Digital Delusions

Gaurab Raj Upadhaya writes in Himal (August issue) on the irrelevance of digital technology in its current corporate form for the mass market. [Thanks to Mohan Narendran for the link.]

Gaurab echoes a lot of what we have been thinking and doing as part of Emergic. His three-pronged approach focuses on reused hardware, open-source software and content in local language. An excerpt (it is long, but definitely worth reading):

What is required is the judicious application of digital technology, without any emphasis on its communication aspect. The routine computing process, using minimal hardware and relevant software, is more than adequate for the present. Hardware, for all its industry-driven problems, does not present obstacles in the way of minimising investment costs. In fact, the advantages of minimal depreciation and high obsolescence can be used to the advantage of poor societies. Upgradation of hardware creates wasted capacity in the form of computing equipment that is phased out of networked organisations. These machines are obsolete only because they are connected and not because their inherent utility has been made redundant. As independent machines, reoriented to appropriate ends, they constitute cost-effective and durable resources. Given the steady flow of such equipment that is made available by constant obsolescence, there is little point in developing countries investing in cutting-edge hardware. So long as connectivity is not an issue, reusing discarded equipment is a feasible option. The first step towards the appropriate use of future-proof digital technology is, therefore, to exit from the connectivity loop.

This option also dispenses with the need for incurring huge expenditures in research and development that are necessitated by the search for indigenously developed, specialised hardware resources, which in any case might lead nowhere.

The main constraint to the extended use of information technology in the developing world is therefore appropriate software. This is the key area of concern since no second-hand solutions are available. Developing software is particularly difficult. The irony of South Asia is that it provides software professionals at all levels to the global industry, but does not have a single major application in any of the local languages, let alone a programme geared for local needs. If development funds for ICT are to be invested anywhere, it is in software creation and let the donor agencies hear this loud and clear.

This involves two related issues, namely the principles of using programming code and investment in training, research and development. The only way towards the creation of less expensive software technologies that are not based on the assumptions of the networked world is to participate in the arena of non-proprietary code. Globally, programming runs on two different principles. There is the proprietary system generally adopted by large corporates, wherein the original code of the programme is not available in the public domain. Against this, there is the principle of open-source development, according to which, whoever develops a programme releases its code in the public domain, for use in whatever form by other software developers.

Open-source is about the free development of software that is based on design ideas that have been collaboratively developed. This considerably reduces the time and effort spent in developing programmes and is the key to generating locally adapted solutions. All this makes for a great deal of flexibility in creating software options, including the incorporation of local language computing into the system, which otherwise is difficult to do.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.