Friday, September 19, 2008

Thoughts on Order and Space

A country's physical infrastruture tells us a few things about the country. One, of course, is if the country was relatively wealthy. Although this is generally true, it may not remain true for much longer. Large nations like China (and probably India though the desire to do the same is not in evidence) can build shining cities with the collective wealth of a large population while the per capita income remains small compared to that of an advanced nation. The other piece of information we get is if the culture is used to thinking about space and architecture in way to benefit the daily demands of the society. Eastern nations have built great temples, as have Western nations built imposing cathedrals, but the architecture of the past 100 years- call it modern, postmodern, prairie-style, whatever- has by and large sought to understand how humanity could live, work and play optimally within the walls of a building- and hence we have skyscrapers, Ikea furniture, wall-beds, studio apartments, and so on.

Besides, the layout of the physical infrastructure tells us how a society can harness its leadership, creativity and resources to create a sense of order. Asian countries like Singapore have created order that is clinical and driven from the top down, no questions asked by anyone below the food chain. As film-maker Ang Lee once said about his experience in making Sense and Sensibility, in Taiwan the director is king- the underlings learn from him without a word, but in the West, the actors want to discuss things, give suggestions; and this made him feel he came across as a bad director. China is a recent example of building great order out of pre-'80s chaos.

In India the chaos is pervasive, the only places where this doesn't exist are the homes where concepts like Vaastu have taken hold. Private space is most respected, and public space is not. Therefore you have high sidewalks which are difficult to mount, full of trees that obstruct your path, billboards, hawkers and what have you. Homes in contrast are clean. Last year I was on the campus of a large IT service provider where the lawns were beautifully manicured and buildings wonderful. Just outside the gate, in Electronic City, Bangalore, was a potholed road, in disrepair for several years. That gives one the idea.

By and large in Western societies the sense of order is not drive top down, but understood by the society as a whole to be the norm. But the kind of order than you have in Chicago can be understood to be less orderly than that you find in Shanghai. O'Hare airport is the busiest airport in the US, but also a very crowded one, the highways connecting it clogged during peak hours, and longstanding demands for upgrade have been so far unfulfilled. However this is not unfulfilled in the sense that one gets in India. This is not as much to do with inertia or corruption (although they exist) as with egalitarian priorities.

Virtual infrastructure though is becoming a panacea for many of India's headaches. A colleague who has been in IT services sales for many years recently described to me the horrors of getting an RFP from a government institution in India. This was many years ago. The announcement that an RFP was to be released would hit the news. On the morning of the day of release the sales managers would crowd outside the door or window where RFP hard copies would be handed out. There are always limited copies, so the most burly or aggressive of the lot would fight and get their copies, and those who couldn't get in first would go home emptyhanded. Today though, RFPs are released electronically, and the number of recipients has increased. This is not to say that all problems in India have been similarly solved. Standardized tests and group discussions for B-school admissions are still chaos.

One would imagine that the Internet and electronic sourcing, commerce and other tools have made order out of chaos. The fact is that these tools have simply achieved what the police or infrastructure could not achieve - to keep the people disciplined and orderly. The concept of standing in a line is today made irrelevant, and hence the clutter is cut down. But the rules of web applications and the protocols of the Internet, email and other electronic tools are defined by people who sought to create order from chaos.

Could an Asian country have defined these rules originally? Perhaps an Indian pioneer who was disgruntled with the state of things could have brought this about. Or a Chinese government employee, wanting to be conscientious or earn brownie points or earn a higher rank, could have done it. I think these highly improbable situations. I do not imply that Indians or Chinese lack creativity or motivation. For nothing good comes without these. India has seen volunteer projects like Exnora. China has seen cracked the rice genome.

I just mean that a society that can conceive of physical infrastructure in ways to benefit humanity is the society that can define rules for virtual infrastructure as well. Creativity in orderliness is the same underpinning for both these infrastructures. The mechanics of these may be replicated in other societies- some more successfully than others. But order is something felt internally, and the more it is true of the people, the more we see it outside of them.

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