Dec 21, 2018

Kranzberg's Laws and Aadhaar

On Saturday, 19 October 1985, Melvin Kranzberg, a historian of technology, spoke at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. In his lecture, he spelled out what he termed Kranzberg's Laws. "These are not laws in the sense of commandments, but rather a series of truisms drawn from a long time immersion in the study of the development of technology and its interaction with sociocultural change," he said.

Kranzberg passed away in 1995 (NYTimes Obit), long before Google, Facebook, Uber and Netflix, and on the year Amazon was founded. Yet, his immersion into world of technology was so deep that his insights apply as well to innovations of today as they did to electricity, steam engines and Gutenberg press. (If you want to know more about Kranzberg, here is a beautiful profile by one of his students, Howard P. Segal.)

Here are his six laws.
  1. Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
  2. Invention is the mother of necessity
  3. Technology comes in packages, big and small.
  4. Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.
  5. All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.
  6. Technology is a very human activity - and so is the history of technology.

His speech was published in July 1986 issue of Technology and Culture under the title Technology and History: "Kranzberg's Laws". To read a summary of the six laws, click on the image below.

Let's get straight into how these laws apply to Aadhaar.

1. Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

One of the most common question that my coauthor Charles Assisi and I get is whether Aadhaar is good or bad. May be such a question would have come up anytime about any technology, but in this era of polarised debates, it's only too common. Our question is, it depends on the context. It depends on the intent, capacity and needs of the system.

Aadhaar can be a force for good. In a village on the borders of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, we met a bunch of ladies who were very thankful for Aadhaar. These women were street vendors, manual labourers etc. Earlier when they wanted money they used to get it from a micro-finance company, joining a bunch of other women from the same village. Now, thanks a social enterprise, they had recorded their financial transactions, had taken a few lessons on personal finance, and could borrow from a bank, just like you and I can. While many see a tradeoff between privacy and convenience; while many argue that you have to give up a little bit of your privacy for some benefits, here was a case where using Aadhaar enhanced both privacy and convenience.  

It's pretty much the same story when it comes to submitting a photocopy of your driver's license, passport etc to get a phone connection. You not only give more information than what's needed, you also don't know how it will be used between the time you submitted and Airtel or Vodafone acknowledges a week later. eKYC on the other hand enhances both privacy and convenience.  

In a village in Andhra, I joined a banking correspondent as she went from home to home, disbursing pension. We met an old lady lying in her cot in the porch of her house. She had to be helped up from her cot. She authenticated herself and got her money in a matter of minutes. The nearest bank branch was some 5 kms. 

I spoke to a guy who was running a PDS shop, which was running an Aadhaar enabled system. he said, earlier even if he had been clean, everyone looked at him with suspicion. Now, there was trust. 

There are second order benefits too. Aadhaar enabled people to give up their LPG subsidy, crores of people gave up, which made it easy for the government to pass it on to people who were using solid fuel for cooking. Solid fuels is a major source of pollution, causing disease and premature death. 
There are several cases such as these. 

But, it has also been bad for some. I have heard old people struggle to get their finger prints authenticated. I have heard of cases when people had to make several trips to ration shop because there was no connection and so on. It can be frustrating even for those who have all the time in the world, but it's terrible for poor.

Unlike the rich, poor don't have the cushion, and when they face a shock, like not getting their rations, it could be life or death. 

That Aadhaar, by itself is neither good nor bad, is not to say it's neutral. No technology is neutral, because it impacts people's behaviour. It changes the system. 

2. Invention is the mother of necessity

Invention of rocket created a need for fuels with greater thrust. iPad created a need for better stylus and wireless headsets and so on. Cars created a need for better roads, traffic signals etc. Electric cars are creating a need for better battery tech and systems. We can experience the full benefit of any of these inventions only when these new needs are fulfilled.

It is true for any technology, it's especially true for Aadhaar and India Stack - because they were built as platforms. They were  designed so that innovations happen on the top. A good way to describe Aadhaar and India Stack would be: digital infrastructure. Digital highways. When Nandan Nilekani and his team explained this to Pranab Mukherjee, he immediately said something like, "you have laid the tracks. Now trains have to start running on them."

Phonepe is a good example of a train running on UPI tracks. A bunch of engineers moved out of Flipkart, founded a startup, built a payments app called Phonepe, and the company was bought over by Flipkart. It made payments very easy. Download the app, fill in virtual address of the person to whom you want to send money, type in the amount,  enter your pin, and hit the send button and that's it. You can also use it in offline stores. To make that process easy, Phonepe launched a POS terminal, which looks like a pocket calculator, and costs a fraction of traditional POS terminals. 

At a NREGA location - national rural employment guarantee act, which guarantees at least 100 days of work in rural areas - I saw people lining up to withdraw their earnings from a banking correspondent who carried an Aadhaar enabled device with him, that could authenticate users, check their bank balance, and even give a receipt. If you had any doubts about poor people taking on to new technology, it will be cleared if you watch how the efficiency with which they went about it.

Broadly speaking, Aadhaar necessitated both vertical and horizontal technological developments, some of it at the intersections. 
  • eKYC - share Know Your Customer details digitally
  • DigiLocker - share digital documents, such as drivers license, mark sheets etc
  • eSign - digitally sign documents
  • UPI - send money over smartphones - like you would send an SMS
  • #25 - send money over feature phones
  • Aadhaar Pay - send money using your Aadhaar number and biometrics on POS
  • DEPA - share any data with a specific person, for a specific period, for a specific purpose
Former chief economic advisor coined the term JAM trinity - Jan dhan yojana (bank accounts), Aadhaar, and mobile - all the three working together to make an impact
Just as how you need good roads for cars to work well, you needed improvements in telecom networks for Aadhaar to work well. 

3. Technology comes in packages, big and small.

Newton said he could see farther only because he stood on the shoulders of giants. The observation is as true for technology, as it is for science. Gutenberg could not have built his Movable Type, but for the advancements in metallurgy and chemistry and other fields. Henry Ford similarly assembled existing technologies to build his assembly line, adding some of his own.  

I often wonder if Aadhaar in its present form would have happened if it were designed end 1990s rather than in end 2010s. And how different such a system would be were it to be built today. 

Aadhaar depended on a whole range of developments - biometric scanners, deduplicating algorithms, laptops at certain price points, growth of mobile, availability of USB sticks, encryption technologies and so on.  

Aadhaar as a system might be doing just one specific thing - check if your biometrics matches your Aadhaar number, and give yes or no. But, to do that, it had to put together a range of technologies. 

It needed expertise from all over the world. Nandan Nilekani and his team reached out to best researchers and technologists - Prof Anil Jain, foremost authority on biometrics, for example. Some of them reached out to Nandan - Pramod Varma, for example. A silicon valley veteran Raj Mashruwala went around US and India, giving talks in the US and in India to the alumni of top universities. Sanjay Jain, who was the product manager of UIDAI, came in that way. The point is, Aadhaar needed technology talent from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines.

Of course there were people who take credit without having moved a finger. Charles and I met a guy in Bangalore, who said he had actually worked on Aadhaar, wrote a few modules for the project, but he is now worried about the system. We asked him for more information.
It was back in 2007, man.
Are you sure it was in 2007, are you sure it's not 2009 or 2010.
He was damn sure. Only, Nandan was still at Infosys at that time. Pramod Varma was a part of Sterling in US. Sanjay Jain was working on Mapmaker in Google. 

4. Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.

There is a general feeling that like how the best team will win in a football match, "the best technology" will win in the real world, and it's fairly easy  to look at the metrics, compare and identify good tech. Like water that finds its own level, like a better mousetrap that will have people beating their path to buy, a tech solution will find its own place. Except, that the real world is more complex.

Back in 30s, Bell Labs literally pulled the plug on voice recorders - a fundamental technology in many ways - because the top managers believed people basically talked sex on phone, the very possibility of voice recorders will make them talk less, and it will shrink its core business.  (Even science, it is said, advances one funeral at a time.  As Max Planck said, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”)

Aadhaar is a technology project, but the biggest fights, the biggest discussions, and the biggest decisions were not around tech. Most of them were fought not in Bangalore, where the technology team was, but in Delhi.

Let us look at four such sources, for example (and by no means exhaustive)

Turf wars: UIDAI fought a bitter battle with Home Ministry over who will do the enrolments. Home Ministry was already in the process of building a National Population Registry and it thought UIDAI was stepping into its turf. Bureaucrats basically wanted UIDAI to be the technology backend for NPR, but UIDAI wanted to give unique numbers to 600 million people within five years.
Ego clashes: UIDAI was a division of planning commission, but it had a much bigger budget. And it could bypass planning commission for a several approvals. Planning Commission secretary once tried to derail the project by trying to launch an investigation by CAG. 
Power plays: During UPA regime National Advisory Council was powerful and had the ears of Sonia Gandhi, and they didn't like Aadhaar for a number of reasons. It insisted that the project needed its approval, which would have essentially stopped it. 
Special Interests: UPA government stopped Aadhaar-LPG rollout because lobby groups convinced party leaders that it would cost them votes.

These are just a few non technical forces that determined how Aadhaar rolled out in the country. There are many more in the book.

5. All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.

The person who tells the best story wins, and the stories are often fuzzies rather than techies. As a result, we tend to miss crucial lessons from history of technology. Feminists don't give enough credit to the role played by labor saving devices and the Pill to their movement. Caste activists don't think about the role railways played in loosening the grip of caste system in the country.

Many forget a one of the biggest lessons from history of technology, and that is technology diffusion takes time.

Carlota Perez in her brilliant book, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages, says that technological revolutions happen in four phases, irruption, frenzy (when the technology gets installed), synergy and maturity (when the technologies are deployed).

Irruption is when innovations happen fast, early products get introduced into the market. It phase lasts about 10 to 20 years.
It’s followed by frenzy stage, when there is intense investment, introduction of new products and industries. By this time we get to see a constellation of products (not merely early products) that came out of the revolution. This also takes 10-20 years.
Synergy phase is the golden period. New products and new industries continue to come up. We have a full suite of products and industries now, and the second order impact of the revolution starts to show.
And finally, we have the maturity phase, when the last products come out, market gets saturated and it’s time for a new revolution.

In short, it takes time. That's why we tend to overestimate the near term consequences of technology and under estimate its long term consequences. 

In the case of Aadhaar, we saw pretty much the same thing taking place. The basic infrastructure was rolled out very fast, as it should have. However, it takes time for governments, businesses, social sector to build innovations on the top of it. It takes time for them to get it right. It takes time for the best practices to spread. On the top of this, it also faced huge opposition from people for various reasons, some of them not honourable.
Aadhaar is now 10 years old, and there is much to learn from its rollout. Harvard has at least two case studies on Aadhaar. Interestingly, people who learned most from Aadhaar are those who were in teh middle of it. Shankar Maruwada, cofounder of ek step and a part of the team that built Aadhaar says that they follow Act, Learn, Act, Learn, Act cycle. Their societal platforms is a result of that exercise.

6. Technology is a very human activity - and so is the history of technology.

In his speech Kranzberg narrates an interesting story. 

A lady came up to the great violinist Fritz Kreisler after a concert and gushed, “Maestro, your violin makes such beautiful music.” Kreisler held his violin up to his ear and said, “I don’t hear any music coming out of it.”
You see, the instrument, the hardware, the violin itself, was of no use without the human element. But then again, without the instrument, Kreisler would not have been able to make music. The history of technology is the story of man and tool - hand and mind - working together. If the hardware is faulty or if the software is deficient, the sounds that emerge from it will be discordant. But when man and machine work together, they can make some beautiful music.

As I followed the debate on Aadhaar, on television, stage and even in drawing rooms, I noticed it was framed as if it is people versus technology. May be, we look at it that way because we are influenced by dystopian movies - which always pitch humans against technology.

But technology is something that enhances human potential. As Steve Jobs said

"I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.
And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”

We get the close relationship between man and machine when machine had been around for a long time. No one actually tells a violinist your violin makes such beautiful music. We say, 'you played it beautifully'.

But, when it comes to new technologies, we fail to see how closely man and machine are connected. We tend to look at technology as if it's separate from human beings. We end up making things worse - ultimately for humans.

We start with the right question: "Will this technology empower society, or disempower society". But, we end up never getting to the right answer. And the right answer often is: "It depends on us, human beings."

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