What’s the problem?

One of the driving forces of growth is the identification of problems and the search for solutions

January 27, 2019 05:00 pm | Updated January 28, 2019 11:55 am IST

Anyone remember Y2K? That bug that was supposed to turn our lives — meaning, our computers — upside down, wreaking havoc in the markets, on calendars, in services of various kinds? The upside, for the Indian tech industry, was a huge growth in software jobs, with armies of programmers enlisted to desperately debug the millions of lines of code that might create confusion, the moment the clock struck midnight and entered the year 2000.

You can look it all up on the Internet, but to make a longish story short, the “millennium bug” was discerned as a possible flaw in computer programmes that used a two-digit reference to the year — so, 1999 would be entered as 99. So, when the year 2000 rolled around, the computer would move to 00. Should that be read as 1900, or 2000? You can imagine the kind of head-scratching and hand-wringing that might ensue in the world of insurance policies, banking, transportation and time-defined contracts of every kind.

For many of the happily ignorant (and that was a majority of our world), however, the move to year zero was seen as their chance to witness something historic — a literally, once-in-a-millennium experience. What could be a problem with that, really?

As it happened, the scare was bigger than the problem and everything settled down quite quickly. Yes, a lot of money was spent, a few million young programmers got jobs, and we all found that computers and their networks had become even more central to our lives. The big success of the Y2K bug, it seemed, was the defining — and selling — of a problem for which re-programming was the solution.

Which brings me to the point (yes, there is one).

Identify gaps

No matter which field you are in, or hope to be, one of the driving forces of growth is the identification of problems and the search for solutions to those problems. Many of us are good at working out solutions, once we are given a problem, but what about the necessary first step, that of actually figuring out what the problem is? In science and in all academic disciplines, knowledge grows because we see gaps in understanding that we seek to fill. Seeing the gap, therefore, becomes an important initiator of this process. And then we need to understand the nature of this gap — what exactly is its shape and size? What are its consequences? In the case of Y2K, the genius of those who saw the problem, a relatively simple thing, was their ability to project what it might do to systems of different kinds. And then they convincingly presented it to the world, arguing that it required a solution, and one that required resources.

The ability to see a gap, to describe it in a way that allows us not only to imagine what it looks like but what it means, and then to articulate a way to fill it — or to conceive a way of solving it — is a skill that is worth cultivating. Creative teachers help us do this in every field, giving us the tools to perceive not only the things that we understand, and that are working well, but also helping us notice the things that need to be understood, or made to work better.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus.usha.bpgll@gmail.com

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