When technology waves its magic wand

EXPLODING FREEDOM Sam Pitroda Publisher: Allied Publishers Ltd, India Price: Rs 200

By Kiran Karnik
Published: Thursday 30 September 1993

NEVER in recent history has the world witnessed political and strategic changes as dramatic as those seen between 1986 and 1991. In this short span, a once proud and mighty superpower has not only gone -- quite literally -- to pieces, but has joined the queue of supplicants paying obeisance to the new "masters of the universe". Crumbling communism, moving from arms to alms, has signified to many "the end of history", the vanquishing of all opposition to the liberal capitalist ideology.

What or who triggered these worldwide developments? Were they the result of an elaborate operation by unseen agents controlled by unknown, super-intelligent forces? Or was it merely the inevitable moment, the much-derided Marxist "historical determinism"? In particular, what caused the apparent explosion of freedom?

Sam Pitroda, in his book, seeks to provide answers to some of these questions, and his primary answer is reflected in the very title. A background in engineering, vast experience of high-tech in the US, and years as adviser on technology to various prime ministers in India, make Sam Pitroda uniquely qualified to take a global look at technology and its liberating capabilities.

In the opening sentences in the very first chapter, Pitroda asserts that technology "razes social barriers... eliminates elitism... is the most potent tool to democratise the world". Technology undoubtedly has the potential for great good, but vested interests can and do use it for oppression and widening of socioeconomic differences. Therefore, not all would share Pitroda's enthusiasm for technology as the "magic wand which will... offer new solutions to expedite the process of development... shorten development cycles, reduce costs, increase efficiency and help bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots".

From this beginning, Pitroda leads the reader through a short course in modern history. Democratisation provides views and insights that according to the author are both stimulating and deep. Personal anecdotes (and what catalysed his own creative processes) provide a direct understanding of how innovation begins. Yet, much as one would like to agree with the thought that "in a feudal, hierarchical and bureaucratic system... it is difficult, if not impossible, to breed innovations", reality indicates otherwise. Rural India, which so aptly fits the above description, is full of innovations -- all the more striking in the context of resource scarcity.

Information is the theme of another section that covers information technology, communication and computers, applications and the service society. Examples of the importance of information in meeting basic needs in India are not only relevant, but provide an interesting commentary on the process of decision-making. The successful use of information technology and modern management information systems in rural drinking water and immunisation programmes illustrates this point.

Pitroda looks at the next 50 years and identifies 10 dimensions of technological trends, including growth, in the leisure and automation industry. He also foresees a world government, but only if living standards in the South improve substantially.

Freedom and the worldwide trend towards greater democracy is, Pitroda argues, due to technology. The last decade has witnessed phenomenal growth in the technologies of information and communication. Television, telecommunication, access to computer data banks, fax machines, copiers -- all these have facilitated the trans-border flow of information to such an extent that the very concept of "border" may lose its meaning. Many claim that it is these "technologies of freedom" that triggered and snowballed the democracy movements in East Europe and China. Pitroda contends that perestroika -- the starting point of the dramatic events that have changed world history -- was both inevitable and facilitated because of the new technologies, especially information technology.

Even without these, however, the book makes for most interesting reading. The anecdotes and the small personal revelations not only enliven the book, but also provide glimpses into the thinking and life of the author, of a village boy who made it big. While many sections of the book can be faulted for brevity and sometimes oversimplification, they undoubtedly provide -- especially for the lay reader -- the essence of an issue, bereft of jargon and mystification.

Kiran Karnik is director of the Consortium for Educational Communication

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