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Technology and Tolerance: Tools to Treasure

July 15, 2009

Many assert that we live in an age of technology. Undoubtedly, technology is a major driver of economies around the world, and is having an increasingly bigger impact in the socio-cultural sphere. Yet, this – by itself – is not new; after all, the economic importance of technology has been seen from the days primitive humans devised better weapons for hunting, and its socio-cultural role – through settlements resulting from agriculture, for example – has been important for centuries. What is different today is the speed at which technology is changing and progressing. It is the rate of change in technologies and the rapidity of its spread that is radically different from earlier eras.

We have seen in India the pace at which cable and satellite TV spread across all parts of the country and penetrated deeply into the socio-economic pyramid, as contrasted with the leisurely pace of conventional TV. Even more striking is the phenomenal story of mobile telephony, already – in just over a decade – the device owned by more Indians that any other. The ubiquity of information and communication technologies, and continuing innovations in their applications, is bringing about radical shifts in mind-sets as much as in economics. For example, connectivity has annihilated the concept of “remote”: today, with mobiles and Internet linkages, the very definition of isolation has changed. With allowable exaggeration, one could say that geography is history, heralding the death of distance.

In a changing environment, organisms that do not evolve and adapt may not survive. This is as true of social structures as it is of biological entities: organization and countries that do not adapt to the new environment of rapid technological change are likely to be endangered. What is required is not just a coping mechanism to weather on-going change, but pro-active measures that enable one to take advantage of the situation.

For a number of reasons, India is well-positioned to capitalize on this scenario, which requires the ability to adapt to change and a strong technological base. The first is potentially helped by demographics: the high proportion of young people in our population – for some decades to come – is a great advantage, given that the young are far more amenable to change. The second (the technology base) has been built over the last six decades and though it does need far more attention and resources, it is already of a magnitude to potentially be an initiator – and not just adapter – of new technologies.

India’s space and nuclear technology progammes – despite years of embargoes by the West – exemplify the country’s strong technological base. In recent years, this has been supplemented by growing capability in fields like information technology, bio-technology and automobile design. These provide a good foundation for understanding, predicting and handling the changes that result from technological advances. However, if we are to go beyond this and be an active participant in shaping change, there is need for a major thrust in S&T, through massive investments in R&D, science and engineering education and in mechanisms to encourage private investment and promote industry-academia-R&D interaction.

The superstructure, to stretch the metaphor, depends not only on the foundation, but also on the soil or the ambience within which it is embedded. In an era of fast – and, often, revolutionary – technological change, to be a leader requires that one has to think differently, to go beyond imitation or incremental change. Economic and strategic power will increasingly go to those who innovate, who create the break-through technologies. The days of seeking economic advantage by efficiently productizing technology developed by others, are numbered because of the speed with which technologies become obsolete, as also the increasingly restrictive regimes, which often deny access to new technologies. Radical breakthroughs, on a sustainable and on-going basis, happen mainly when the socio-cultural milieu encourages divergent – even subversive – thinking.

A quick solution to India’s colossal problems of poverty, illiteracy, health-care, social justice and economic equity, depends on its ability to devise and use new and innovative tools. Some of these will be technological, will others will be societal, organizational and fiscal. Such solutions – with the speed and scale warranted by the magnitude of the problems – will necessarily be radical deviations from the present, requiring many alternatives to be tried and an even larger number thought about. We need, therefore, to catalyse an explosion of radically new ideas. Such a flowering of creativity, in a number of different areas, can take place only in an ambience where divergent thinking is encouraged. The future of India depends upon this.

India, with its immense diversity in every sphere, and a vibrant democracy, is well placed to foster such creativity. Yet in recent times, we have seen attempts to stifle such openness. Recent incidents in Mumbai, Mangalore and elsewhere, have brought to the fore groups that seem determined to stamp out diversity. The issue is not just about “outsiders” or of women’s rights. The larger issue is that of diversity, of tolerance and a respect for the rights and freedom of others. While fringe groups have a right to their view, they must not be allowed to impose this on others through force or even threat, coercion and fear. It is the duty of the State to permit all citizens to live a life style of their choice and certainly to have and propagate any ideas, howsoever radical these may be, as long as they are within the bounds of the existing laws. Permitting lumpen groups, of whatever persuasion, to enforce their own version of laws and morality is a dereliction of duty by the State.
In an evolving society, many ideas and behaviours are manifest. We need, in our own collective interest, to permit all streams of ideas, however diverse or deviant, and not seek to stifle them or impose pre-determined ones. Such diversity, and the freedom to espouse it, is necessary for organizations, and also for a technologically and economically resurgent India; it also embodies the very idea of India.

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