Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is obviously one of the major forces currently shaping the contours of our society. It is changing the way we interact with others, the way we do business and the way we entertain ourselves. Obviously any technology which causes such profound change in the way we live would also have similar implications for rural India. D.K. Ghosh’s book seeks to provide a guide to the potential of ICT for our villages. D.K. Ghosh is an Executive Director in the Public Communication Networks Division of Siemens and is therefore well placed to judge the nature and impact on rural India digital technologies.
The problem, however, with the simple narrative that Ghosh provides is that it is a triumphalist account of technology, in which all possible gains are listed and it is assumed that all of this would automatically lead to a better future. Such a narrative misses out the complexity of both the society within which such changes take place as also the complex relations between technology and society.
To enumerate all benefits of current digital and communication technologies for rural areas is quite simple. All one needs for such an exercise is to pick up the brochures of companies selling such technologies or reports of organizations promoting experiments using these technologies.
Undoubtedly, Ghosh’s book does provide a broad summary of various projects that are being done by the Governmental agencies, corporate houses and non-governmental organizations. Such an overview is certainly useful as a compendium of facts. However, if we pick up a book, we expect that not only should there be such a compilation but also a reflective view of the nature of changes that are likely to be brought about. After all, it is very rare in the world that we have unmixed blessings – any technological change, even if it is largely beneficial, is also likely to bring in some effects ill-effects in its wake. What Ghosh’s book misses is this critical examination of technology and its impact. What we have, instead, is massive doses of facts after facts after facts, statistics after statistics after statistics, till the reader is completely overwhelmed. What is missed is the woods for the trees. The only conclusion that Ghosh would like us to have from this relentless procession of factual information is that ICT would somehow generate employment, better health, food, economic development, and all of these without tears.
Ghosh starts from the premise that the magic wand of ICT will do what the last 60 years of bad governance and wrong policies in independent India have failed to do, i.e. provide economic development, virtually for free. In this, he examines experiments of corporate houses such as the e-chaupal initiative of ITC, e-governance initiatives by the government, telecom experiments in Bengal by an NGO, and so on. All of these are interesting projects in themselves. However, none of them resolve into a holistic look at how such technologies can get us into the Promised Land: a land of milk and honey, free of sharp disparities. What are the investments involved? Who would be the players? Would there be a need for a task force for each of these activities, or would these happen without any state or other interventions? What supporting structures are required for an ICT revolution to take place in the rural areas? Without such a holistic view, it is difficult to take seriously that ICT by itself and without concerted development in other fields—roads, electricity, water, etc.—would automatically get us to this Promised Land.
Ghosh has an optimistic, even a naive view of technology in which he does not look at its flip side. Technologies that can lead to human development, can also lead to increasing the intensity of exploita-tion. In a world where information is power, those who have better access, can leverage this power to create sharper disparities. Both societal develop-ment and sharpening of the social divide can even run side by side. How society addresses these two issues, determines the way people view techno-logy: if it leads to the cake not only enlarg-ing but also the absolute share for all sections improving, such technological change will be wel-comed. If it leads to a disproportionate share of the cake going to the information haves while the have-nots languish with their shares remaining constant or even going down, it is unlikely that those at the receiving end of this brave, new information age will welcome it with open arms.
Ghosh not only fails to make a critical examination regarding ICT, he also approvingly quotes the international experience of providing, for example, education without teachers, working from home, etc. However do we really want our children learning without a human teacher, from a radio, TV or a computer? Do we want to do away with schools, substituting them with this home based self-learning model? Do we think that death of the work place is a good idea, as it will cut down on travelling and therefore greenhouse emissions? Here is the ultimate panacea of technology, give me a social problem and I will find a technology fix for it. It is this attempt to fix such problems with more and more technology that we need to critically examine. Problems have an unpleasant habit of biting back, and in solving one lot, we should not create even bigger ones.
Let us take schools and human teachers. Yes, upgrading teachers’ skills and providing teaching aids using digital or other electronic tools is a great idea. Doing away with schools and teachers is a very bad one. Learning is not about facts, but developing innate abilities of generating patterns out of such facts and creating a sense of a shared world in which we play by some “rules”. Every child is unique and a standardized one-size-fits-all education model would be a pedagogical disaster. Similarly, there are other options to reduce travel and greenhouse emissions: mass transport and better urban planning. Instead of picking up the suburbia model as we seem to now have done in the country, alternate models of urban planning exists that would also minimize travel. To a number of people including me, a world where everybody lives atomized existences, working from home, with no schools and all human contacts mediated largely through the electronic medium, is a picture not of an utopia but a dystopia.
The world views technology with a certain degree of scepticism precisely because of our failure to address the sharpening of societal divisions with the development of technology. Unless we can address the issues of technology and societal development together, an account of the type Ghosh presents in this book would tend to be regarded more as hype than as future reality.
Prabir Purkayastha is a science activist and with the Delhi Science Forum. Professionally, he works on automation and simulation technologies for the energy sector.