Monday, 7 November 2011

Gandhi & Computer


An interesting discussion took place the other day in a chat with friends. The topic was- would Mahatma Gandhi use the Internet and computer had he lived today. My simple reply was- Yes! Bapu would certainly use this new technology. I elaborated- Though he wrote against the railways in “Hind Swaraj”, he never hesitated in using it. When his mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale advised him to undertake a study tour of India, the Mahatma took the train to tour through the length and width of the country. Later, he also used this mode of transport extensively in his mission to educate and arouse the people of India to fight against the colonial rule. As a person with a simple life style Gandhi was making optimum use of his precious time, and at the same time was using the cheapest mode of travel.

Looking from this angle, I feel that he would not hesitate to use the computer. The person who was known to save a single pin and use the smallest slip of paper would rather feel happy to use this paperless technology. The time saved by using it might also have impressed him. Yet, I suspect he would have raised certain doubts about the computer as he did about the railways a century ago. Gandhi using cold logic would definitely want to know that for whom and to what extent the computer was necessary and useful. He would not be overawed by the fast pace of development taking place in the field of information technology. On the contrary, the foremost thought on his mind would be that how best this technology could serve the larger interest of the society.

We have recently observed the Gandhi birth anniversary. On this occasion, while using computer, Internet and cell phone, I ask myself if these gadgets have any substantial utility for the common people. I also think about the flip side of this new age technology. While watching a particular TV ad of a mobile phone service provider one might feel happy that a rickshaw puller, a tea-stall waiter, a kiosk attendant- all have become empowered by owing a cell phone. But the very next second the punch line of the ad comes as a hard slap on the face. The sentence in Hindi implies that the mobile phone is so cheap that every tom, dick and harry can now own one. Thus, while this ordinary daily wage earner is looked down with derision in social status, the profiteers have no compunction in manipulating him for acquiring a toy that might not have any real use for him. This is the bitter truth of life.

Besides the cell phone, false necessity is being created for similar gadgets through advertising and marketing tricks. But the matter is not limited to product promotion or sales. It goes beyond that. The way the new technology is tearing up the social fabric is a matter of grave concern. The I.T. has been so much glorified that no debate is taking place to discuss its negative aspects, neither in the public sphere, nor at the governmental level. Every now and then, some incident of abuse of new technology would come into light. More often than not, innocent teenagers would be involved in the incident. There would be some hue and cry for a few days, media would exploit it as juicy news to improve its rating, and than it would all be forgotten. There would be hardly any concern for the basic issue. This is something akin to ‘Art for Art’s sake’ philosophy. They appear to tell that technology should be autonomous of the society and social values.

It appears that the present day governments too subscribe to this view. In India the government has made a clear departure from the Nehru era concept of social applicability of science and technology. Let us try to recall what was the policy statement of the government when television was introduced in India some four decades ago. Similarly, what were the objectives behind launching Satellite Instructional Television Programme (SITE) by the ISRO in 1975, and what has been its fate? What we see today is that even the state owned TV, in its eagerness to earn more and more profits, has become a poor carbon copy of the privately held channels. This is an unfortunate development.

When in the mid-eighties Rajeev Gandhi invited techno-wizard Sam Pitroda to return home, the objective was clear- to take basic telephony to the remotest parts of the country.  Sam Pitroda did not fail the government. He developed a telephone exchange, which could give flawless service in the heat and dust of Indian villages. It was a unique achievement like the Amul Dairy of Dr. Kurien or the Konkan Railways of E. Sridharan. In all these cases these technocrats knew that they were rendering some very useful service to the society. From the rural telephone exchange we have advanced to half a dozen mobile phone service providers, and the communication setup of the country has been gradually handed over to the commercial interests. Now whatever claims may be made about the benefits accruing to the villages and the villagers, the main target is the urban populace.  The cell phone and its whole array of services has become a medium to massage its ego, fulfil its wild fantasies, and give a certain amount of sadistic pleasure.

Ditto with the computer. It is ultimately a costly technology, which can be used for the social good, but this is not happening. The much-proclaimed E-Governance remains still a pipe dream; whereas the E-Commerce and E-Chaupal (village square) run by corporate houses has become a reality in no time. The low-priced Simputer is still in the experimental stage, whereas the ever-increasing number of cyber cafes and cell phones is satisfying the lust of the urban and semi-urban people, mainly the young generation. All told, the I.T. has become the playground of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich- the filthy rich. A poor man may also join the league if prepared to bait his hard-earned money. Those who have devised this game will most likely not come the harm’s way. But the road ahead is fraught with danger for those who, driven by greed, are taking part in this game.

In this scenario we will do well to remember that this new technology arrived in India when traditional life style and value system were already on the verge of collapsing. The shrinking employment opportunities in the village, exodus to the cities, unplanned urbanisation, profit-orientation of education system, and breaking up of the joint family are some of the reasons that came in the way of imparting proper and so necessary guidance to the new generation. The generation gap has always been there, but these days we see total lack of communication between the two. If the young generation is attracted to these fancy toys, who is responsible for this, we must ask ourselves this question.

Written and translated by Lalit Surjan

Published in Akshar Parv October 2005 issue

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