Whether it is the IITs, the IT industry or even Google Glass - we should realize that we are exploited augmentees. The charity of Azim Premji and the like should no longer serve as a cover for this.
The aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis has seen the return of a group of IT/technology-driven professionals who ironically refer to themselves as the ‘liberal left’ and who, after a lifetime of technological exploitation, believe that digital capitalism can coexist with the causes of social responsibility.
These people, who have led their lives through a prism of systems and algorithms, where a logical set of commands leads to correct output, also believe that digital capitalism can succeed independent of the ruthless destruction that normal business demands.
IT and Internet companies can respect their employees, the environment and society—all while remaining transparent. Hasn’t Microsoft successfully fought for gay marriage in the state of Washington after all, they point out triumphantly. Can’t business also be about solving deeper problems of society, they ask.
So who are these so-called liberal left? They’re commonly found in what they believe to be countercultural, subversive movements that are now very much the ‘in thing’ in India. TEDx India, TiE, the fledgling venture capitalist/e-commerce scene and so on.
Solving without questioning
The problem with looking everything through a mainframe perspective, however, is that for them, India has no inequalities; only concrete problems that are waiting to be solved. Problems of starvation, of poor electricity, of religious fundamentalist violence and so on. Too often these problems are solved are by throwing technology at them. For these people, there is no point in engaging in technological exploitation or anti-imperialist rhetoric—instead, everyone should get together and work out the best way of solving the problem!
For India, however, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. The prophets of digital capitalism have their seeds in the IIT-IT syndrome that has for the last twenty years swept our middle class. To understand this, let’s take a short detour.
Question: What would be the quickest way to let people forget the colonization-imposed inequalities that are found in abundance in our society and at the same time have them continue to repose their faith the system? Answer: A lottery that involves years of hard work and pays off only for a select few—but at the same time offers a real chance at overcoming the inequalities people find themselves in.
Do we not see an example of this in summer blockbuster The Hunger Games? Where the life-threating, arduous journey of the Hunger Games lets the winners lead a life of luxury as opposed to the workaday squalor they earlier lived in? And aren’t our Indian Institute of Technology colleges a similar type of lottery – which allow us to paradoxically believe that inequalities can be overcome, only if one works hard enough? The corollary here is that if you don’t work hard enough to win the lottery, you don’t deserve the same luxuries that IIT graduates receive. The subsequent evolution from the IITs and NITs to the life of a rich IT engineer only substantiates the IIT-IT syndrome.
The miracle that the IITs and the IT industry are to India’s growth story, however, indirectly comes at the expense of marginalizing a great part of our population. IIT’s are our island of excellence, as my colleague Vasudha Venugopal (quoting a senior editor) put so succinctly in one column, “we must pamper them”!
Well..if we have one, isn't that enough?
The existence of IIT’s has allowed a great number of Government officials, academics and our general population to relax. As long as we have a few colleges in the global top 50, is that not enough? I would argue, crazy as it sounds, that a thousand great colleges are better for development than seven supreme ones. Of course I realize that both can co-exist, that the presence of IITs need not hamper the development of the rest. But it has so sharply ingrained the idea that if you do not work hard enough to get into the 99 per centile, then you deserve whatever lot that life throws at you.
At this point I can hear the forthcoming comments screeching angrily: “So what? So what if the IIT-IT syndrome exists, and that left liberals are looking to help society? Is that not a good thing?”
Ah, but here we come to the existence of technological exploitation that so cleverly hides beneath the mask of social entrepreneurship and humanitarianism that people like Azim Premji use. Corporate philanthropy has become the buzzword of today–sparked by Messrs Gates and Buffet—with several Indians jumping the bandwagon.
Premji, who is the founder of Wipro, signed the donation pledge to give away so much of his wealth, is an embodiment of technological exploitation. In order for him to help people and give away all his wealth—he must first take way, snatch, or in the words of the liberal left—create.
Much like the two faces of goddess Kali, which depict both beauty and ugliness, Premji on one hand destroys overseas businesses with his exploited army of cheap labour and on the other gives away his money to the poor. (You could argue that the labour would have no job otherwise, but what happens when they get sick of cheap wages and poor treatment—and demand more?)
The problem with this left-liberal sect is that they spend their whole lives working for companies like Microsoft or Facebook—that profit by establishing a virtual monopoly or earning money by selling private data—and then turn around and say: “What is the point in having technology when people in Somalia go without food?” The left liberals simultaneously give away with one hand what they grabbed with the other.
The IT industry in particular has become an important cog in the outsourcing of the ‘uglier side of production.’ Everybody wants cheap technology; but nobody wants to think about the cheap labour that is required to make it so. The recent Bangaldesh garment factory tragedy is a classic culmination of such exploitation. The iGate controversy is an example of technological exploitation at its finest, where employees are threatened with idea of being thrown back to India!
Technological exploitation is not often thought of this way, for the simple reason that technology has been spun in such a way that it has now acquired this magical ephemeral feel. This quality makes it blasphemous to even speak of exploitation and technology in the same sentence. But it exists nevertheless, and consumer technology is not immune to it either.
Take Google Glass for instance. While Glass is, of course, a logical extension of the ever-present smartphone screen, it also represents a crossing of a certain boundary. It can also be seen in a dialectic (Master-Slave)- sense.
Harnessing our eyes
Google has appointed the Glass Collective— a group of people who are starting to think about how profit-seeking investors can augment our gaze in a very intimate and profitable fashion. How exactly do our rights and responsibilities play out in a situation such as this?
Should we not seek to go beyond abstract mumbo-jumbo such as augmented reality—and speak in terms of enrichers( Google and other companies) and augmentees (us)?
When the technology industry talks about principles such as transparency – it always refers to augmentees and never the enrichers. They, along with the army of lobbyists and PR officials they command, reject any attempt to make the operations of enrichers more transparent. At the same time, Governments and industry alike demand that we should no longer remain anonymous on the Internet!
What then, does this imbalance of power mean when it is our own eyes that are now being tracked and fed with advertisements? Is our vision now a commodity that can be traded away? The collective that Google has appointed can be expected to think of their own interests and that of the augmentors. We on the other hand, refuse to acknowledge that we are augmentees!
As with other forms of technological exploitation, be it the IITs, the IT industry, the rules of the game will be set without us, unless we realize that collectively, we are exploited augmentees.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a Google Glass user, a poorly-paid IT employee, a student who just couldn’t get into IIT or NIT or even a taxpayer who is paying for the Aakash travesty. We must fight to ensure that the default options are not set without our input.