Demystifying the IT revolution

Published : Aug 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Information Revolution and India: a Critique by S.S. Gill; Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2004; Pages 329, Rs.395

FEW technologies have provoked as much wide-eyed hyperbolic writing anywhere as the information revolution, based on the personal computer and the ever-expanding, apparently limitless power of the Internet. In India, nothing has attracted as much media adulation or official enthusiasm as information technology (IT) - itself seen as a magic wand, a technical "fix", a shortcut to rapid economic growth and development. Even as we integrate ourselves into the global IT market essentially as cyber coolies via the business process outsourcing (BPO) route, many of our policymakers see the growth of IT-enabled services as a substitute for the hard tasks of addressing the basic needs of the people and guaranteeing them minimum food security, health care, education and employment.

All manner of utopian scenarios are painted about India's destiny as an "IT superpower" and a "knowledge-based society". By 2008, if not earlier, India will annually export $50 billion worth of computer software (or about a tenth of its present gross domestic product [GDP]) and "conquer" a substantial chunk of the global IT market even as the bulk of India's domestic population achieves computer literacy. Reality bears a rather sharp contrast to these extravagantly optimistic projections. As of now, India's software exports account for less than 2 per cent of the global market. The IT sector as a whole represents less than 3 per cent of the GDP. Even if these ratios double in the next five years, IT will still be a fraction of the economic size of, say, trade.

True, computer sales in India have grown by leaps and bounds - from just under one million four years ago to a little over three million units in the last fiscal year, up 32 per cent over the preceding year. But they account for less than one-50th of global computer sales. The world over, 100 of every 1,000 people are connected to the Internet. In the high-income Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, 500-plus of every 1,000 people are Internet users. Even in Third World countries such as Mexico, Lebanon and Malaysia, or the United Arab Emirates, Internet connectivity is 100 to 300-plus per 1,000. In India, it is about 20.

Bangalore, with its 1,60,000 IT and BPO workers, is described - without the batting of an eyelid - as India's Silicon Valley, or a serious competitor to it. But California's Santa Clara county alone has over 2,00,000 computerniks. All told, the San Francisco Bay Area has about a million IT professionals. If value addition (and appropriation) is considered, the difference between the real and false Silicon Valley, on a good guess, could be several hundredfold.

Yet, the hype continues. This book is a useful antidote to the fatuity that underlies the exuberant celebration of the IT revolution. It explains the technology and its indubitable potential for proliferation into newer and newer fields. (Electronics and computer chips account for about 30 per cent of the value of new models of cars. And athletes' shoes, which have a chip inserted in them to give the optimal level of tightness, are on the market.)

The book analyses the social context or embeddedness of IT and its control by profit-seeking capital. And it underscores its limitations - IT is only an enabler or enhancer, not the "real thing", the substance of the ultimately consumed good - and its pitfalls, which lie in the potential for corporate over-centralisation and for surveillance of citizens by governments. Above all, the book attempts to bring IT down to earth.

The author, S.S. Gill, retired as Information and Broadcasting Secretary and became Prasar Bharati's first Chief Executive Officer. He brings his insights as an administrator to bear upon his writing, especially on India, which comprises one of the three main parts of the book. The book also has richly descriptive material, especially on information, work and employment, IT and education, and even on information warfare and artificial intelligence. But it is Gill's analysis of the relationship between IT and globalisation, and the technology's corporate-led social dynamics, as well as its eventual amenability (or lack of it) to democratic control that forms the most attractive part of the book.

Gill grounds himself here solidly in the perspectives developed on the corporate media and the information business by Edward S. Herman, Robert McChesney and Ben Bagdikian; on computers, work and employment by Frank Webster and Kevin Robins (especially, Information Technology: A Luddite Analysis), and Jeremy Rifkin; on the information economy by Teodore Roszak and Herbert Schiller; and on politics, communications and technology by Gerald Sussman and David Burnham.

Gill analyses IT in a framework that is analogous to the dissection of the media by analysts such as McChesney, based on power relations and corporate domination. He approvingly quotes Herbert Schiller on the "misnomer" called the Information Age: "Information systems have been developed to maintain - albeit in new ways - relationships that secure the advantages enjoyed by a small part of humanity and the disadvantages that afflict the large majority."

Gill holds that IT is inseparable from structures of domination and control: "Those who rely on the Information Revolution to strengthen liberal democracy at the roots, are looking for policy solutions which do not touch the political structures and property relations. IT is being increasingly used to sell goods, win elections, and control levers of power. All these goals are being pursued by powerful corporate interests, leaving little space for democratic action or discourse."

The book is a much-needed reminder of how computerisation has aggressively displaced labour and changed the entire pattern of wage employment in modern industry and services. This pattern is linked to capitalism in its neo-liberal avatar, with persistent joblessness even in the world's most "successful" economies. The argument that IT would create enough new jobs and those displaced would be retrained (for what?) has not been validated in practice. The computer remains a job-killer even as it colonises more and more spheres of activity.

The Internet is certainly a great medium of communication, data storage and processing, signal and image generation, and much else - the more so because it is free, open and universally accessible. But it need not have been free or open. It could well have been ridden with patented software and other restrictions, denying one access unless one paid a fee. For instance, had Tim Berners-Lee, who conceived of the World Wide Web, decided to patent his idea in 1989, he would, of course, have made pots of money - as have Jeff Bezos of, Jerry Yang of Yahoo, or Sabeer Bhatia of Hotmail fame.

But there would have been 16 different "webs" on the Internet. Berners-Lee has been quoted: "Goodness knows, there were plenty of hypertext systems before that didn't interoperate. There would have been a CERN Web, a Microsoft one, Apple's HyperCard would have started reaching out Internet roots. And all of these things would have been incompatible."

Berners-Lee thinks software has been patented bloody-mindedly and totally commercially. This runs counter to "the spirit" of the Net and is "terribly stifling to creativity. It is stifling to the academic side of doing research and thinking up new ideas. It is stifling to the new industry and the new enterprises that come out of that."

However, as John Naughton argues, "cyberspace - the most gloriously open, uncensored and unregulated public space in history - could easily become a highly controlled and regulated environment... " This could happen not just through hyper-commercialisation and corporate concentration but through the state's intrusion into the private lives of citizens. This is occurring in countries such as China and Singapore, and in many West Asian, Latin American and European states. In India too, and now in the U.S., the state has armed itself with draconian powers to intercept emails and otherwise monitor and control information flows.

Gill has some insightful observations on the complex and contradictory relationship between democracy and capitalism. He argues: "Capitalism gives primacy to self-interest, and democracy is altruistic in its intent. Capitalism flourishes with minimum state intervention; democracy can prosper only when the state intervenes effectively on behalf of the citizen... The Information Revolution has greatly aggravated these contradictions. It has strengthened the forces of globalisation owing to IT's genius for centralisation, thus enabling the TNCs (transnational corporations) to greatly increase their reach and size" and acquire control over "the means to shape and control public opinion. This has inevitably sharpened the contradictions between the democratic ethos and capitalism. The former has been very much the loser in this contest, thus further deepening the crisis of democracy".

Gill - and it bears recalling that he was a strong advocate and the main draftsperson of the Mandal notification in V.P. Singh's team - is at his critical, radical best on IT and democracy: "The temper of IT - the foot-soldier of corporate capitalism - is essentially anti-democratic. The two basic characteristics of IT are speed and precision, and both are repugnant to the democratic ethos. Digital reasoning is binary: it is yes or no, plus or minus. It leaves no room for doubt or equivocation. But democracy deals with complex problems of human behaviour and attitudes, which do not lend themselves to neat solutions. In several cases the answer is: `may be/may be not'... "

THE book reviews the meteoric growth of IT in India - the result, Gill repeatedly notes, of state intervention and facilitation right since the establishment of the National Informatics Centre under N. Seshagiri in 1977. He is particularly appreciative of the Railways' computerisation initiative, first in freight movement and then in passenger reservation, as well as e-chaupals (collection centres) and similar information exchange systems for farmers. He is impressed at the progress of computerisation in the otherwise lethargic government too.

Gill is aware that India has gone in for the low-end of the IT value-addition chain, which is dependent on cyber coolies; this is a "serious deficiency". But he does not attempt a solution to this - through, for instance, promoting vigorous unionisation of call centre workers and negotiating or legislating vastly better working conditions. Gill is aware of the acute problem of computer affordability in a poor country like India.

Unfortunately, he does not mention the Simputer as one possible low-cost solution. Nor does he discuss the importance of promoting Indian language operating systems and software, which alone can make IT accessible to 95 per cent of the population. Gill is far too soft on former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrabadu Naidu and unduly impressed by the State's claimed achievements in IT, discussed critically in Frontline (February 18, 2000). These claims were largely fraudulent - as the Andhra Pradesh voter discovered.

However, these and other flaws, including typographical errors and a primer-like didactic style in places, should not detract from the value of this timely, analytical and very perceptive book. Gill has succeeded in debunking some myths about IT. He reminds us: "IT cannot help you to leap-frog" across the divide between a backward and a developed society. The information revolution is not a substitute for basic, gut-level, and long-neglected social agendas.

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