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Are we Indians technology-averse?

February 07, 2018 10:58 IST

Some examples that show we may be call for introspection, says Ajit Balakrishnan.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Just the other day, a very senior banker I was in conversation with said to me, "I just don't understand technology" in the same nonchalant way I could probably say, 'I don't understand tantra' -- I mean, accepting its existence but not being bothered enough to dig deep enough to understand it.

In a similar vein, the founder and head of a multimillion-dollar venture capital fund looked at me, exasperation writ large on his face, and said: "If you can think you can see the next five years and predict where this technology is going, you are pretending to be god."

Is this kind of aversion to technology the reason why, when a new tech paradigm like the personal computer revolution arrived in the late 1980s, making computing affordable to the masses (just as the mobile phone is doing today), this opportunity was converted into a vast body-shopping enterprise? 

 

What underlay this? An unwillingness to take on the fledgelings of that period, Microsoft, Oracle, etc, which grew in that period and became world-dominant giants?

Or a sense of pragmatism in the air which tells you in a dozen different ways: There is no point for any Indian company to try this -- you just won't win.

Or is there a bigger issue that the larger ecosystem needed to wean young technology companies: Knowledgeable and patient customers, a patient domestic venture capital industry and, most of all, a big enough domestic market for technologically innovative products, which just doesn't exist in India?

The evolution path of a technology company is by now fairly clear from studies done across the world.

First, an entrepreneur hatches an idea in a sunrise industry, then he wins a few early sophisticated customers (sophisticated, because the young company needs to solve some big tech problems early on and not meet them later).

This early sophisticated customer very often is the defence R&D groups. Once the prototype is proven in demanding defence conditions, the entrepreneur brings it to the lay market in his country and then takes it worldwide.

Many have documented how much the iPhone owes the US Department of Defense for bringing into being the very pieces that have made it the most desired phone brand in the world: Its touch-screen display, and the Geographic Positioning System and related map data, which detects your location and gives you helpful directions.

For that matter, practically all that makes the Information Age possible is also thanks to the US Department of Defense funding: The Internet itself, the microprocessor that drives computers and mobile phones, as well as the cellular technology that makes all mobile phones possible.

Another area in which Indians show their aversion to technology is what is being noticed on a large scale among software developers in India: They try their best to wriggle out of hands-on coding once they cross the mid-30s ... they want to be 'managers' who will supervise other programmers but won't 'dirty' their own hands with writing programmes.

Except that this is like a novelist stopping to write and moving to be a 'manager' in a publishing house.

Here, again, a societal level question: Does Indian society reward hands-on creators less than it does 'supervisors' and 'managers'?

This phenomenon runs from even deeper societal sources. I have recounted this story before, but it probably needs another recounting: A 20-something colleague told me that in the arranged marriage market he was fishing in, many of the young women he was meeting as a prospective life partner were asking him, 'How many people report to you?' as a way of assessing whether he was a success in his job!

We should not also forget that the creation of the independent Indian State was based on an anti-technology stance: The choice of the charkha as the symbol on the Independence Era Congress party flag.

It is almost as if Gandhiji, that astute politician, wanted to trigger an anti-textile-machinery-automation instinct in the Indian psyche.

Do the traditional business families which so dominate the business scene in India actively discourage their offspring to enter technologically challenging business opportunities? There is some evidence that this is possibly true.

Is it that they are more comfortable in their method of 'competition' -- not to produce superior or less expensive products -- but by getting access to some natural resource (spectrum, coal, iron ore, etc), organising the licences and capital for it, and letting some outsourced company worry about the technology platform, let alone worry about technical innovation.

This division of labour, where the Indian partner provides the connections and the government the licences, and the foreign technology partner worries about the technology, is so inscribed in our societal psyche that this is baked into the structure of major government contracts.

As the Information Age dawns and we are witnessing an outburst of technology evolution in machine-learning and artificial intelligence, it is too crucial a period not to examine and cure the Indian psyche of its aversion to technology.

Ajit Balakrishnan, chairman and founder of Rediff.com, is the author of The Wave Rider, A Chronicle of the Information Age. You can write to him at ajitb@rediffmail.com

Ajit Balakrishnan / Rediff.com
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