There ain't no rules around here! We're trying to accomplish something!

More efficient web storage for the developing world

In Technology on February 26, 2009 at 3:59 pm

As hard drive space becomes cheaper, RAM has remained expensive — meaning that internet access is still out of reach for most of the world. Vivek Pai, a CS professor here at Princeton, has developed an invention that may change that. HashCache is a highly efficient method of caching, or saving frequently accessed Web content on a hard drive instead of using precious bandwidth to to look it up every time. The RAM-hogging step in most caching methods is the index, a table that assigns each image or block of text on a website a number, which in turn is associated to a location on the hard disk. Pai’s breakthrough was eliminating the index; the number is the memory address. This significantly increases the efficiency of internet data transfer.

The development team has been working with Intel, which is “very keen on making technology affordable in developing regions,” according to CS department chair Larry Peterson. And the caching system is already being tested at the Kokrobitey Institute in Ghana and Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. (HT dailyprincetonian.com.)

The interface between technology, altruism, and capitalism is an interesting one. Should inventors like Pai make an effort to make their products accessible at low cost to poor countries? Is that idealism, “creative capitalism,” or good business sense? Is it possible that inventors do more good for the world if instead they try to make as much money as they can?

Some very bright people discuss the question here. My take is roughly John Quiggin’s, which observes that technological creativity is not always — not at first, anyway — linked to profit.

Yet neither the Internet nor the Web was a product of the market economy, and even now the relationship between market incentives and the social contribution made by Internet-related activities is tenuous at best.

Both the Internet and the Web developed as non-commercial activities, outstripping or absorbing a variety of commercial competitors (Genie, Delphi, AOL and so on) before being opened up to commercial use in the mid-1990s. And even since large-scale commercial involvement began, most of the exciting innovation continues to come from noncommercial users (blogs and wikis, for example) or from non-commercial content producers (YouTube, Flickr and so on). By contrast, heavily funded commercial innovations such as push technology and portals have failed or declined into insignificance.

Of course, corporations still have a large role to play in the economy of the Internet. A company like Google, for example, provides services that cannot easily be replicated by users acting either individually or collectively. But Google depends crucially and directly on the content created by users and more generally on the goodwill of the Internet community.

If these assets were lost, Google would be vulnerable to displacement; Microsoft’s loss of its seemingly unassailable dominance of both personal computing and the Internet software market is an illustration. Google’s slogan ‘don’t be evil’ and its sensitivity to criticism, for example over its compliance with Chinese censorship laws, illustrates the point. Equally, so do the many products Google creates and gives away, with no obvious path to future profit.

Paradoxically, the most profitable ideas were often not invented to be profitable. The Twitter guys invented a new form of human communication (communicagion?) and they’re not worried that they still don’t make a dime off it. Somehow, they’re sure, they will — and we believe them. People come up with ideas, especially scientific and technological ideas, more out of curiosity than either altruism or greed. Humanitarian and financial benefits usually follow a project that some guy just thought was intellectually cool. Maybe making it possible for a few billion more people to go online will, in the long run, make greater profits than commercial licensing in developed countries ever will. The techie’s ethic of compulsive sharing — reminiscent of Joseph Priestley’s fevered scientific correspondence — doesn’t look very businesslike, but it makes useful ideas happen faster.

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