Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Technology and us.

A few days back, my friends and the car driver had a discussion about smartphones. Friend 1 had just bought a new handset and it turned out to be the same company as the driver was using.  Friend 2 was looking to buy a new one.
There was soon an animated discussion where friends 1 and 2 asked him about specs, camera quality etc and he complied with answers, resulting in friend 2 leaning towards this model by the end of it.

Now on the whole, there is nothing remarkable about this entire exchange. But if you've known the India I grew up in and the people in it, you’d see why I was pleasantly surprised. In a society obsessed with class, there was a time, not so far back, when the driver using the same brand as you would have been enough to make  many of us discard the brand altogether.
That India still exists, but is also fast changing, thanks, I think, to technology.
Technology, of course, has been around forever in various forms. Right now however, I am talking about the kind of consumer facing new tech that is sweeping the world and often starts cries of “all is lost” among dissenters.
Take Google and Facebook, for instance. A few weeks back, my cousin wondered aloud how we could get any assignment done without Google’s help.  I laughed, but wondered with her. Pre-Google school assignments meant many visits to the library, much photocopying and a whole lot of exchanging of hand written notes.
But I think I can honestly say today that neither all of the trips to the library nor all those photocopies necessarily resulted in better assignments.  I know of enough people who did exactly the same with  library books and notes that their younger kinds do with online searches—copy blindly and not retain much at all. There have definitely been some assignments where I've blindly lifted from friends, having no interest in those subjects at all.  That no one ever caught us says a lot about our evaluators, but that is another topic for another day.
So is it necessary or even valid that older generations (older is a relative term here. My generation is what they call "millenials", but I am pretty sure we look ancient to my young cousin) beat down Google-ers, just because they are lucky to have been born in a world that allows easy access?
Look at Facebook and Twitter. By now, we all know what the cons of an open ended internet, where people have minimum responsibility, are.  Dangers range from serious issues like the Reddit influenced Boston bombing fallout to the much less serious, but still worrying picture floated anonymously that wrongly blamed Arnab Goswami of speeding on the Bandra-Worli sealink. Mind you, that picture has only been a “less serious” issue because Goswami either did not know, or decided to let it slide. There could have been charges of defamation in the least.
And of course, there are  numerous status updates and  opinions from those who do not have, neither should be allowed opinions.
But then, there are also instances of authorities being able to nab criminals and save people in trouble, thanks to Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. They are being used by everyone starting from Sushma Swaraj to help Indians in Yemen to my house help to let me know if she’s sick and out.
You can always argue and ask: so did the Ministry of External Affairs or house helps not work before FB and Twitter came around?  Sure did, but this has made the process far more easy and in my didi’s case, a lot cheaper.  To challenge that, to my mind is like saying, so did no one write before computers came around? Sure did, and most great works of literature are from pre-ballpoint pen days, but would that mean we all stick with parchments and quills forever?
How would that help anyone?
In India, cheap internet access has turned the world upside down, flattening out a whole bunch of pointless hierarchies and even elevating our stature in the tech world of today.
For long, India was only known as the backwater of technology, where thousands of engineers would work in IT Service firms to give global companies back end support. Today, India can boast of a company  that  ranks among the top 9 valuable startups all over the world, competing with Silicon Valley peers. A mobile based dining app has gone ahead and bought a US based rival,  others are helping people do a hundred different things—right from hunting for houses to looking for doctors to calling cabs – much more smoothly than people ever imagined. Not to mention the thousands of jobs the industry has created as it grows.
Oh and you think these are all superfluous changes that have no big impact on society?
I’ll disagree, with examples I see around me and first hand experiences.  A cab calling app has been able to break the much feared auto-wallah nexus in Bangalore, something authorities have not been able to for years.
 These days, they do not charge “one and half times” for no reason, because they know if they do that, the customer will simply call an auto through the app. I tried the local fish market when I had just moved to Mumbai—after fighting the stench and haggling with a dangerously irate seller, I came home with only passable quality fish. I have bought it online ever since, with zero complaints except for once, when the company happily took the delivery back and refunded me. 
 People in my quaint hometown have access to the same stuff—clothes, gadgets, books and home equipment that I, in Mumbai, do.  The security man at my office shops at the same online grocer that my boss does.
Because technology is becoming equally accessible, the girl who works at a friend’s house thinks nothing of using her employer’s charger for her phone.  If as employers we are not at home with this, the joke is on us.  
Yes, I know this should not be a problem in any educated household. But look inside middle class homes in India and their prejudices  and you will know why I mention this attitudinal shift.
These are little, and largely cosmetic changes, for sure.  But is that not better than no change at all?  We all talk about developed countries where “everyone, right from the cabbie to the bossman have iPhones”, and say that with respect, as an example of the inherent equality in their society.

Economically, India is still not at a place where everyone can afford iPhones (using iPhone as an example, not as a basic parameter of progress)  but why not start with a more affordable cousin? 
Like a leading Indian phone company says, “technology does not discriminate”. And neither should we.

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..