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‘Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India’ review: Between technology and politics, the art of thinking big and small

‘Technology is both the problem and the solution. We wish for our kids to remain distant from the lure of technology — but should that happen, they will in many respects begin to move backwards in life. Therefore, we should always encourage our youth to understand technology. But how they use it makes all the difference — are new technologies making our youngsters robots or good human beings? In many cases, technology tends to narrow our minds, when it should be used to expand our horizons.’

As Arun Mohan Sukumar says in his book, that is Narendra Modi in 2019, sounding like Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s. At several other points too, Sukumar, attempting to chart modern India’s technological history on an oceanic scale, has to drop anchor close inshore.

Cautious enthusiasm

Sukumar starts by contrasting Madan Mohan Malaviya’s enthusiasm for technology with Nehru’s caution, but for Malaviya technology was the way to Hindu rule; for Nehru it had to serve all Indian citizens. Sukumar then divides the book into Ages, respectively of Innocence, Doubt, Struggle, and Rediscovery, like a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Noting that the term ‘technology’ has several senses, he criticises the solar cooker, the Community Development Scheme and the alternative technology movement, but is not messianic about the purported successes, like the civil nuclear programme. That took nearly 30 years to generate any electricity; the Tarapur and Rajasthan plants had lengthy shutdowns over radiation and other environmental hazards (the 2003 Environmental Impact Assessment for Kudankulam reactors 3 to 6 used baseline data for the distant Travancore coast, concluding that marine life there would not be affected). In 2017, 3.22% of India’s electricity came from 22 reactors.

Praise for computers

Sukumar apparently thinks powerful personalities can get through India’s bureaucracy, though he acknowledges problems.

M. Visvesvaraya was a substantial figure, but was grossly casteist; presumably any system he ran would be barred to Dalits. Vikram Sarabhai, adding a powerful intellect to inherited wealth, needed the state to advance the space programme.

The author’s greatest praise is for computers. He details India’s complex concerns about foreign exchange (without mentioning global oil-price shocks) and public servants’ anxieties about job losses, but argues that security concerns following the 9/11 attacks in the United States were decisive for India’s information technology turn; he does note that IT is used as much to spread ancient hatreds as to do anything else.

Sukumar writes accessibly and recognises central political motivations — like Indira Gandhi’s science plans, and the reasons for India’s Antarctic bases — but he makes many unsourced pronouncements; comments that Politician X or Y could not have been unaware of Issue Z are also unsourced.

Survey findings are taken at face value without mention of sample design, and documented episodes of technocrats concealing major problems do not figure.

Significant lacunae

Among other issues, the author does not ask what problem the Aadhaar card was meant to solve. He repeatedly castigates Indian bureaucracy, and calls U.S. federal regulations ‘onerous’, but he seems unaware that in the U.S. addictive opioid painkillers gained licences, or that the relation between the Federal Aviation Administration and passenger aircraft manufacturers is often problematic. His admiration for India as ‘the world’s pharmacy’ also neglects the fact that global bodies have criticised the substandard quality of certain Indian medicines they buy.

For some reason, Sukumar does not mention the global North’s DIY revolution, which generates continuing improvements in the tools and machines householders use for often substantial work on their own dwellings.

Nehru stunned engineers by asking if they had told the workers on a huge project why they were there. Today’s highups might well refrain from telling Indian labourers that they can read safety laws on their phones.

Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India ; Arun Mohan Sukumar, Penguin Random House India, ₹599.

The reviewer teaches at IIT Madras.

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Printable version | May 25, 2022 11:13:47 pm |