, every M4D actor joined a single consortium, aligned with a single M4D standard, built on the same technology platform, agreed to a single set of interventions that is known to work, etc. Hip hip hooray! But unity would be shortlived. The day after tomorrow, you can be sure that some Silicon Valley entrepreneur will enter the fray and ignore the consortium because (1) he has never heard of it; (2) he once visited a poor village and realized he could be their savior; (3) he wants to build his own humanitarian empire; (4) he can in any case do it better than everyone else; (5) he has his own money and no one can prevent him from spending it how he likes; and (6) he may or may not actually have any humanitarian intentions at all.

Actually, this is pretty much what Mark Zuckerberg is doing with Internet.org. (Which, incidentally, further demonstrates how technology amplifies underlying human forces.) In designing his rhetoric, he has chosen to completely ignore the fact that providing poor villages with the Internet through telecenters really didn’t do much for them except in instances where there were significant, accompanying investments to nurture local human capacity. (In reality, he may just not care at all as long as those folks all get hooked on Facebook, too.)

There are only two ways to solve this problem of total lack of coordination. One is the aforementioned world government. The other is spontaneous total world coordination — by which the Jester means that all seven billion of us agree to a set of rules about how to engage in development and enforce it ourselves. You may laugh and say, “These are the pipe dreams of children or of a crazed monomaniacal dictator!” and you’d be right. But, let’s just suppose we could achieve either of these things in any meaningful way. If so, we might as well focus on development itself, instead of worrying about the minor problem of too many uncoordinated pilots.

Hence, development-complete. QED

P.S. The commentary above does not appear in the Jester’s alter ego’s forthcoming book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Nevertheless, the book is worth pre-ordering if only for the photograph of its extremely handsome author on the jacket flap.