India’s Democracy

Atanu Dey writes in a topical post:

I don’t think what we have currently in India to be a true democracy. It is what I would call a cargo cult democracy.

India has a cargo-cult democracy because it appears to be a democracy on the surface. Like a movie set, the facade presents a reasonable facsimilie of the real thing, but behind it, there is little substance. The hundreds of millions go through the motion of expressing their preference. But uninformed preference expressed haphazardly in a system that is corrupt to the core is not a receipe for a system of governance. It is no wonder that India ends up with “leaders” such as Rabri Devi and Laloo Yadav and Sonia Gandhi.

Democracy does not work in India. That is not to say that the fault lies with the idea of democracy. As a system of governance, there are few alternatives, just as markets are the best way to organize economic activities. But markets are prone to failures if its pre-conditions are not met. So also, democracy does not work in India because its necessary conditions are not met.

The challenge is therefore to ensure that we address the many failures that impede the workings of a democratic system. Installing electronic voting machines will do nothing towards that. Nor will the endless exhortation for people to go out and vote change the outcome. Even if every one of us were to vote, it would still be pointless if the choice we have is to elect either Tweedledum or Tweedledee.

It is a long and hard road to the place where democracy has any meaning. The first step along that road is undoubtedly universal primary education. Universal primary education is a prerequisite for universal adult franchise. Without primary education, you cannot have a literate and informed adult. Without an informed electorate, you cannot have a meaningful democracy. Perhaps that is the reason for the neglect of universal primary education — for that would down the road mean that the feudal lords of the ruling families will no longer be able to rule based simply on loyalty and may even have to work for a living.

Local Proxy Power

Jon Udell writes:

When rich Internet clients converse with Web services using XML messages, intermediaries will be able to add value in ways that end points neednt cooperate with or even know about. Today, for example, my Internet banking application runs in a browser and doesnt integrate with my accounting software. In theory a local proxy could intervene. But the proxy would only see HTML pages coming in and URL-encoded HTML forms going out.

As an experiment, I built a simple Web proxy that converts incoming HTML to well-formed XHTML. Its a cute trick that enables more powerful kinds of search and transformation than is possible with the regular-expression-based text patterns that the ad blockers use. But well-formedness, though necessary, isnt sufficient. The data must also be self-describing, as Web pages mostly arent but SOAP messages are.

One of these years, my bank will upgrade to a new system thats built around Web services. Theyll probably offer a basic rich Internet application for Windows, Java, or Flash that connects to those services. When the bank announces the upgrade, it will stress the richer user experience and choice of interchangeable clients.

Those will be crucial benefits indeed. What wont be said, because its harder to explain, is that the system will also have become radically extensible. Suppose I want to trigger an alert when a transfer exceeds some limit or when a duplicate amount appears. Today, if the system doesnt implement these rules, Im stuck. In a services-oriented environment, though, I neednt depend on either the bank or my client software. If neither delivers the features I want, Ill inject an intermediary that does. Local proxies are geeky curiosities today, but someday well wonder how we lived without them.

More on Jon’s blog: “We have a surplus of storage and processing power on the desktop, but never enough useful context. When more of our data flows are XML, local proxies will really shine.”

The Future of Blogging

Nico Macdonald writes:

[A] challenge presented by the proliferation of writing is how we readers and writers might document, manage and use this profusion of information. It is certainly a step forward that Weblog posts have permanent links. But there are so many Weblogs and so many posts that they are impossible to contextualise, at least in their current format of endless scrolling lists. The development of RSS readers at least allows readers to review Weblogs and posts using hierarchical structures, get an overview of unread posts, and hide those that have been read.

We also need to find ways to categorise posts to bring the kind of structure that Yahoo! brought to information on the Web and the seeds of this concept can be seen in Moveable Type, NewsMonster and other tools. We also need to find ways of assigning priority to posts based on who wrote them (an approach often referred to as reputation management) and where they were posted.

At a presentational level we need to find ways to visualise the blogosphere (and not just the blogosphere). We need to be able to use our chosen parameters and employ the visual axes of typography, size, colour, and spatial relationship to help exploit our underemployed visual powers to aid our understanding.

If online publishers, and particularly newspaper and current affairs publishers, syndicated the meta information on every article they published (title, author, date, introduction, and so on), readers could more easily find, review and organise those that were of interest to them. As writers they might choose to post a Weblog commenting on particular articles.

If publishers then used the track back model to list an appropriately edited selection of these comments, in the context of each article, readers could follow the developing discussion and commentary. Tied to reputation management and good presentational tools, this would be likely to facilitate a greater awareness of new ideas and a more engaged (and possibly more informative) debate about them. And for the beleaguered publishing industry it would create greater engagement with its current readers, and may open up new audiences as well.

What Makes Good Entrepreneurs Great

From Always-On:

Newsweek’s Silicon Valley correspondent Brad Stone in conversation with successful entrepreneurs Vani Kola of Nth Orbit, Amnon Landan of Mercury Interactive, and Sergio Magistri of InVision Technologies.

Magistri: It means to find a strategy, to stay true to your strategy, and to bring in the necessary people and resources to execute. Once in a while, it takes a bunch of bright ideasbut more than anything it takes good people working together.

Landan: Being an entrepreneur is a state of mind, it’s an approach. It has nothing to do with size. First and foremost, it’s about innovation, whether it’s innovation of technologies, innovation of business models, or innovation of go-to-market approaches. It has to do, believe it or not, with a long-term approach. True entrepreneurs are not there for the quick kill. New and innovative approaches take time to mature, and the true entrepreneur is willing to stick to his guns for an extended period. Many people associate being an entrepreneur with being there for the quick hit, and it’s absolutely wrong. True entrepreneurs are really doing this because they want to accomplish something. They want to play, they want to win, they want to distinguish themselves from other people.

Kola: I think an entrepreneur is someone who is willing to disrupt and question and challenge the existing. That could be a new technology, a new business model, or an approach. But it is to question the status quo and the standard, and being able to see through that and connect the data points in a way that’s not obvious or clear to most people. In general, when entrepreneurs try to do the disruptive stuff, more people expect that to fail than to win. You don’t do this as a popularity contest or because you have a cheering squad that says ‘This is going to happen.’ You have to have the conviction and the commitment to see it through.

The Subconscious Mind of the Consumer

HBS Working Knowledge has an interview with Gerald Zaltman on his latest book “How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market.” Excerpts:

Probing the unconscious mind of the consumer has tremendous value beyond advertising. For example, learning that a communications device or even a personal care product invokes deep thoughts and feelings about social bonding can be very helpful to R&D experts. In the case of a communications device, this suggests that tactile experiences of social bonding be “engineered in” through the design of how the product is gripped in the hand and in the choice of finish in the device’s housing material. In the case of a personal care product, colors and scents known to be evocative of social bonding experiences can be used. In both cases, the basic idea of connection is central to the product’s value proposition and becomes a more profound basis for developing marketing strategy than, say, technical superiority or long-lasting benefits. While the latter attributes are important, it is because they serve the deeper needs of connection or social bonding.

The insights offered by methods that probe the unconscious mind are relevant at all stages of the product life cycle. For instance, when introducing a radically new product, it is necessary to understand how consumers currently frame their experience of the problem addressed by the new offering. That is, no matter how radical a new product is, it will always be perceived initially in terms of some frame of reference. It is essential that this frame be understood, especially if it is an inappropriate one detrimental to early trial of the product. For a mature product, insights about the category or a specific brand can lead to modifications that will extend its life and sustain its economic value to the firm. One firm with a very “tired” brand explored consumers’ hidden thoughts and feelings and discovered a relevant, basic emotion that had been overlooked by all brands in the category. They were able to connect this emotion with their brand giving it a major sales boost. Other firms use the hidden treasures of the unconscious mind to identify new product opportunities. Using metaphor-elicitation techniques, firms providing farming supplies, home appliances, office systems, and beauty care have identified important unmet needs. R&D departments use information about the architecture of these needs to identify opportunities for new products and services.

Fixing Email

Paul Boutin, writing in InfoWorld, provides opinions from six experts – Eric Allman, Bill Warner, Eric Hahn, Ray Ozzie, Dave Winer and Brewster Kahle. An excerpt:

If he could start over, Allman would retool the existing protocols with the benefit of hindsight, instead of throwing them out completely. “The first thing I’d say is we had not anticipated the security needs,” Allman says. “Authentication should just be built in.”

Rather than focus on DNS-based authentication, Allman would choose a cryptographic solution. “I would put something into SMTP that required authentication before proceeding, just as we have with POP. It’s a bit harder than that because unlike POP, SMTP connections may not have any prior relationship, so things like shared secrets are out of the question.”

Allman’s dream solution includes an Internetwide standard domain-authentication mechanism. “This would be part of an optional standard connection initiation protocol,” he says, “so we wouldn’t have to reinvent authentication for each and every use.”

Over the past two decades, Allman’s views on privacy haven’t changed. He still believes it’s a necessity, but he’s developed a more sophisticated view of how to implement it. “I used to feel anonymity in the base protocol was important,” he says. “But if someone brought up an anonymity server that would do re-mailings for you, that would allow this. The trick, of course, is to avoid abuse — this could perhaps be done by having explicitly tagged addresses that are willing to receive anonymous mail. Whistle-blower addresses, investigative reporters, and so on might be willing to receive arbitrary anonymous messages,” using servers that don’t keep any logs that could be subpoenaed.

TECH TALK: As India Develops: A Personal View

It was about 12 years ago in May 1992 that I packed by bags and returned to India after a stay of three-and-a-half years in the US. I was fortunate to have an exceptional education in IIT-Bombay and then at Columbia University in New York. When I went to the US, my father had only one thing to say to me: I grew up in a village in Rajasthan and got an opportunity to go to the US in the 1960s. If I could come back then, you have no reason to stay there any longer than necessary. For me, the decision to return to India was made before I left.

The first few years after returning back to India as an entrepreneur were especially challenging. Few things went right. It was frustrating because on the one hand were the grand dreams that I had (to build a great software products company focused on the Indian market in five years) and on the other, were the daily realities of mounting losses and a business with little future. Failure was the grim reality that I had to come to terms with.

Luckily, the next business I did (setting up a collection of portals on India primarily targeted at the global Indian community) did much better. My learnings from those initial years stood me in good stead. After I sold that business in 1999, it was back to square one thinking of what to do next. And then, I went back to my original dream and expanded it how can we build the next-generation computing and information platforms for helping build out Indias digital infrastructure and create affordable solutions for the next 500 million users in India and other emerging markets. En route, I met Atanu (via my blog) and added the transformation of rural India as a second objective.

Whether we will succeed or not, I cannot tell. Our goal is to do good and do well at the same time. Much of what I have written in this series over the past 45 columns comes from within and is something I believe in. It is in some ways, my Business Plan for the next 5-10 years. Perhaps, there are parts which can yours too. For, the India of today is a Field of Dreams.

In many ways, it is like Indias Battle of Independence. There are few among those who started who lived to see the Indian flag unfurl on August 15, 1947. Yet, their efforts were not in vain. Just as Indian Independence was not the work of a few, Indias Development cannot be done by a handful.

This is a journey which needs many travellers explorers, astronomers, scientists, financiers, engineers, economists, and others. Some will make it to the finishing line, others wont. The joy for everyone has to be in the journey.

There are many opportunities to both catalyse (do good) and capitalise (do well) on Indias development. The road ahead does not have any maps. Instead, all we have is a compass. There are slippery rocks. And as we navigate through, we have to, in the words of Dan Bricklin, like the feeling.

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