Mahatma Gandhi on Technology
“M.K. Gandhi, as the photograph itself demonstrates, was a passionate opponent of modernity and technology, preferring the pencil to the typewriter, the loincloth to the business suit, the plowed field to the belching manufactory. Had the word processor been invented in his lifetime, he would almost certainly have found it abhorrent. The very term word processor, with its overly technological ring, is unlikely to have found favor.”
Thus Salman Rushdie in his profile of Gandhi for the Time magazine in 1998. It’s a short profile, and in it Rushdie draws our attention to the complex personality of Gandhi, the paradoxes and the nuances that usually get lost in the simple, modern narratives about the man. Of course, the one complexity that Rusdhie doesn’t refer to is Gandhi’s view on technology.
It’s true that Gandhi said a lot against technology, but he had his reasons. He was against the de-humanising aspect of machinery. Louis Fischer wrote that a meeting with Gandhi probably influenced Charlie Chaplin to make Modern Times, a film on that theme. Gandhi was also worried about the inequality that mechanization could create. “I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of few, but in hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions,” he once wrote.
But, he was for machines that could reach the masses, and make their lives better. He called Singer sewing machine the best invention ever made. He was constantly looking for ways to make Chakra even better. Rusdhie might disagree, but Gandhi’s vision for a better spinning wheel could well have struck a cord in Steve Jobs’ heart. In fact, in 1929, he announced a Machine Contest with a prize money of Rs 1 lakh. The list of criteria makes for a fascinating read.
1. Charkha must be light-weighted, easy to move, and it should be in such a way so as to be operated using either hand or one’s leg – in a natural way in the rural cottages of India.
2. Charkha must be in such a way that a lady shall be able to work with it for 8 hours at a stretch without great effort put in.
3. Either Charkhas must have a build to accommodate the use of a puni (used to make handspun cloth)or along with the charkha there must be a way to handspun cloth.
4. On working with the charkha for 8 hours at a continuous stretch – it should result in 12 to 20 numbers of 16000 feet (1 gaj?) yarn.
5. The machine should be so designed such that it costs no more than Rs. 150 in producing it in India only.
6. The machine should be strong and well-made and with time-to-time servicing it should be capable of running for at least 20 years without any stopping. Servicing of the machine should not cost much and every year not more than 5% of the cost of the machine that year shall be needed for servicing.
Rushdie’s comments on computers also tells something about how things have changed in the last 14 years. There was internet, of course. I first read Rusdhie’s piece on Gandhi online. But, the devices have changed so much. The RAM in the notebook that I am typing this post on is eight times bigger than the entire hard disk capacity of the desktop in which I read Rushdie’s piece. Things were not as user friendly as it is now, and computers, especially as a percentage of per capita GDP, were costly.
But, even in 1998, we had come a long way from the time IBM’s Thomas Watson said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” By the time Rushdie wrote the piece, computer was already a mass product, like a Singer machine or a spinning wheel. Gandhi wouldn’t have found it abhorrent. He would have pushed to make it even cheaper, simpler and functional for a common man. In fact, a few years after the piece appeared, a company from Bangalore tried making a computer that was simple, cheap and functional. It was called Simputer. New York Times called it: “This is computing as it would have looked if Gandhi had invented it.”
Microsoft’s visa proposal
Microsoft’s proposal to US government – to introduce additional 20,000 H1B visas at a higher cost and to use the fee on building local talent in science, technology, engineering and maths – highlights a strange situation in the US. It’s facing a high unemployment rate, and yet, some sectors face labor shortage.
One explanation is in the first chapter in Raghuram Rajan’s Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy. Here are a few relevant passages:
As agriculture gave way to manufacturing in the mid-1800s, the elementary school movement in the United States created the most highly educated population in the world. As factory work became more sophisticated, and as demand grew for office workers to handle myriad activities in the emerging large, multidivision firms, the demand for workers with high school training increased. The high school movement took off in the early part of the twentieth century and provided the flexible, trained workers who would staff America’s factories and offices. In 1910, fewer than one-tenth of U.S. workers had a high school diploma; in the 1970s more than three-quarters did.
But, over the next few decades, the system didn’t really keep pace with the changing demand.
Between 1930 and 1980, the average years of schooling among Americans age 30 or older increased by about one year every decade. Americans in 1980 had 4.7 years more schooling on average than Americans in 1930. But between 1980 and 2005, the pace of increase in educational attainments was truly glacial—only 0.8 years over the entire quarter century.
The result – people with better skills, with college education, got better pay. Inequality rose, and the government, instead of choosing the difficult option of providing better access to education, took the easy route.
Growing income inequality in the United States stemming from unequal access to quality education led to political pressure for more housing credit. This pressure created a serious fault line that distorted lending in the financial sector. Broadening access to housing loans and home ownership was an easy, popular, and quick way to address perceptions of inequality.
Increasingly, there is a realization that something needs to be fixed. Which is why you find IT companies making a lot of noise about working with American universities, offering scholarships etc. Microsoft’s proposal is here (pdf).