Mahatma Gandhi believed modern technology is “machinery with only consideration of profit”. His belief is likely to have inspired Charlie Chaplin to make Modern Times, say trivia lovers. A famous scene in the film, a part-talkie satire, shows a feeding machine that is aimed at reducing a factory worker's time by feeding him a balanced meal. Soon the machine malfunctions with a hapless Chaplin caught in it and it almost maims him. It is used as a metaphor for all that could go wrong with technology if not designed with empathy.
Technology and empathy might be a modern concept of tech-design, but its importance was articulated by visionaries many decades back. Chaplin’s feeding machine sums up India’s attempts at transforming into a digital state. While Gandhi remained suspicious of modern technology, Chaplin’s fear resonates more with present-day Indian experience with digital.
As we enter 2023, geopolitical tensions, the Ukraine war and high inflation have instilled pessimism in us. And, as the world once again looks at India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bets are on technology and green economy transition.
India aspires to be a digital state, but its citizens’ rendezvous with tech-driven public services is mostly disappointing.
Beyond the veneer of the well-constructed narrative about India’s internet and smartphone penetration at affordable rates, the story is of a poor nation with low levels of literacy struggling with below-par telecom infrastructure to access the highways of digital India.
When it started more than a decade back, India’s digital drive was intended towards inclusiveness but has ended up creating more exclusions. Technology is often considered a solution for all woes relating to last mile connectivity, but experience shows limited success among the masses of India. While creating a digital India, we forgot to create a tech-literate India. So, the notable aim of removing the intermediary in public services continues to be a challenge. The touts still roam free, though now they are armed with a smartphone.
Data shows that more and more state and Central services are being digitised every year. But data does not elaborate on the quality of service delivery as the cause of beneficiaries is continuously ignored. In a country as large and varied as India this might not always be by design. The problem is structural but the lack of a national blueprint for digital transformation also plays a large part in this.
Digital India continues to be a patchwork of codes created by different government bodies and agencies. Will it ever come together as a cohesive national whole?
In our cover story, Nadeem, a citizen we spoke to, sums up the Indian predicament well: “India has become a huge data laboratory, where we are all bits and bytes being crunched by unruly and verbose algorithms of the government and global agencies, which are slowly acquiring a Frankenstein-like character.” At a surface-level Gandhi’s disenchantment with modern technology also stemmed from the fear of Frankenstein.
In the current global love for strong governments, autonomy takes a beating, and so does Gandhi’s idea of limited government and gram swaraj. But voters the world over have been rewarding politicians and encouraging them to centralise power, while India’s digital experience shows governments should not be running parts of the economy that it does not have the wherewithal to run.
Privatisation might not be a solution for India, but non-partisan choice of experts to run the show is.
While India is intoxicated with tech, its politics continues to be partisan.