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On comparative advantage and doing things yourself

Today I got the answer to a question that had bothered me many times.

The question was this: I work as a System Administrator and encounter plenty of users who are clueless about computers and don’t seem to want to learn anything about it. I understand the cluelessness but I don’t understand their disinterest in learning. Because the way I see it computers are a tool aiding them in their tasks and isn’t it better they know their tools and at least a basic understanding of how it works, it’s problems, quick fixes and workarounds? Of course the fact that they are not bothered to pick this up is what gives me a livelihood and so I shouldn’t complain, but still…

The logical answer I used to give myself was the economic theory of comparative advantage. In a given amount of time these users are more productive doing their actual work rather than fixing or learning computers, and so it makes sense for them to be illiterate about these tools. They are better off using that time to learn their field and leave it to engineers like myself to understand and fix computers. Somehow that answer didn’t feel right though.

Today, at my in-laws home, I volunteered to fix a broken door. Houses in Kerala often have a door frame with a mosquito net on it. This allows residents to keep the main door open and this door frame closed – letting air etc flow from out to into the house, but keep mosquitoes out. In my in-laws case, however, the net had come out and they were waiting for the net people to come and fix it. I too never bothered with it until a few minutes ago, when perhaps due to having just finished the excellent “Superman Earth One” and so feeling intellectually stimulated and hence enthusiastic to try things out, I had a look at the frame to see what was wrong. Turns out it was simple. The net is held into the frame by a rubber padding and that had come out due to the dog thrashing against the net; all I needed to do was put the net in place and push the rubber back in. Not an easy task – due to the heat and the blood sucking mosquitoes outside! – but not too difficult either. So I spent about 15-20 mins fixing it and now I am pleased about a job well done.

Doing this however made me realise why the comparative advantage explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me. Yes, in the time I fixed this net I could have learnt some PowerShell or read the latest features of Windows Server 2012 R2 – and that would probably be a better use of my time as well – but the thing is doing something else (like fixing this net) too helps me in a different, unmeasured way. I know more about the door now, I have a sense of accomplishment, and I think more importantly doing a physical activity switched my brain from a bookish mode to a physical mode and so gives me a different perspective on other things too. Probably it won’t in this case, but maybe if I had some problem in my head such a change of context could have spurred my brain to take a break from it and tackle it differently. And that’s why I didn’t like the comparative advantage theory. It doesn’t take into account all the unmeasured factors and so the explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me.

In the case of my office, if the users took some time to learn their computers better perhaps that would lead to a better understanding of the system and its limitations for them. Perhaps this might lead to them being able to better explain to IT what they need. Perhaps they will appreciate computers more and in turn be more productive. And perhaps they will stop treating computers (and by extension technology) as some new fangled thing that they don’t understand and which only alienates them from work and others. Perhaps…

I am reminded at this point by the Chautauqua in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. The author mentions similar points though much more eloquently. We need to expand our reasoning systems to include technology. We don’t, and that’s why it feels alien to us. Replace technology with whatever one is doing. It applies to work such as fixing doors, motorcycle maintenance, computers, cooking, cleaning, and so on.