The tech tree

The de­vel­op­ment of tech­nol­ogy and its re­la­tions with so­ci­ety and cul­ture hold con­tem­po­rary lessons for In­dia

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - DI­NESH C SHARMA | SINGAPORE @di­neshc­sharma

It holds valu­able lessons for con­tem­po­rary In­dia

IF SOME­ONE asked you to guess the year in which fax ma­chine was in­vented, you would prob­a­bly say some­time in 1950s or 1960s. One can ex­pect a sim­i­lar an­swer if the ques­tion is re­lated to the first In­dian who went to the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy ( mit) for tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion. In both the cases, the an­swer would be off the mark by over a cen­tury. The first patent for the fax ma­chine was filed in 1843, while the first In­dian went to the mit in 1882. If the idea of a fax ma­chine has been around for 150 years, why did it take such a long time to suc­ceed?

Such ques­tions in­spire the his­to­ri­ans of tech­nol­ogy. His­tory is re­plete with facts and nuggets, which when put to­gether make for a big­ger fa­ci­nat­ing pic­ture. How a tech­nol­ogy is as­sim­i­lated, adopted and dis­sem­i­nated, or how tech­no­log­i­cal skills are ac­quired de­pends on a com­plex in­ter­play of mul­ti­ple fac­tors—ideas, in­no­va­tion, eco­nom­ics, cul­ture, reg­u­la­tion, lead­er­ship and pol­i­tics. In the case of the fax ma­chine, it was eco­nom­ics and reg­u­la­tion, said Jonathan Coop­er­smith, au­thor of Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Ma­chine.

Coop­er­smith was among sev­eral pro­fes­sional and am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans of tech­nol­ogy who gath­ered in Singapore from June 22 to 26 for the an­nual meet­ing of the US-based So­ci­ety for the His­tory of Tech­nol­ogy ( shot), held for the first time in Asia. The sub­jects dis­cussed at the meet­ing were di­verse—from aero­space to re­pro­duc­tion tech­nolo­gies. To­day, in­nu­mer­able tech­nolo­gies or prod­ucts have ei­ther be­come ob­so­lete—ra­dio pagers and cas­sette recorders—or, have be­come an in­sep­a­ra­ble part of daily life—com­put­ers and mo­bile phones. But their his­tory and evo­lu­tion con­tinue to en­gage re­searchers and spur our cu­rios­ity.

For in­stance, the his­tory of some­thing as ubiq­ui­tous as elec­tric-

ity could hold lessons for mod­ern In­dia, where mil­lions still live in dark­ness. Though elec­tric power boosted in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion in early 20th cen­tury, eco­nomic his­to­ri­ans have not paid much at­ten­tion to his­tory of elec­tric­ity tech­nol­ogy. “The Bri­tish used elec­tric­ity more for ad­min­is­tra­tive and mil­i­tary pur­poses than for man­u­fac­tur­ing, till the In­dian In­dus­trial Com­mis­sion (1916–18) em­pha­sised its use as an eco­nomic in­stru­ment,” pointed out Su­vo­brata Sarkar of the Univer­sity of Bur­d­wan, West Ben­gal. Elec­tric­ity—a nov­elty in late 19th cen­tury Cal­cutta—spurred the de­vel­op­ment of lo­cal in­dus­try like Ben­gal Lamps and teach­ing of elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing.

Ramesh Subra­ma­nian, a fel­low at the In­for­ma­tion So­ci­ety Project of the Yale Law School, traced the be­gin­ning of cy­ber se­cu­rity in In­dia to the en­act­ment of the In­dian Tele­graph Act of 1885, which em­pow­ered the State to in­ter­cept mes­sages. “We need to ex­am­ine telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in In­dia dur­ing the colo­nial pe­riod, its role in the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus of the Bri­tish, and its re­fine­ment by the In­dian gov­ern­ment af­ter In­de­pen­dence,” he added.

Apara­jith Ram­nath of the In­dian In­sti­tute of Man­age­ment, Kozhikode, ex­plained the rea­sons be­hind the dis­pro­por­tion­ate em­pha­sis on elite en­gi­neer­ing ed­u­ca­tion as op­posed to vo­ca­tional and tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion. “Key de­vel­op­ments af­ter the for­ma­tion of the Na­tional Plan­ning Com­mit­tee in 1938 shaped the think­ing on tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion, not only by na­tion­al­ist politi­cians, but also by the Bri­tish. Gov­ern­ments in free In­dia cre­ated a prag­matic amal­gam out of these el­e­ments, and thus emerged a di­choto­mous sys­tem of tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion with dis­tinct elite and non-elite strands,” ex­plained Ram­nath.

Wil­liam Lo­gan of Auburn Univer­sity, usa, used the con­struc­tion of Saraighat bridge—the first per­ma­nent cross­ing over the Brahma­pu­tra—as a case study to ex­plore how the In­dian gov­ern­ment at­tempted to in­di­genise for­eign in­dus­trial tech­nolo­gies af­ter In­de­pen­dence. The dou­ble-decked bridge was con­structed in less than four years— from Jan­uary 1959 to Oc­to­ber 1962—by two pri­vate firms. “Built with In­dian ma­te­ri­als, tech­nol­ogy and skills, the Saraighat bridge is an ex­am­ple of the suc­cess of In­dian gov­ern­ment’s pro­gramme of at­tain­ing tech­no­log­i­cal au­tarky in the field of bridge con­struc­tion,” says Lo­gan.

Speak­ing about the chal­lenges, shot pres­i­dent, Francesca Bray, says, “As his­to­ri­ans of tech­nol­ogy, we at­tempt to re­cover the tech­no­log­i­cal land­scapes and tech­no­log­i­cal cul­tures of the past. In or­der to make sense of a so­ci­ety’s char­ac­ter­is­tic ideas about the forces mo­bilised by tech­no­log­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties of var­i­ous kinds, we need to work re­flex­ively and sym­met­ri­cally, trans­lat­ing the past into terms in­tel­li­gi­ble in the present while in­ter­ro­gat­ing the present in the light of the past.”


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