The Magic of Technology

I have a piece in today’s Mint. It is titled “The Magic of Technology.” Here it is, below the fold.

The late visionary and sci-fi author, Arthur C. Clarke, once observed that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Technology appears to have those characteristics of magic: to transform and to defy easy comprehension. One can plausibly argue that part of the solution to the problem of underdevelopment involves the use of technology in general — and specifically the rapidly advancing information and communications technologies (ICT).

As it is tempting to be seduced by the power of technology, it is good to be mindful of a few caveats. First, the nature of the solution must be dictated by the nature of the problem. While a technical solution is appropriate to a technical problem, it would be wholly inadmissible for, say, a sociological or a psychological problem. Quite frequently, technologists advocate technical solutions to non-technical problems. It illustrates the old adage that to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Second, the production of advanced technology usually occurs in a certain context. It co-evolves with the society that creates it. It is not always possible to transplant technology without paying attention to the ecology of the place. The technology has to be supported by human capital and appropriate physical infrastructure usually transparent to the user. Successful adoption of technology is predicated on the preparedness of the adopting population and place.

In the context of the development of India and other developing economies, ICT holds a special fascination with policymakers and global hardware and software giants. Lavishly sponsored by the peddlers of ICT and heavily attended by government officials and NGOs, the narrative is that there is a “digital divide” and bridging it is not only necessary, but perhaps is sufficient for development. One cannot dispute the existence of a digital divide any more than one can dispute the existence of all sorts of other divides — ranging from the “basic food and clean water divide” to what I call the “BMW divide”. What matter are the prioritization and sequencing of the divides to be bridged.

Let me recount what happened to me the other day. I was staying at the guesthouse of a major multinational in New Delhi. The fully appointed guesthouse had a room for Internet access. As the young Nepali housekeeper had a lot of time on his hands and he had access to several connected PCs, I offered to teach him how to access the World Wide Web. I would do my bit towards bridging the digital divide for the day.

With great enthusiasm, I was demonstrating the wonder of the Web when he muttered that he did not know how to read and write. Aside from noting down phone numbers and knowing the alphabet, he was illiterate. Crossing the basic literacy divide is a prerequisite for crossing many other divides, including the digital divide. That episode underlines the basic nature of technology: it is an amplifying mechanism. There has to be a basic capacity first. Only then can technology be brought to multiply capability.

Technology holds the promise of allowing short cuts. The classic example is the adoption of cellular telephony and leapfrogging the costly landline stage of a telecommunications infrastructure. In less than 25 years, well within a human generation, half of humanity — more than three billion people — adopted that technology. The same cannot be said about the personal computer (PC) and the Internet. Aside from the fact that PCs and Internet connectivity are significantly more expensive to own and use than a cellphone, there is the matter of having the capacity to use it. Leapfrogging technology is possible, but there is no way of leapfrogging human capacity requirements.

Widespread use of technology is mandatory for any economy to develop in the 21st century. India has a number of positives in this regard. First, it is a latecomer and, therefore, has the benefit of leapfrogging in some instances. Second, technological tools are increasingly becoming cheaper, thanks in part to Moore’s Law. The cellphone of today packs the same power of the PC of just a decade ago. Third, information is becoming cheap. This has profound implications for one of India’s great problems, that of educating hundreds of millions.

The negatives that relate to technology and development of India do give some cause for worry. First, the missing deep backend has to be created rapidly. Cheap, reliable, good quality electricity must be available. So also sufficient human capital for supporting the use of technology has to be available. Fortunately, technology itself can help with the human capital formation. Second, entrepreneurial activity is what drives the maximum gain from the use of technology. Bureaucratic control of economic activity is inimical to this.

India’s development can be accelerated by the use of technology, as though by magic. But magic cannot be done without appropriate props. In the case of India, the major props are the understanding of the power of technology among its leaders and the politi-cal will and vision to let magic happen.

Author: Atanu Dey


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