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Architects, designers and benevolent dictators



Earlier this week, the Indian government banned Free Basics, a Facebook initiative, on grounds that it violated net neutrality. I have shared my views on Free Basics before. The argument I made and the arguments that most people who are against Free Basics (including the government that declared the ban) are coming from the heads of architects and designers. I'm not saying that only architects and designers are against Free Basics, but just that anyone who is against it is thinking like an architect or a designer.

So how does an architect or a designer think?

Simply put, she takes a problem statement and evaluates available approaches to solving the problem and then picks the most elegant of those. And the most elegant solution also abides by all the architecture and design principles that are meant to ensure a good and stable user experience and product performance that accounts for scaling and all foreseeable things that can go wrong.

This means that when we evaluate something the way an architect or a designer does, we are evaluating all possible ways of solving the problem statement at hand and are accounting for all things we can foresee going wrong and building in solutions for those. This is exactly what we are doing with Free Basics.

We are all aligned that enabling each and every person in the world with Internet access is the problem statement we want to solve. But, we aren't really at a stage where we are evaluating possible solutions that we can implement. There is only one real solution that is being implemented and that is Free Basics. Several people who made arguments have suggested other solutions that can solve the same problem statement, like offering free Internet to all up to a certain limit and not restricting that free access to Free Basics participants. And we are against it because of something that can probably go wrong that we foresee. Which is Facebook will start controlling what people have access to and make the playing field uneven hurting entrepreneurship and limiting choices for the users.

Of course, we are bringing up other concerns as well like all app access proxying through Facebook servers which gives them all our data. Who cares? Go buy some Facebook stock if you think this will make them rich. Why stop them from solving the problem at hand?

The non-architect or non-designer way of solving problems is simple - trust. When a plausible solution is proposed, don't over-analyse to ensure the solution solves all future problems that might come out of it. Trust that the solution will hold and deal with the problems when they actually come up.

You might call me crazy for suggesting this. After all, we pay huge money to think-tanks and strategists and law makers to ensure the solutions implemented don't result in problems later on. But just hear me out for a minute.

Let's say we go by Mark Zuckerberg's words and Marc Andreessen's words and trust them when they say that they are really doing this for the good of the people and don't care about showing ads or mining data to build things that will make them richer. And I say we go by their words because there is no downside, who cares if they do get rich?

The problem that we do care about though is that of choices being limited to users. Just because there is regulation that provides for unlimited choices doesn't mean the choices are actually unlimited. For example, there are so many TV shows that I want to watch and am willing to pay for, but can't do so legally. They are not on Netflix, not on TV, not available for purchase on Flipkart or Amazon or iTunes (even if they were available on iTunes, user choice is still limited as the user is then forced to buy only Apple devices). So, I don't think choices are really going to be that different from what we would have otherwise. But, yes, we would have the possibility of having more options. Which we will with Free Basics as well. If there is enough demand, I can't see why Facebook would hurt itself by not providing for it. And if it really stays stubborn, a competitor to Free Basics will come up. Like we have competitors for Netflix and Amazon.

I'm not saying let's have Free Basics available. I just find it very interesting how we evaluate solutions and make decisions.

I'd prefer benevolent dictatorship to democracy and as we have seen time and again in our History books, benevolent dictators trust solutions, let them play out and cull them the moment they start hampering the greater good of the society. What if our law-making took a similar approach? Because what is good and what is bad for society is not constant. The definitions keep varying. Rather than try to predict this variability and then act to control it, why not just embrace the variability?

It doesn't seem all that impractical to me.

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