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TECH TALK: Good Books: Knowledge and Rural India

January 16th, 2004 · No Comments

As Atanu Dey and I wrote in a paper: Poverty can be considered to be the result of two gaps: one, the ideas gap, and the other, the objects gap. Poor people have less material goods at their disposal as compared to rich people. Hence the objects gap. The ideas gap arises from the inability of poor people to most effectively and efficiently use the limited material resources they have. For any level of objects gap, an ideas gap amplifies the problem. Knowledge goods, efficiently produced and distributed by ICT, can bridge the ideas gap. It is this context in which it is useful to understand the creation of appropriate technology and their diffusion to bring about an economic transformation of rural India. What can the history of the developed world teach us?

Joel Mokyr writes in The Gifts of Athena:

The rise of Western technology in the past three centuries suggests [that] knowledge has to flow from those who know things to those who make things. There are many forms these flows can take, from the lecturers, philosophical societies, and encyclopedias of the eighteenth century to the community colleges and internet of the twenty-first. But the institutions that facilitate these flows have to exist.

For better or for worse, the history of the growth of useful knowledge is the history of an elite: the number of people who augmented the sets of prepositional and prescriptive knowledge is small, even if we take into account the majority of experimenters, philosophers, would-be inventors, and thoughtful mechanics whom history has not recorded because they contributed small sentences to the book of knowledge. The bulk of productivity gains come from the small incremental technicians and mechanics who find a way to tweak the instructions on the margin to make things work just a little better.

The roots of twentieth-century prosperity were in the industrial revolutions of the nineteenth, but those were precipitated by the intellectual changes of the Enlightenment that preceded them. To create a world in which useful knowledge was indeed used with an aggressiveness and a single mindedness that no other society had experienced before was this unique Western way that created the modern material world.

Adds figvine in a review on Amazon about the book:

Apparently some economists believe that the Industrial Revolution must have been driven primarily by economic forces (new means of capitalization and rising demand) rather than by the availability of science, because of the multi-century lag from Kepler and Newton to the economic blastoff. But Mokyr argues that there was a necessary intermediate stage, the “Industrial Enlightenment”, which structurally altered the relationship between “what-is” and “how-to” forms of knowledge, as well as making both forms radically more accessible to artisans, entrepreneurs, and the general public.

If urban India has to grow, it needs to take rural India with it. For the growth of rural India, it is necessary to create a mechanism to diffuse knowledge and innovations to create the enlightenment that will necessarily have to precede development. This is where we need to combine ideas from economics and innovations in technology to create a knowledge-driven platform for bridging the ideas divide first and then the income and object divides in rural India.


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