Technology and Government

In Book Review, Book Review, Business Standard by Praveen ChakravartyLeave a Comment

The copious research by the author is packaged and presented through interesting stories, events and anecdotes, devoid of dense technology jargon

book cover

Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India

Author: Arun Mohan Sukumar 

Publisher: Penguin

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 272

India is considering a transition to the next generation 5G telecom technology. Chinese telecom giant Huawei is the world’s leading provider of 5G technology, far superior and cheaper than its rivals. But the United States has alleged that Huawei is a Chinese government-controlled company in disguise and China indulges in unlawful surveillance and spying of people using Huawei’s data. It has banned Huawei. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some parts of Europe have joined the US in banning Huawei.

In this context, should Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government allow a free market for 5G equipment or protect Indians from potential surveillance by the Chinese government, as alleged by the US?

History can offer some lessons from the past for this quandary, argues Arun Mohan Sukumar in his delightful book Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India. The book is a fascinating chronicle of the history of technology in independent India, the similar dilemmas that our leaders faced, the technology choices that they made and their consequences.

First off, kudos to the author for this enthralling idea for a book. Independent India’s tryst with technology has been an equally critical component of India’s development over the last seven decades, yet under-researched and under-published. This book fills the void, to some extent.

The book is erudite, scholarly yet eminently readable. The book’s standout feature is its writing with its crisp, punchy and vivid prose. The copious research by the author is packaged and presented through interesting stories, events and anecdotes, devoid of dense technology jargon.

The author draws an interesting parallel with the Huawei dilemma from the 1980s when India was caught in the crossfire of technology spats between two world powers then —the US and Japan. Japan was the rising power, threatening to unseat the US in technological dominance just when India’s technology savvy prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi wished to propel India into the world of computers and supercomputing. The book argues that India was forced to make geo-political compromises in its technology choices and had to settle for a lower grade supercomputer from the US rather than a better one from the Japanese, which had subsequent repercussions. Citing few other similar precedents, the author makes a case for minimal state and bureaucratic intervention in such technology choices and letting the market decide. The author draws strong counter-factual conclusions that is a history writer’s perennial curse. But a counter-factual can neither be proven nor verified. Often, policy choices on important matters can be a bit more complex and nuanced than the author makes it seem.

The other pet peeve of the author seems to be the idea of an “appropriate technology” for a nation which he beautifully illustrates with the story of India’s “solar cooker versus satellite” technological debate in the 1950s. In 1952, the shiny new public sector entity National Physical Laboratories (NPL) announced the invention of a solar cooker that would ostensibly free poor Indians from wood and cow dung stoves. The product was announced and demonstrated with great fanfare eliciting international attention from The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC and so on. Realisation dawned soon that the solar cooker would cost Rs 50, a princely sum in 1950s India and, more importantly, will not be ready to cook breakfast just after sunrise when most households needed it. The project was abandoned. The author extrapolates this to imply that the entire debate of appropriate technology for a nation is futile and castigates the role of government in technology choices. But the private sector is equally culpable of a wrong “appropriate technology” decision as the Tata Motors’ vaunted Nano car project showed. The author believes that appropriateness of technology is a fallacious idea and is scathing in his criticism of the then political leadership for settling for an “appropriate” technology rather than the latest technology.

The book is well structured and takes the reader chronologically through the important events and milestones in India’s political history of technology. The only distraction to this flow is the sudden “Ode” to three technocrats whom the author feels have made an indelible impact on India’s technological development, which seems like a needless outlier to the book’s deeper context and purpose.

The book sets up an excellent framework for rich debates and discussions that are extremely relevant today. It is undeniable that technologies such as internet, social media and smart phones’ impact on society are profound and complex.

Published on 10 February, 2020 in Business Standard