India’s Troubled Tryst with Technology: A Review of Arun Sukumar’s Midnight’s Machines

Shantanu Kishwar
Aug 2, 2020 · 6 min read

The Indian state has had an uneasy relationship with technology throughout history. What can the past tell us about the future?

We’re on the precipice of a brave new world. Technology advances rapidly, society adopts it in a frenzied manner, and governments struggle to keep pace with changes. In places like the USA, tech companies become behemoths that the state tries to reign in, while in China the state conspires with tech companies to stamp the Dragon’s footprint further across the globe. India seems to be caught in an odd mix of a free-market led by big-tech on one hand and heavy state guidance on the other. While private innovation in technology is slowly coming into its own, yet the government seems caught between enthusiastic encouragement and cumbersome over-regulation. The decisions India makes in the near future on issues like 5G rollouts and human genome mapping will be crucial, and will require a healthy relationship between private enterprise and the state.

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Cover design by Shantanu Salgaonkar, 2019.

The past may offer clues for what lies ahead. In this vein, Arun Sukumar’s 2019 book, Midnight’s Machines, makes for useful reading. Through a mix of archival and scholarly research, Sukumar documents India’s sluggish journey in the decades since independence towards technological modernisation. Through case studies and incisive commentary, he brings to light a host of new characters, events and phenomena that played pivotal, if little-remembered, roles in shaping the country’s engagement with technology. Developments are squarely placed within a perpetually turbulent domestic and international context. The result of his study is a welcome addition to literature on India’s history, but with great value for how we envision its future as well.

A slow start

Free India in 1947 faced a dilemma: should it attempt rapid technological modernisation as in Meiji Japan and the West to facilitate wealth creation and material development, or adopt a Gandhian approach that limited everyday interaction with technology to prevent “corrupting” the souls of the masses?

Nehru’s political leadership was decisive. Though conventionally seen as the forefather of technological modernisation, Sukumar introduces us to a more conservative side of the man. While a promoter of big, state-sponsored technology and scientific research, perhaps in deference to Gandhian ways he was against creating a dependence on everyday technology. He was opposed by the likes of Madan Mohan Malviya, M. Visvesvaraya and Meghnad Saha, but his views prevailed.

To be fair, India’s economic poverty at the time made technological modernisation difficult. India did not have the capacity to produce technology for the masses, and its non-alignment during the Cold War made technological transfer from big powers complicated. Whatever few attempts were made to develop native technology for the masses failed due to poor planning and implementation. Limited success came in the form of the now-forgotten Colombo Plan, an international agreement that negotiated tricky Cold War politics to arrange support for everything from rail tankers to milk pasteurization plants to the creation of IITs. Still, a distance was put in place between Indians and technology at this moment, which would influence state policy for decades to come.

Hobbled by Bureaucracy

By the sixties, Sukumar writes, “the popular understanding of new technology in India…was characterized by ill-informed rhetoric and outright animosity.”

The country’s research labs were mired in mediocrity and corruption. Fears of automation, stoked by the government, opposition and civil society, prevailed over projections of job and wealth creation from increased technological investment.

The only major attempt at advancement came in the form of the government-led ‘Appropriate Technology Movement’ of the 1970s. It advocated development of small technologies suited to India’s context. While sensible in theory, in practice it encouraged excessive bureaucratic control. The much-maligned ‘license-raj’ kicked into high gear; governments decided what technology people needed and how much to produce. The absence of a private sector stifled innovation, and forced the best tech graduates to move abroad for employment. Ironically, the only successful technological programme of this time, the nuclear and space programmes, violated the tenets of the Appropriate Technology movement.

The Tides Turn

Despite the government’s best efforts, Sukumar notes that by the late seventies people were slowly embracing everyday technology like radios and televisions. The government soon changed track as well, largely under Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership.

While some major strides were made, hesitancy remained on certain fronts like with the human genome project and vaccine development programmes with the USA. Government research facilities beholden to a ‘mafia’ held the country back, as did strident political and intellectual opposition. A true technological revolution needed political stability, yet this was greatly lacking at the time. Complicated international politics limited India’s access to global technology, domestic opposition to the 1991 reforms made the government risk-averse, and public sentiment turned against big technological investment after the highly publicised Bofors scandal and Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

The Gilded Age Of Koramangala

India’s true tryst with technology came with the Y2K debacle. As companies in the west rushed to rework code that might crash computing systems at the turn of the millennium, Indian coders became a prized commodity. Computers had been increasingly popular since the late 1980’s but the public saw their potential for wealth-creation most directly at this moment. Thus, what Sukumar calls the ‘Gilded Age of Koramangala’ began.

It was led by technocrats like Nandan Nilekani, who Sukumar places in the lineage of prior technocrats like M. Visvesvaraya and Vikram Sarabhai, men who were emblematic of the most ambitious projects of their era, such as early industrialisation and the ambitious space programme.

The book ends, appropriately, with the technology’s biggest champion in India today — Narendra Modi. Modi’s electoral victories are partly due to the communication revolution led by social media. He benefits from ruling at a time when India has cheaper and easier access to technology than ever before, and sees this as the pillar around which to structure the country’s development.

If Nehru believed tech to be the great corruptor, for Modi it’s the great disruptor, which has allowed India the possibility of ascending to its ‘rightful place’ at the world stage.

What Next?

In just 200 pages, Sukumar has written an eminently readable book that outlines the contours of India’s tumultuous relationship with technology. While his analysis of certain larger trends based on his case studies of choice seems somewhat flawed, it does not undermine the utility of the book.

Importantly, it points to the necessary relationship between states and machines that will have wide-ranging effects in years to come. You don’t need to be a tech-specialist or history buff to appreciate the importance of what he is saying. In a few years, you might well be traveling in autonomous cars, experiencing entertainment through virtual reality, or be operated on by a machine controlled by a doctor thousands of miles away.

Yet there are signs of negative consequences as well — increasing polarization of our politics, a growing digital divide, risks around the privacy of our online and offline lives, and potential for state and corporate overreach. The path India and other countries take will be influenced by the relationship between states, society and technological innovators. It will have a very real impact on our lives, in ways big and small. There is much to be hopeful about, but equally to be vigilant about. The path then, though promising, is far from easy.

Shantanu Kishwar is a freelance writer based out of Delhi, with an interest in public policy and history.

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The InTech Dispatch

A Fortnightly on Tech. Society. Culture. Us. Curated for India.

Shantanu Kishwar

Written by

Policy geek, history buff, hummus-maker extraordinaire. I curate the Kish-Wording Newsletter, a fortnightly roundup for the curious:

The InTech Dispatch

A Fortnightly on Tech. Society. Culture. Us. Curated for India.

Shantanu Kishwar

Written by

Policy geek, history buff, hummus-maker extraordinaire. I curate the Kish-Wording Newsletter, a fortnightly roundup for the curious:

The InTech Dispatch

A Fortnightly on Tech. Society. Culture. Us. Curated for India.

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