October 2, 2003

Some Thoughts on India, Democracy and the Internet

"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just as long as I'm the dictator."

--George W. Bush

US: Democracy in Retrograde
Uttering his affection for dictatorship so soon after his gangstering his way into office left little doubt as to Bush's sentiments regarding democracy versus aristocracy. Of course, he's only reflecting family tradition.

Bush talks the talk of democracy when he's trying to drum up support for his wars, but in his actions, he thwarts it, over and over. In his three years in office he has moved the country a great distance toward an autocratic form of government.

On the other hand, it is not mere coincidence that the dismal state of the economy under his father, which revived so spectacularly under Bill Clinton, returned when Bush II took office. There is a direct relationship between democracy and economic prosperity.

"When the opponents of democracy assert that a single man performs what he undertakes better than the government of all, it appears to me that they are right," said DeTocqueville in Democracy in America. "The government of an individual, supposing an equality of knowledge on either side, is more consistent, more persevering, more uniform and more accurate in details, than that of a multitude... Even when circumstances and the dispositions of the people allow democratic institutions to exist, they do not display a regular and methodical system of government. Democratic liberty is far from accomplishing all its projects with the skill of an adroit despotism.... Democracy does not give the people the most skillful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create; namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy with is inseparable from it, and which may, however unfavorable circumstances may be, produce wonders. These are the true advantages of democracy..."

"No sooner do you set foot on American ground than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a confused clamor is herd on every side; and a thousand simultaneous voices demand the satisfaction of their social wants. Everything is in motion around you..."

One of the most fascinating things to me about India, was seeing that same kind of democratic energy unleashed. The Indian democracy is highly imperfect, of course, surely even moreso than that of the U.S. where it is currently in retrograde under George W. Bush's attempt to establish despotism. But the idea of democracy is so powerful -- as expressed in the freedom of information and the freedom of enterprise -- that even if only realized by a small segment of this poor, third world country, it is enormously impressive.

The obvious comparison is China, the only country with greater population than India, but whose government is deeply authoritarian. In China, the Internet is suppressed, the media is censored and limited (with the humble cooperation of Ruppert Murdoch, who obligingly dropped the BBC from his cable broadcasts to China at the behest of the communist government. The fact is, autocratic governments can work, Murdoch said, revealing his true sentiments toward the freedom he pretends to champion).

China, with its harsh autocratic government, has opened to capitalism, but not to democracy. China has become somewhat of an economic miracle, but its success is in its emergence as the factory of the world. It is a haven for tyrannical multinational corporations whose greed demands cheap labor above all things. Those institutions are in perfect sympathy with an autocratic "communist" government. This kind of development has built-in limitations and China's economic miracle may soon level off.

India, on the other hand, is democratic in spirit, does not suppress information or the Internet the way China does. As a result you have a massive laboratory of experimentation with the new technologies and information. In contrast to being a massive factory, India has made its mark in technological innovation.

While Beijing is unnerved by the vibrance of democracy, in chaotic, omnidiverse India, the democratic spirit finds a congenial home. India is entering the developed world as what its intelligentsia calls "an emerging software superpower."

The Indian Century
India is a country of 1.3 billion people, one fifth of the world's population. Only China has more, with over 2 billion, but India's population is projected to surpass China's in 30 years.

India does not excel as a manufacturing country, and it has not done much in the crowded field of computer hardware, but it has made impressive contributions in terms of software development.

According to research I read in India, Indians now account for 60% of the startups in Silicon Valley. There are more Indians in U.S. research than any other nationals. This is subject to verification, but the impact of India on the tech world is clear enough when you pick up a phone and call AOL technical support, and find yourself talking to someone in India.

American high tech companies have taken to hiring Indians, not just because they are cheap labor, but because they are skilled. To work at a help desk you have to be knowledgeable and be able to think on your feet, to come up with solutions on the spot.

According to The Hindu, "The second center of innovation in the world after Silicon Valley is Bangalore/Hyderabad(sp)."

The India Institute of Technology is seen as one of the best technical institutes in the world, a feeder school for Silicon Valley tech companies. India also makes a strong mark in the American medical profession.

Microsoft has a research center in Mumbai. GE has a medical R&D lab in Bangalore. Also HAL, ISRO.

One advantage of large populations is that you have many people to engage in the trial and error laboratory of human development. If one out of a thousand people statistically comes up with a new invention that will benefit humankind at large, then larger populations may have a greater chance of hitting on good ideas because there are more people to try things. The communications that turn the world into a global village could theoretically maximize the advantages of large populations.

This may be a speculative long shot, but it's worth considering in context with some other things.

The Internet was only unleashed on the world a decade or so ago. Computer chip technology itself is still a relatively new element in human social evolution, and the possibilities of microprocessing have barely begun to be explored.

Unleashing the Internet in India has tremendous implications. It is not only freedom of information, which in itself is an enormous driver, but it is also the unleashing of microprocessing and Web technology in general, which are wide open to innovation.

And of course there is the bomb. The U.S. would not allow India to have any computer that could conduct more than 900 million operations a second, in order to hamper research that could lead to India's possession of nuclear weapons. So India just created its own.

So maybe there is something to this idea of The Indian Century.

Back to Home Page