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Which planet do you live on?

Last updated on: May 10, 2013 10:18 IST

'We had been talking for two hours about India and America and we stopped and looked at each other.

"The issues are the same," said my hyper-successful and patriotic NRI friend, his hidden Indian self somewhere wanting to empathise.

Yes, I agreed, only the planets that we inhabit seem different, notes B S Prakash.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

"What are the disruptive forces at work, here, then?" asked my friend from the Silicon Valley.

He was a hyper-successful and patriotic NRI, but was visiting Delhi after a long time last month. We were friends from my days some years ago as the Indian consul general in San Francisco when he was one of my technology gurus.

I did not know where to start. "Well, there was the horrible rape of a minor, and the slapping of women activists by the assistant commissioner of police, but the disruption last week was by the Bihar rally, though the Trinamool supporters at another venue..."

I started, but then stopped. I realised that my words were not going through and he was looking at me with a bewildered expression.

"What are you talking about" he asked, utterly baffled. He was not living here, of course, but still these are the basics of what was happening and any Indian ought to be aware, I thought.

"What did you want to know; you asked about forces of disruption", I said.

"My God, I meant trends in creative destruction," he responded sounding truly like a confused pardesi.

The term was vaguely familiar to me once, and somewhere from the recesses of my memory, the name of Schumpeter who had coined the phrase to describe the currents of capitalism which made some industries obsolete by creating new ones, surfaced.

I also recalled that it had become a fashionable phrase among the dotcomers with their boom and bust cycles. But it is sometime since I indulged in Silicon Valley talk or CNBC-Bloomberg channel lingo.

I suddenly came to the realisation that we were engaged in different discourses and were coming from different habitats.

"What did you have in mind"? I had to ask.

"I was thinking of changes in technology or industry which were impacting on business models and were creating new opportunities and invalidating old paradigms," he said in a rush and took a breath.

"My God, you have really forgotten what you learnt with us in California, have you not?"

"Maybe. Why don't you give me some examples?" I said partly in self-defence.

"I will tell you, what is so awesome and you will be simply blown away," he began. "It is the 3-D manufacturing printer. We are already beginning to see it. Just imagine, your printer, pouring forth real objects, an entire box for instance, custom designed and custom made. It is starting small, but will disrupt manufacturing as we have known it in the 21st century," he enthused, already envisioning the next century.

Hyperbole apart, yes, this was really destructive of the way things were made in factories, however sophisticated, and was creative too, I had to admit. If Americans started printing out their toys and tools on their desk, what will happen to the factories in China, let alone India, I wondered.

I too had read somewhere that this was the way of the future, but being engrossed in the bleak present, the future was, well, distant.

He had gone on to the next example.

"Surely, you know about the Google Glass," he said. "It will come pretty soon and the prototypes are already being tested. A corner of the glasses that you will be wearing will be integrated with the internet and as you walk, you will get full data about the people that walk in front of you, the map of the entire neighbourhood since the GPS will be built in, traffic conditions in the vicinity and, of course, the best coffee shop around the corner," he explained, unable to ignore the favourite example of what Google search can do, that the geeks in Silicon Valley invariably use: the location of the 'best coffee shop', as if this was one of the most valuable goals in one's life.

"I know the answer to that one, here. OK, let us go grab a coffee," I said and we ducked into the nearby Cafe Coffee Day, with its lattes and macchiatos and red cushioned chairs trying its best to look like its Starbucks cousin.

So were there examples of 'creative destruction' in the Indian market, he asked me again. Certainly, I said after thinking for a moment.

When I had left India, the STD booths were ubiquitous. They have been totally 'destroyed' by the mobile revolution and replaced by kiosks to recharge your cellphones, I pointed out. Same with VCR rentals.

However, it is difficult to fully destroy anything in India, I explained, as we ordered our cappuccinos.

Everything has value somewhere, even the things that you throw away, like this paper coffee cup. Centuries co-exist in India, I said using the familiar cliché and talked about frugal innovation as the new mantra.

Still trying to digest his new examples of creativity, I asked him what else was new.

"Actually, I am into voice over data space..." he began again, but realised that he was losing me.

"You seem to be getting bored with all this tech talk. Why don't you tell me about the social issues, out here?" he asked.

No dearth of social issues, I knew. Where to begin? Again, given that this conversation was in Delhi, I had to start with gender and tried to think of something positive to say, apart from the standard talk of the insensitivity of men and the brutality of the police.

The empowerment of women is a big issue under discussion, I told him, and of how everyone from Sonia Gandhi to Sheila Dixit were emphasising it.

His innocent questions about why it was so difficult to change the system led me inevitably to hold forth on caste, class, the venality of the politician, the inefficiency of the bureaucrats, and the utter callousness of everyone except people like me.

He listened patiently, though from time to time kept asking whether the protocols or the operating procedures could not be reprogrammed, whatever it meant.

"What about the social issues in Silicon Valley?" I had to ask, out of politeness, if nothing else.

"Oh, man, similar issues," he began. "You know Marissa Mayer who now heads Yahoo. She has created the perfect storm by telling people that they need to come to an office, can you believe it? No more doing your coding and writing software from wherever you like."

"Half the people had forgotten where the office was and some had thought that it was actually the neighbourhood Starbucks. People are really pissed, but she feels that you are more innovative if you are working in a team," he said.

"And then there is Sheryl Sandberg, the big honcho of Facebook, who was earlier with Google", he continued. "She has started this whole movement of 'Lean In'. A woman should not be satisfied with either/or options, of having to make career sacrifices for motherhood, of giving up the chance to become a board member because of pregnancy, of not going on a overseas trip because the child is sick, or whatever."

"Moreover Sheryl is the living embodiment of all this, the poster child of empowerment, of shattering the glass ceilings, he concluded.

We had been talking for two hours and we stopped and looked at each other. "The issues are the same," he said, his hidden Indian self somewhere wanting to empathise. Yes, I agreed, only the planets that we inhabit seem different.

B S Prakash, who retired from the Indian Foreign Service recently, can be reached at bspraka@gmail.com

For more columns by Ambassador Prakash, please click here

B S Prakash