Complements, Substitutes and Examinations

Writing all of what I wrote in February 2020 was a lot of fun, and gave rise to a series of interesting, and interlinked ideas.

In today’s essay, I want to explore one of these interlinked ideas: I want to riff on the concept made famous by Steve Jobs: the computer as a bicycle for the mind. But with an Econ 101 twist to the topic!

I’ve already linked to the video where Steve Jobs speaks about this, but just in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the video:

As I mentioned in the post “Apple Through Five Articles“, Steve Jobs was essentially saying that the computer is a complementary good for the mind: that the mind becomes far more powerful, far more useful as a tool when used in conjunction with a computer.

A complement refers to a complementary good or service used in conjunction with another good or service. Usually, the complementary good has little to no value when consumed alone, but when combined with another good or service, it adds to the overall value of the offering. A product can be considered a compliment (sic) when it shares a beneficial relationship with another product offering, for example, an iPhone complements an app.

One way to understand Apple is to understand that Jobs effectively ensured that Apple built better and better computers. Apple has continued to do that even after Jobs has passed on, but they’ve been building computers all along. You can call them Macs and iPhones and iPads and Apple Watches, but they’re really computers.

But that’s not the focus of this piece. The focus of this piece is to think about this as an economist. If the mind is made more useful when it is able to complement the processing power of the computer, then the world is obviously more productive now that many more minds are being complemented with many more computers. I writing this piece on my laptop, and you reading it on your device is the most appropriate example – or so we shall assume.

But viewed this way, I would argue that we get the design of most of our examinations wrong. Rote memorization, or “mugging up” is still the default method for evaluating whether a student has learnt a particular subject. Mugging up is just another way of saying that we need to substitute for the computer, not complement it!

When we reject open book examinations, when we reject the ability to write a paper using laptops/tablets that are connected to the internet, when we force students to substitute for computers, rather than use them to write better, richer, more informed answers, we’re actively rejecting the analogy of the bicycle for the mind.

To say nothing, of course, of the irrelevance of forcing people to write examinations for three hours using pen and paper. But that’s a topic for another day.

Right now, suffice it to say that when it comes to examinations in India, Steve Jobs would almost certainly have not approved.

Bottom line: If computers are a complement, our examinations are incorrectly designed, and we end up testing skills that are no longer relevant.

And the meta-skill you might take away from this essay is the fact that a lot of ideas in economics are applicable in entirely surprising and unexpected areas!

I hope some of you disagree, and we can argue a bit about this. I look forward to it! 🙂