Several years ago, I was privy to a conversation between two iconic business leaders. What they said provided an insight into the social impact of new technologies. One of them headed a private bank while the other was the chief of a technology company. These were the days when banks were rapidly growing the ATM network in India. The technology company had just begun to credit employee salaries directly into bank accounts, and the employees then withdrew money from ATMs on campus.
The two business leaders were chatting about how the new system was performing. The techie shared an interesting anecdote. He said that one of his office boys was thrilled to have an ATM card because he could deal anonymously with the bank, while walking into a branch to deal with a well-dressed bank employee made him feel socially inferior. The anonymity he now had was liberating.
Another example -- The spread of cable television has improved the status of women in Indian villages. Economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster showed in a research paper published in September 2008 that villages with cable television had lower acceptance of domestic violence, reduced son preference and decreases in fertility. The two economists said the effects in some cases were equivalent to five years of education.
"It may be that cable television, with programming that features lifestyle both in urban areas and in other countries, is an effective form of persuasion, because people emulate what they perceive to be desirable behavior and attitudes," they argued in their paper.
I once worked in a business magazine whose media editor used to insist that the women depicted in Indian television soap operas may have traditional trappings but had a surprising degree of autonomy. What Jensen and Oster found after three years of detailed work supports the then-unusual point of view.
Technology has overturned social arrangements right through history. Global History and Culture Centre at The University of Warwick, UK, has been doing interesting work on the impact that everyday technology had on life in colonial India. David Arnold, a emeritus professor at Warwick, has investigated how sewing machines, bicycles, typewriters and rice mills changed the lives of ordinary Indians in that era.
The use of bicycles not only increased mobility, but also helped small traders grow their business, and made routine movement by clerks, petty traders and low-ranking government officials easier. Sewing machines not only changed the work done by traditional tailors in India, but also created a new home task for women as well as changing clothing styles. Typewriters helped create the modern Indian office, while creating new avenues of employment for Anglo-Indian women.
Many of these changes were within the boundaries of the Indian social system. So women were not encouraged to ride bicycles, for example. But the fact that these imported gizmos eventually became popular items of dowry suggests that they eventually gained widespread acceptance in Indian society. Arnold even gave a talk earlier this year on typewriters in India, at the annual lecture on business history held by the Godrej group in Mumbai.
Indians tend to have an ambivalent attitude to new technology, with initial suspicion eventually being replaced by eager acceptance. While there is much public discussion on big bang technological change, far less thought is given to the deep changes that everyday technologies can bring about in society. Be it the ATM machine, cable television, typewriters or bicycles, consumer technologies can empower ordinary people.
The most stunning example of this is the mobile revolution in India, which is now more than a decade old. India today has more mobile phones than toilets and more mobile phones than bank accounts. Much has been written about how this revolution has transformed lives, but I have a personal story to share.
I had an uncle who could neither speak nor hear. The only way he communicated was through sign language or by writing, but this meant that one had to be sitting next to him to carry on a conversation. He spent his last years alone in Pune, when he was increasingly immobile. He was cut off from friends. Then came the mobile phone. He suddenly realized that he could stay in regular contact with friends though SMS. Soon, a support group of the hearing impaired emerged. Members would ask each other whether they had eaten, were ready to go to bed, or if they needed any help. The barriers imposed by the lack of sound in their lives fell away.
The old Dilip Kumar film Naya Daur sensitively told the story of a small town where the livelihoods of traditional tongawallahs were threatened by a new bus service. The humanity in the narrative was touching, but I cannot help feeling that the social message was wrong. New consumer technology does more good than bad, often in ways that cannot be anticipated.
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