IT: The Future is Here, Almost

This article was written 14 years ago when internet services officially started in India. I had expressed a number of fears in this some of which have been happily proved incorrect. However, I find it interesting that there are almost no fundamentally new technological breakthroughs that have come around since the article was written. Some of the concerns raised in the article still hold, particularly its conclusion.

Trivia: The original article was typed on a PC- XT machine using Word Star 7.

I had used email for just over a  month then using a corporate account and the browser I was then using were Mosaic and Gopher !

Anyone remember using these ??

*

Information Revolution
The Future is Here, Almost
by Bhupinder Singh
(Op Ed, The Tribune, Chandigarh, 19 August 1995)

India formally joined Internet, the real information superhighway- on Wednesday. With a PC and a modem, Indians now have the wide, wild, world of information at their button tips. This article by a computer engineer talks about new vistas and, hidden traps.

While we were not looking, the future arrived.

It did not arrive the way popular science fiction had predicted- with personal trips to Mars on weekends, et al. Instead, it arrived as a social, cultural, informational and technological revolution more world- changing than the futurists could have dreamed. This change is so headlong and profound that it is more than difficult to comes to terms with or even grasp it, let alone understand it.

Within the lifetime of people who have barely got beyond middle age, human society and the relations of people within them have gone through a sort of economic and social earthquake. To a large extent, technological change since the Industrial Revolution, has not much been derived from it as it has driven this cataclysmic change.

The G-7 group correctly sums up the phenomenon when it says that “information technology is the engine of economic growth today”. In the economically advanced countries this is specially true. According to the US Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, about 73 million of the nation’s 129 million workforce already has information jobs. Within this century, the total number of this workforce is expected to rise to 86 million.

Three technologies form the bedrock of the current information revolution- the ubiquitous personal computer, the telecommunications network spanning the globe and now slowly but surely the integration of television with the above two. The three technologies, even when used independently, wield massive power, but when combined form a synergistic whole that far outstrips the sum of the parts.

Personal computers now provide the user with more power than that provided by giant mainframe computers to large organizations less than 20 years ago. Computers networked all over the world over telephone lines create a whole new sphere of existence, generally termed the cyberspace though also more popularly but incorrectly called the information super- highway. This in itself lets the users to exchange information as never before. Add television to this, and you have a formidable triad, which combines the flexibility of the telephone with the carrying capacity of the television (“a picture speaks a thousand word”). And the command of computers.

This, then, is the imperative driving the merger of the three technologies.,

Wire less technologies too is making rapid strides though it still has a many a technological jungle to clear before it can become a worldwide way of life.

So explosive is this growth that language is struggling to give expression to these realities. Terms like ‘cyberspace’, ‘information superhighways’, ‘virtual communities, ‘internet’, ‘Pavlov’s cyber dog’, telecommuting, and fiber- sphere are surging in a bid to grasp the fast changing reality around us.

The future once the romantic dream of science fiction writer, is already here.

One would however, until completely overwhelmed by the truly mind boggling developments, ad a note of caution and say” The future is here, almost.

To begin with, consider the fact that out of over 5.5 b people, 4 b are yet to hear the dial tone of a telephone, far less, having pressed a computer keyboard. There are about 600 m telephones worldwide, out of which 80% are in the developed world. As Sam Pitroda says:

Telecom brings openness, accessibility, accountability, connectivity and networking. It is an instrument for democratization, decentralization and social transformation. As a great leveler, telecom in particular and information technology a s a whole can raise cultural barriers, overwhelm economic inequalities and compensates for intellectual disparities.

With the same emphasis, one can remark that the absence and denial of such a powerful medium chokes and stifles democracy. In this process, information technology and specially telecom on which it firmly rides piggyback, both of which are supposed to bridge the gap between the North and South, are basically increasing the gap. This might not be fully true about those areas of the of the South- the educated, urban middle class specially in the country where it has the fastest rate of growth- India, for example.

According to one estimate, developing countries today require $30 billion a year to build appropriate infrastructure to move up into the knowledge based domains and the IT age of tomorrow. Despite the fact that telecom is a profitable venture, less than $3 b today is being provided by the World bank and other multilateral agencies. Over the last 45 years, the World Bank has invested less than 2 percent of its lending in the telecom sector.

This is not the only danger. In a scenario where the South is famished and starved of basic telecommunication infrastructure, telecom companies from the North where the competition is fierce and the market saturated, are using them as dumping grounds for old technology. Or they are interested only in the elite, rich segments and urban areas, where it is easier to install and maintain these services. So, while the telecom sector is being deregulated and replaced by undoubtedly more ‘efficient’ private companies, the gap between the two Indias, as Dr. K.N. Raj described it so eloquently, is increasing.

Third, there is an increasing disparity in the pricing of high- technology “consumer items”. A cellular phone which costs about $200- 300 (about Rs. 6000 to Rs 9000) in the USA costs Rs. 25, 000 to Rs 52, 000 in India. Similarly, a desktop PC which costs $1000 in the US is available for more than double the price in India. Thus while the PC costs about one- fifth of an average middle- class American’s monthly salary, it costs his Indian peer almost his entire annual salary. The cost of legal software, too, is monstrously high. The result of this abnormality in the pricing structure is that things which are accessible to large populations in the West are sold in economically less developed countries as items for a very small section, which uses them as symbols of power and “boosting its image”.

In the naive belief of emulating the ‘technological republics’ of the advanced economies, technology is being sought to be imported lock, stock and barrel. The blind import of technology from the West has serious implications for the growth of indigenous technology and technologists. The once famed band of engineers nurtured at Center of Development of Telematics (C- DOT) and other such centers, like Ramesh Chauhan who has been reduced from an industrialist to a trader, have been reduced to mere installation boys of the MNCs.

Technology can have a unique aura of being ‘value free’. It appeals to both the progressive radical who sees in it the ‘development of productive forces’ to the conservative for whom, unlike poverty and human development, technology does not prick the conscience. It is, of course, a different issue where science is concerned. The shift in the emphasis from Nehru’s insistence on scientific tempter to the current fascination with technology alone has to be seen in this light. In the fresh dawn of the country’s ‘tryst with destiny’, science and technology went hand in hand, with equal and rightly so, emphasis on scientific temper as well as technology (‘the dams are the temples of modern India’).

Myths have often been used to sell products- “paperless office” for computers, “global village” for telecom and “super highway” for informatics and the internet; these simplistic buzzwords hide much more than they reveal. It has often turned out to be a different state of affairs. While printers and photocopiers have increased our capacity to multiply paper and “super highway” is all set to be captured by the private marketeers, it is generally ignored that the village is not a homogeneous community. It has land owners and tenants, it has cattle grazers and small time shopkeepers. It also has sharecroppers and landless peasants. This is true of the “global village” too.

Regardless of such impediments and abnormalities, the future has arrived. The question is not whether we embrace it of reject it. Nations, like individuals, cannot choose the circumstances they are or live in. the question is how to come to terms with the new realities we face. While technology today has built the material conditions for a better, more equitable world, it is yet to find a new ideological and social expression to bring about a more egalitarian society. In the absence of efforts to properly harness the developments in technology, it remains open for the forces of war and dominance to exploit them– remember the high- tech operations of the USA in the war with Iraq.

At the beginning of the century, as a contemporary historian notes, Rosa Luxemburg warned us that the real alternative of the 20 the century was socialism, or barbarism. Today, we do not have socialism. Let us beware of the rise of barbarism, especially barbarism combined with high technology.

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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

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