In the media it is relatively easy to find examples of new technologies that are going “revolutionize” this or that industry. Self-driving cars will change the way we travel and mitigate climate change, genetic engineering will allow for designer babies and prevent disease, superintelligent AI will turn the earth into an intergalactic human zoo. As a reader, you might be forgiven for being in a constant state of bewilderment as to why we do not currently live in a communist utopia (or why we are not already in cages). We are incessantly badgered with lists of innovative technologies that are going to uproot the way we live, and the narrative behind these innovations is overwhelmingly positive (call this a “pro-innovation bias”). What is often missing in such “debates”, however, is a critical voice. There is a sense in which we treat “innovation” as a good in itself, but it is important that we innovate responsibly. Or so I will argue. Read more »
What makes a revolutionary scientific or technological breakthrough by an individual, an organization or even a country possible? In his thought provoking book “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries”, physicist and biotechnology entrepreneur Safi Bahcall dwells on the ideas, dynamics and human factors that have enabled a select few organizations and nations in history to rise above the fray and make contributions of lasting impact to modern society. Bahcall calls such seminal, unintuitive, sometimes vehemently opposed ideas “Loonshots”. Loonshots is a play on “moonshots” because the people who come up with these ideas are often regarded as crazy or anti-establishment, troublemakers who want to rattle the status quo.
Bahcall focuses on a handful of individuals and companies to illustrate the kind of unconventional, out of the box thinking that makes breakthrough discoveries possible. Among his favorite individuals are Vannevar Bush, Akira Endo and Edwin Land, and among his favorite organizations are Bell Labs and American Airlines. Each of these individuals or organizations possessed the kind of hardy spirit that’s necessary to till their own field, often against the advice of their peers and superiors. Each possessed the imagination to figure out how to think unconventionally or orthogonal to the conventional wisdom. And each courageously pushed ahead with their ideas, even in the face of contradictory or discouraging data. Read more »
One day, I came home from school to a big commotion in the living room. My dad was working with an electrician and a mason, and they were together struggling to figure out how this enormous apparatus was going to work. What is it, I asked? A split-unit air-conditioner, my dad said! The thing was a deep and dark gray, with fierce frowning fins all around. It sat in our living room that day like a fine objet, detached slightly from the wall into which its cables would soon run, locking firmly into the masonry and coming out the other side, into the sunless side yard we then had, where I also parked my bicycle. The thing was powerful alright, having been designed for industrial use, and it hummed quietly to itself, rather than roaring and groaning in the way air-conditioners usually did back then. No one in our friends or family circle had ever seen or heard of a split-unit AC, and it was quite the source of living-room family pride.
My dad had bought the thing at an auction at the American embassy, which was upgrading from these four-year-old split-units to central air-conditioning. He must have paid, maybe forty thousand rupees for the thing, almost two thousand bucks in 1980s US dollars. But even this second-hand industrial unit must have seemed a good investment, as compared with the kinds of ACs that were available in the market then — old technologies that were made even more expensive by heavy import duties. And when I think back on it, I realize that many of the appliances and consumer goods we enjoyed in our home came from these sales at diplomatic compounds, or else imported by someone else and then sold locally. Our enormous six-burner stove-oven, our banana-yellow Isuzu car, our small upstairs stereo system, our several VCRs, even my silver ten-speed bike, all of these appurtenances came into lives second-hand, through foreign contacts. Nothing like them was then available in India's local markets.
Eventually our stove-burner was rusting out, so we had to send it to the welder to get a new sheeting on the back, the better to keep the rats out of the kitchen. The Isuzu was in and out of the shop a lot, and we once considered switching out its engine with a new local one. And when the woofer on the small stereo tore, I took the two speakers to Lajpat Rai Market to have them replaced with a spare ripped out of another speaker. To participate in consumer culture in India back then was like living in a Mad Max movie — the fragments of a more advanced technological and material culture surrounded us, and we made tactical use of whatever we could find. But we seemed doomed never to be able to inhabit that technological horizon. The technology of everyday life seemed to come to us from far away, and always without proper distribution, support, service.