The future is already here in India – for some people

Mon, Jan 13, 2014, 01:00

It was the great science fiction writer William Gibson who famously said, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The line concisely articulates the unequal nature of technological progress and how new advances spread among users and across the globe – a broadly top-down pattern, with the affluent west enjoying the fruits of the “future” first.

I’ve had cause to think of Gibson’s phrase frequently in recent weeks as I’ve been travelling around India, one of the burgeoning economic powerhouses of the 21st century, of course, and a country that occupies an interesting place in the globalised technological economy.

Where China is the tech world’s undisputed manufacturing powerhouse, India’s role is largely seen as being on the software side of the equation, with Bangalore in the role of a subcontinental Silicon Valley.

Certainly, it’s true that the tech hub is currently dominated by support centres, notoriously low on the value chain, but the level of indigenous activity there is truly impressive and growing fast.

In the larger population, technological adoption in India is obviously related to its booming economy – even if growth slowed to a “mere” 5 per cent last year, the lowest in a decade.

Smartphones are in common usage in the cities and large towns, and ads for the latest devices are ubiquitous. If you didn’t know much about the sport, you would swear that televised cricket was a filler between repeated ads for Samsung Galaxies and HTC.

And that pair are only the most visible. The plethora of cheap handsets from China constitutes the really transformative opportunity.

Growing market
Chinese handset maker Gionee recently declared that it aims to take 10 per cent of the Indian smartphone market in the next three years, by which time it expects 80 per cent of phones sold in India to be smartphones. And there’s a lot of room to grow. The current number of smartphone users in the country is relatively low at nearly 100 million, but year-on-year growth is about 50 per cent.

That room for growth is dependent on mobile broadband adoption, an area where India is lagging, but 3G licences were awarded only in late 2010.

Mobile broadband growth will rely on the rising power of the mobile operators, such as Vodafone, Idea and Airtel, evident in their omnipresent logos, emblazoned on brick walls and shop fronts everywhere from the backwater canals of Kerala to the clamorous bazaars of Delhi.

All the Vodafone and Samsung Galaxy ads are misleading in a key respect, however, the technology that is really in widespread use, and really caught my eye, is of a much older vintage.

In every town and city, you will see dozens of handpainted signs on cracking plaster and aged wood, with the same nine letters in varying quaint typefaces: “STD ISD PCO”. They are acronyms from a different era, standing for “subscriber trunk dialling, international subscriber dialling, public call office”.

These are basically manned phone booths often integrated into small shops, still a very visible feature of the Indian streetscape, providing a vital service for huge numbers of people.

That speaks to an important reality in a country as large as India: even with between 800 and 900 million mobile phone subscribers and about as many landlines, in a country of 1.27 billion people, that still leaves lots and lots of people without phones.

The same phenomenon extends to other services that in the developed world are being rendered obsolete by smartphones and tablets.

To walk around Mumbai or Jodhpur, say, you would swear that Xerox is one of the world’s leading technology companies, such is the ubiquity of its brand name and the number of outlets providing access to its photocopying machines.

It turns out that Indians frequently face the need to print and copy documents. The country’s notorious bureaucracy, with its insatiable appetite for paper, is often cited as the reason.

While Xerox itself is becoming an irrelevance, and the likes of Hewlett Packard face dwindling demand for its printers, in India an entire “photostat” industry thrives by putting ink on paper.

These are just some of the technologies some of us may consider obsolete that are still an integral part of daily life in India. From sewing machines to pestles and mortars, countless products that most of us haven’t seen in years are used by most everybody here.

The point of these observations isn’t to make the painfully obvious point that a developing country is “behind the times”, but rather to illustrate how limited and western-centric our view of technological progress often is. Above all, it illustrates how global inequalities shape the course of technology.

It calls to mind some observations by another science fiction great, Isaac Asimov, who in 1964 wrote an essay in the New York Times speculating on how technology will affect our lives in half a century – in other words, 2014.

Asimov was remarkably prescient about things such as self-driving cars and built-in wall displays, but it’s his observation on how technological adoption is inextricably linked to inequality that resonates. “Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full,” he wrote. “A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.”

It’s a sobering thought, and highlights the often under-appreciated aspect of Gibson’s formulation: the day when the future will be “evenly distributed” is forever out of reach.

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