Computerization in Nilekani's Imagining India

Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation

promises to occupy a central position in discussions about India as
well as the world economy this year. The book was released last year
in India, came out in the United States just this past March, and has
racked up some prominent reviews recently. Particularly relevant to
this blog are the book’s observations on computers’ role in the
economy and society.

Author Nandan Nilekani can speak with quite a bit of authority on
computers, having founded and led
an early success story in modern Indian commerce and a major player in
the historic rise of outsourcing.

Imagining India is a huge book with many big agendas; it
covers education, infrastructure, environmental challenges, government
intervention, and the role of historical narrative, among other
things. Biggest among its agenda–and the one that I wager will
generate the most debate–is Nilekani’s own version of a modern
combination of neoliberalism and neoprogressivism that seems to be
gaining ground. The general idea is that governments should take a
leading role to promote social progress by creating an infrastructure
that allows individuals to form their own destinies (good education,
good health care, good physical infrastructure, a light-touch form of
regulation that ensures quality, and occasional direct welfare
payments) rather than preserving oases of protection and easily abused
subsidies for particular interest groups, notably unions, small
businesses, and disadvantaged castes.

But all that lies beyond the scope of the Radar blog and of my own
powers of analysis. I’ll just comment on the following points from the
book, because they concern the role of computers and because they
resonate with trends I see in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Technophobia shouldn’t be assumed

A lot of technologists glibly anticipate that computers and Internet
access will be rejected by some group of people who are implicitly
labeled ignorant or clueless: racial minorities, poor people, the
elderly (“how can you get my grandmother to use this?”), etc. In every
case, the key to adoption turns out to be access and sometimes the
availability of useful applications. When presented with the
opportunity, these populations always prove eager to take advantage.

Nilekani cites one instance after another of rural village dwellers,
farmers, taxpayers, and others who quickly grasp what computers and
Internet access can do for them. Whether it’s the chance to learn
English, check crop prices, or pay a utility bill, Indians at all
levels come to depend on the computer once it’s introduced. (The hard
thing, as you might guess, is persuading agencies and local officials
to install systems that undercut their power as gatekeepers.)
And we’ve all heard of the
Hole in the Wall Project,
where Indian kids in slums come to enjoy and figure out how to use
computers with little or no adult help.

Nilekani may be citing anecdotes selectively, but his observations
echo other reports I’ve heard about disadvantaged or lagging
communities. The problem is not the people, but other factors such as
availability, cost, and usefulness.

Internet access goes along with transparency and egalitarianism

One reason the Indian population loves computers, according to
Nilekani, is that it attacks favoritism and outright corruption. This
advantage matches up with the promise of open government in the United
States and other developed countries.

In some cases, Indians are burdened by extremely crude forms of
corruption that crumble the instant computers are installed. One
example in the book is the registration of changes in land records,
which farmers are required to report to the government every year.
Agency staff could easily steal land by deliberately filing wrong
reports, or extract bribes by delaying the filing until the desperate
farmer caves in. But a computerized system takes the staff person out
of the process.

Bringing sunlight into government activities in most developed
countries has somewhat subtler effects and becomes a more long-term
project, but the essence is the same and depends on computerization to
work. In the US, we have a lot more control over the stimulus package,
thanks to, than we have over expenditures in Iraq or the
bail-out to the finance industry. Indians are similarly learning how
to watch over their governments and raise their voices digitally,
according to Nilekani.

The sunny role that people around the world are granting to the
technologies of going online is not intrinsic to these technologies,
because they also lie at the center of modern surveillance, warfare,
and regimentation. The benign role is hard won, and represents a
collective choice by the public that has adopted the technologies. As
Nilekani puts it:

The idea of technology as something ominous and scary that is used by
“Big Brother” to control our lives and eliminate jobs has given way to
the idea that it empowers, liberates and gives us access to all the
services that are due to us, as citizens and consumers.

Software leads innovation in other areas

The reason that the computer industry was the first to take off in
1990s India is that it required practically no infrastructure. Of
course, it required a computer, which might require six to twelve
months for an import license in those days. It also required
electricity, which could be obtained in major cities and supplemented
by private generators. (In areas of unauthorized urban growth, the
slumlords strung the wires.) So in a regulatory environment that
scrutinized and imposed conditions on every allocation of equipment,
it was much easier for entrepreneurs to set up a computer firm than
any business that had more physical manifestations.

As is well known, the relative independence of computing from physical
infrastructure also made Indian companies lucrative in a world
increasingly linked by the Internet. Nilekani says that this physical
flexibility was also valuable internally, helping IT-savvy businesses
cut across the logistical and political barriers that have always
geographically segmented the Indian market.

Nilekani seems to believe that there’s nothing about the computer
industry that’s uniquely suited to Indian talents and business
acumen. Now that the computer industry set an example, the same
advantages have been applied to many other industries. In the 1980s,
economists doubted that India could succeed in any industry, and a few
years ago they wondered whether India could succeed in any industry
except computer services. The evidence is now strong that the country
will become a leader in many areas.

Indian industry is just one example where computerization has shown
light on a path that social change can take. A worldwide example is
provided by the open source movement, which Nilekani mentions only in
the most fleeting manner in his conclusion–unfortunately enough,
because free software can be a compelling wild card in story of
international development, especially as part of a trend I dubbed
tech-splicing in

another article

The first open license was a software license (the GNU General Public
License). When it was released, the phenomena of allowing unlimited
changes and sharing these changes looked like a peculiar aspect of
software. But many years later, these ideas seeped out into fields of
innovation with a more physical basis, and research by
Eric von Hippel
showed they always had legs.

Software was also the inspiration for gene splicing and other aspects
of synthetic biology, even to the extent that biologists share their
innovations in repositories that look like software libraries (check
out the
BioBricks Foundation).

Finally, the popularity of scripting and other software hacking
initiated–or revived, or perhaps just legitimized–a tradition of
solving a problem through invention instead of settling for a
standardized, commercial solution. The DIY movement found in many
areas of the world–including the Indian practice of assembling local
motor vehicles called jugaad–makes it more and more likely
that products of many types will come out of small, even amateur

Products of creativity and pure thought embody a freedom that allows
them to metamorphose and spread quickly. The added formality and
clarity that software brings to these activities doubles the power of
that freedom. So my guess is that software will often lead the way in
social innovations by a decade or more.

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