Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sand to Silicon, Internet Edition-7



“The process of technological developments is like building a cathedral. “Over the course of several hundred years: people come along, lay down a block on top of the old foundations, saying, ‘I built a cathedral.’ Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then a historian asks, ‘Who built the cathedral?’ Peter added some stones here and Paul added a few more. You can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part, but the reality is that each contribution has to follow on to previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.
Too often history tends to be lazy and give credit to the planner and the funder of the cathedral. No single person can do it all, or ever does it all.”

—PAUL BARAN, inventor of packet switching

Baran’s wise words sum up the pitfalls in telling the story of technology. Individual genius plays a role but giving it a larger-than-life image robs it of historical perspective.

In India, there was a tradition of collective intellectual work. Take, for instance, the Upanishads,† or the Rig Veda;‡ no single person has claimed authorship of these works, much less the intellectual property rights. Most ancient literature is classified as smriti (memory, or, in this case, collective memory) or shruti (heard from others). Even Vyasa, the legendary author of the Mahabharat, claimed that he was only a raconteur. Indeed, it is a tradition in which an individual rarely claims “to have built the cathedral”.

When I started researching this book, the success of Indian entrepreneurs in information technology was a well-known fact. As a journalist, I had met many of them, but I was curious to know which of them had contributed significantly to technological breakthroughs. While tracing the story of IT, I have also cited the work of several Indian technologists without laying any claim to completeness.

Nobody doubts the intellectual potential or economic potential of a billion Indians. However, to convert this potential into reality we need enabling mechanisms. The most important contribution of IT is the network. The network cuts across class, caste, creed, race, gender, nationality and all other sectarian barriers. The network, like all other collectives, creates new opportunities for collaboration, competition, commerce, cogitation and communication. It can inspire the collective Indian genius.

The hunger for opportunity, for knowledge, for change, is all there. I have seen it in the cities and villages of India. The political, intellectual and business elite of this country should break the barriers of the current networks of millions and build a network of a billion.

This is the call of the times: Hic rhodus, hic salta – Here is the rose, now dance!

†Ancient Hindu philosophical texts that summarise the philosophy of the Vedas.
‡Considered the oldest Hindu scripture, carried forward for centuries through oral tradition.

The Author: Shivanand Kanavi can be contacted at