Technology is an important part of life in India. For example, street vendors and rickshaws use cellphones, the internet and Aadhar cards – 12-digit identification numbers assigned to each citizen based on their biometrics and demographics. However, charismatic gurus and superstition still thrive in India. In the new book “Reluctant Techies: India’s Complicated Relationship with Technology”, Rakesh Kumar, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, documents India’s often adversarial relationship with technology. technology. Lois Yoksoulian, Physical Sciences Editor of the News Bureau spoke with Kumar about these contradictions and the fact that India’s situation is both unique and universal.
Why is India such a good case study for examining the impact of culture on technology?
India presents a good case study for several reasons. First, the problems the technology claims to solve – poverty, inequality, access to health, education and infrastructure – are all clearly present in India. At the same time, the challenges presented by modern technologies – the impact of automation on jobs, the threat to democracy due to misinformation and the damage to social harmony due to hate speech and radicalization – are particularly acute. for India because of its large population, relatively volatile (or dynamic, if you prefer) democracy and often fragile social fabric.
India is an interesting case study also because of its contradictory attitudes towards technology. Although there is a strong affinity for the use and benefit of technology, technology is also often blamed for many problems in the country. This contradiction extends to the way people reconcile modern technology with some of the superstitious and religious elements deeply rooted in the culture. It’s also interesting how India’s technological past is often glorified, reimagined and sometimes fabricated for national pride.
Finally, India serves as a good Petri dish to see how effective technology-based solutions can be, given stubborn societal problems such as deep-rooted inequalities. For example, if a small fraction of a population has access to and benefits from technology, while others struggle to meet their basic needs, what is the use of technology-based interventions in this context?
Does Indian society and politics affect his attitude towards technology, or is it the other way around?
It’s both! A company decides its technological priorities. If you would just look at the history of technology in India, you would see that the emphasis on certain areas of technology – computing, space and nuclear power – did not just happen by chance, but by deliberate policy development. Fast forward to today, India’s biggest tech projects – unique digital ID for every Indian, seamless national digital payment platforms and broadband access to every village, etc. – reflect social and political priorities.
The impact of technology on society and politics is also clear. The use of social media to promote views, including political ones, is rampant. Technological successes such as financial inclusion and direct subsidies have arguably helped political parties win elections. Online radicalization, misinformation and hate speech have had many unfortunate consequences in the real world.
How does India’s relationship with technology affect its economy and the global economy?
We sometimes forget that one in five humans is Indian. So the choices India makes for its economy affect the world. For a country like India with a large and growing young population, the strongest motive for adopting and developing technology is that it can help boost the economy and lift people out of poverty. As the cost of technology continues to drop, the fruits of innovation are becoming available to ever-increasing numbers of people.
How can the lessons learned from India’s experiences be applied to all nations?
The book’s key lesson is that the benefits and challenges of technology depend on the unique context in which it exists – its history, inequalities and society, etc.
In the United States, for example, we often blame technology for many problems in society. Challenges, such as the impact of automation on jobs, the threat to democracy from misinformation, and the undermining of social harmony from hate speech and radicalization, have been front and center for a time. Algorithmic bias is already a significant problem. Inequalities have increased, which has already begun to affect the outcomes of technology-enabled interventions. A more in-depth discourse on the technology-society interaction will be useful.