Thursday, May 12, 2011

Start...don't stop.

Jason Kottke links to a video of a wooden box with a flip switch. Once the switch is on, a bent rod pops out of the box and switches it off.

Here is how Arthur C Clarke described this mechanism that was invented by Claude Shannon, an American mathematician, electronic engineer, and cryptographer.

"Nothing could be simpler. It is merely a small wooden casket, the size and shape of a cigar box, with a single switch on one face. When you throw the switch, there is an angry, purposeful buzzing. The lid slowly rises, and from beneath it emerges a hand. The hand reaches down, turns the switch off and retreats into the box. With the finality of a closing coffin, the lid snaps shut, the buzzing ceases and peace reigns once more. The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating. There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing - absolutely nothing - except switch itself off."

I can’t help thinking, rather cynically, that this box is a perfect metaphor for India. We’ve got sufficient resourcefulness and drive to switch ourselves on. But, as soon as we do this, a ‘hidden hand’ comes out and stops the process, preventing us from moving forward. It’s as if a Kareena Kapoor, like in her Airtel ad, is instructing us to ‘start’ followed immediately by a directive to ‘stop’.

We have the imagination to come up with grandiose schemes and the means to execute them too, but an inner, destabilising force soon materializes to put paid to the plans. All that energy that goes in to kick-start the process gets converted efficiently into a ‘braking force”. The gap between ‘intent’ and ‘achievement’ therefore remains huge. This is true for infrastructure projects, social welfare schemes, law making, reforms, etc.

To borrow from Clarke, there is something unspeakably sinister about a group of people who do nothing but pull others down, following the Crab principle. …

Learning from the metaphor, we will have to tweak the design a bit .Eliminating the ‘hidden evil hand’ is impossible. We’ll have to introduce another ‘rod’ that will spring into action a fraction of a second after the first one, and push the latter back inside before it switches off the box. What can that be?


Shruthi said...

What a compelling analogy!

This has got me thinking.

M S said...

For the starters, we can eliminate all spokespersons. All they do is put a spoke in someone's wheel.