Kuruvilla Pandikattu – « Technology and Cultural Values »

Kuruvilla Pandikattu

« Technology and Cultural Values:  Perspectives from India »

Linda Hogan, João J. Vila Chã, Michelle Becka

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Concilium 2019-3. Tecnologia: entre o apocalipse e a integração


“The vast literature, the magnificent opulence, the majestic sciences, the soul touching music, the awe inspiring gods! It is already becoming clearer that a chapter which has a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way. Here we have the attitude and spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together in to a single family,” claimed the British Historian Arnold Toynbee.[1] According to him, the “Indian way” or “an Indian ending” is the only way of salvation for humanity.[2] This paper attempts to explore this insight from our contemporary technological and cultural perspectives.

In recent years, India has witnessed extraordinary transformations not only in economic standards but also in sociocultural values. The traditional values, norms, and behaviours are being altered into more Westernized and global ones.[3] Indian youths may appear to endorse Western values, but family traditions, group values, and national traditions continue to play a pivotal role in determining brand meanings. So spirituality and religion continues to be central concerns even of the youth, who know that “technology and innovation are at the heart of transforming India”.[4]

We base our exploration exclusively on five contemporary Indian thinkers. The first one by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian, deals with democracy, development and by extension technology. Here, inspired by the argumentative culture of India, the author pleads for an egalitarian technological development in the context of globalization. The next thinker Shashi Tharoor,[5] former Undersecretary of United Nations, through his The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone, takes us to the glorious and tolerant history of India.[6] The next author, the young and enterprising Chetan Bhagat, explores the agony and anxiety of the tech savvy youth in his One night @ the call center.[7]

Then we travel through the Fourth Industrial Revolution (fir), which will drastically change Indian way of living, thinking and being through Pranjal Sharma’s Kranti Nation.[8] Assuming that the Indian way or a story with an Indian ending is sustainable, we look into today’s technological progress of the world. Then we hope to draw on the spiritual depth, typical of the Indian way, which alone can make contemporary world sustainable. So the challenge to theology is to enable a spirituality that is rooted and committed and at the same time creative and flexible to include all traditions and embrace diversities.

1. Amartya Sen on Democracy, Development and Technology

In a marvelous collection of essays, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen smashes quite a few stereotypes and places the idea of India and Indianness in its rightful, deserved context.[9] Central to his notion of India, as the title, The Argumentative Indian, suggests, is the long tradition of argument and public debate, of intellectual pluralism and generosity that informs India’s history.[10]

While talking about Indian democracy Amartya Sen is very clear: “It is important to avoid the twin pitfalls of either taking democracy to be just a gift of the Western world that India simply accepted when it became independent, or assuming that there is something unique in Indian history that makes the country singularly suited to democracy.”[11] The truth is far more complex and somewhere between these two views. In this stirring book on the historical perceptions of India, Amartya Sen, gives his basic vision of India as:

India is an immensely diverse country with many distinct pursuits, vastly disparate convictions, widely divergent customs and a veritable feast of viewpoints. [Any talk about its history, culture or politics must] involve considerable selection … the focus on the argumentative tradition in this work is also a result of choice. It does not reflect a belief that this is the only reasonable way of thinking about the history or culture or politics of India.[12]

In fact, the modern West, according to Sen, emphasized “the differences – real or imagined – between India and the West,”[13] focusing on India’s spiritual heritage at the expense of the rational one, partly because the West was naturally drawn to what was unique and different in India.

[Such] slanted emphases has tended to undermine an adequately pluralist understanding of Indian intellectual traditions. While India has … a vast religious literature [with] grand speculation on transcendental issues … there is also a huge − and often pioneering − literature, stretching over two and a half millennia, on mathematics, logic, epistemology, astronomy, physiology, linguistics, phonetics, economics, political science and psychology, among other subjects concerned with the here and now.[14]

And while India might offer “examples of every conceivable type of attempt at the solution to the religious problem,” Sen submits that they “coexist with deeply sceptical arguments … (sometimes within the religious texts themselves).”[15]Among his examples is the ‘song of creation’ of the Rig Veda, “the first extensive composition in any Indo-European language”[16] and the radical doubts expressed therein.

Both Sen and our next author give creative and diverse understandings of the Indian story, which is different from and related to the traditional outlook on Indian culture as religious, traditional and homogenous.

2. The Shashi Tharoor on Indian Tradition and Technology

Bewildering diversity is the very essence of India, observes novelist and former undersecretary of UN and career politician Shashi Tharoor the author of satirical novel The Great Indian Novel[17] in this engaging collection of essays, which tries to reconcile the country’s clashing traditions with progress and liberalism. Hinduism’s promiscuous openness to other beliefs and cultures makes it a model of secular tolerance, he argues. So Hindu fundamentalist bigotry is his favorite target. 

Tharoor imagines that ancient Indian science had anticipated even quantum mechanics.[18] He celebrates India’s compatibility with the global economy, a stance that occasionally shades into business promotion. In this book, the numerous articles portray quick, sketchy and creative picture takes on Indian cultural touchstones and developments. His sympathetic insight and incisive language combine in a fascinating portrait of Indian society. 

He extols the virtues and spirit of Hinduism and the sense of plurality that it propagates. So we can appreciate his latest book, aptly titled Why I am a Hindu.[19] He adds how fundamentalism that divides people on the basis of religious and other identities, is in itself, against the principle of Hinduism. He affirms emphatically, “No one identity can ever triumph in India; both the country’s chronic plurality and the logic of the electoral market place make this impossible. India is never truer to itself than while celebrating its own diversity.” 

3. Chetan Bhagat on Call Centre Culture

Moving to contemporary technology, it may be noted that India succeeded phenomenally in two aspects: its successful and economic space programs and the software industry. Let me limit myself to the software industry here.

Signs of middle age were obvious at India’s giant IT industry, which now has sales of $100 billion and is dominated by outsourcing firms. In one of their meetings held at a five-star hotel in Mumbai, the guests of honor were mostly politicians. They were accompanied by “grey-haired, well-fed executives”. As The Economist points out it was difficult to spot anyone close to India’s median age of 26.[20] Things have changed dramatically since 1981 when Infosys, the pioneering Indian IT firm, was founded in a flat by seven hungry and young engineers with mere $250 as investment.

India has already had one technology revolution. In the 1980s middle-class engineers from a dirt-poor India somehow persuaded Western firms to outsource their back-office functions and bits of their Information Technology (IT) operations to the subcontinent. Thus began a three-decade-long boom.

The revolution fed its children well. Thanks to IT, about three million Indians now work in well-paid formal jobs of the kind that India needs so badly. Perhaps another 10 million related have been created for maids, drivers and the like. Technology services have saved India from bankruptcy, keeping the balance of payments in adequate condition.[21] As well as local champions such as Infosys, TCS and Wipro, it is remarkable that 750 multinational firms have outsourcing and technology hubs in India, mainly performing research and development studies. 

Until India became a technological super-power, technology was used mostly to increase production. India is probably the first country in the world to use technology to improve quality of life. We don’t, therefore, have companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple and others, in India. Rather, India uses the resources that these big companies provide to improve quality of life in India, rather than evolving a “broad based technological development”.[22]

The cultural impact of all this has been huge, as illustrated in best-selling novels of Chetan Bhagat.[23] The story revolves around six people, three male and three female, only one of whom, the military uncle is elderly. All of them are working in a same group in a call center. They all are different from each other but they have a similarity in them that all of them are fed up with their lives and their lives are very messy. This story is about a night at call center which changes the lives of all the people, by changing their attitude. It changes their way to deal with the problems of their lives, by a call from God! In short, the software industry provides India with a new opening. “Many entrepreneurs are keen to address the opportunities and challenges that India offers.”[24]

4. Pranjal Sharma on Fourth Industrial Revolution 

The Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum, Prof Klaus Schwab thinks that the world is on the verge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution “that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”[25]

The fourth revolution can literally disrupt everything that we know today. Artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous cars, advancement in biotech and genomics will all be part of the industrial revolution 4.0.[26] Contrary to what the alleged ill-effects of the fourth revolution, the noted industrialist Baba Kalyani claims that “India should benefit from it and there will be a spur in job creation.” He adds: “India is in a very unique position to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and do some amazing things that it had missed out on in the past.”[27]

When India changed its focus from cheap labor to a skilled workforce, technology and capital-intensive sectors, it became more competitive. Kalyani highlights: “The lesson was very clear. We needed to move to an innovation-driven economy. The FIR provides us with a unique opportunity and knowledge base to move from a factor-driven to an innovation-driven economy.”[28]

Many economists are apprehensive of the FIR and its effect on job creation. According to some experts this revolution is likely “to increase inequality in the world as the spread of machines increases markets and disrupts labor markets”.[29]More than 65% of India’s workforce lives in rural areas, with relatively inadequate access to basic amenities. Water is scarce, sanitation is rudimentary, daily life is led through primitive means. Can this be addressed or at least enabled through initiatives under the FIR? Can such technology truly benefit us?[30]

It is in this context that we can appreciate Pranjal Sharma’s book Kranti Nation.[31] The world is on the cusp of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he acknowledges. He records the positive transformation brought about by FIR and at the same time warns of grave job losses. Kranti Nation − wherein KRANTI stands for knowledge, research and new technology: in Hindi the word ‘kranti’ means revolution − records the transformation that is taking place in 10 different sectors, including manufacturing, logistics, services, transportation, retail, mobility, healthcare, hospitality. [32] Sharma, in fact, makes a strong point that automation may be highly beneficial for a country with sparse population but for India it might result in 1.5 million job losses a year.[33] That can cause serious economic and cultural upheaval, which must be factored in our plan for knowledge development. 

5. Drawing from the Wisdom of India 

The scenario offered by FIR is mind-boggling. We are moving from reality to virtual reality. From life to artificial life. From carbon based body to silicon chips. From human beings to posthumans or extropians. The claim is made that we may eliminate death. Humans will become obsolete and Artificial intelligence and robotics may take over. It is in this context that we need to raise new philosophical and theological questions regarding our very existence. Can Indian story offer a way out? Still we can ask the question: What makes up India and its rich culture? ‘Outstanding Facts of Indian Culture’ according to historian and statesman Sardar K.M. Panikkar[34] as: 

  1. Tradition of tolerance, aiding to the richness and variety of Indian life.
  2. Sense of synthesis reflected in racial harmony, the primary institutions of the village and the family, sculpture, architecture, music and painting, modes of worship, faith in democratic institutions, etc.
  3. Universal outlook as reflected in views such as “The world is one family” and “the world as one nest”.
  4. Philosophical outlook with its basis in the belief in the unity of creation.
  5. Respect for the individual based on the philosophical equation of Atman and Brahman, the soul and the Oversoul (Brahman).

Thus the Indian way or the Indian story may be summarized as follows: The spiritual or philosophical depth, together with an openness to the new and challenging, forms the essence of Indian culture, with its different colors, contradictions and diversity. Further deep spirituality and vibrant religiosity form the core of Indian ethos. 

Given the history of 4000 years, we can believe that there is the inner resilience and sources of wisdom inherent in the Indian sources and traditions. Given the possibility that humans may merge with machines and nation states will merge with corporates, can they still live the “Indian way?”

A culture that cherishes ambiguity, dances with diversity may be able to deal creatively with the coming revolution. A culture with is profoundly complex and subtle can choose from the various possibilities. A culture which is primarily spiritual (without denying this worldly dimensions of it) may be able to flourish in the uncertainty, ambiguity and possibility emerging from the FIR. A culture that has given birth to Buddha, Ashoka and Gandhi and four living religions will be able to find meaning in the uncertainties of the immediate future. We need a holistic and integrated approach,[35] fostering capabilities of human beings.[36]

Looking at FIR only from ethical or social perspectives, though praiseworthy, is not sufficient. Given the way FIR is going to alter the manner we think, we act and we are, we need to formulate a creative critique of it that considers the anthropological, ecological and theological dimensions of this technology. Thus, the only way humanity can celebrate life and survive harmoniously is if we can make Indian way, that of the whole world: an inclusive, integrated, holistic and spiritual way!

6. Conclusion

Thus the challenge to thinkers, philosophers and theologians is to usher in a deep spirituality that can dialogue with contemporary FIR, guide it critically and creatively forward and make our lives more fulfilling. We need to draw from the various (even conflicting) sources of wisdom!


Notes

[1] Toynbee, Arnold. One World and India, New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 1960. 54.

[2] Pandikattu, Kuruvilla, An Indian Ending: Rediscovering the Grandeur of Indian Heritage for a Sustainable Future, New Delhi: Serials Publications, 2013.

[3] See Schaniel, William C. “New Technology and Culture Change in Traditional Societies”
Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Jun., 1988), pp. 493-498
Accessed at https://www.jstor.org/stable/4226008 on July 3, 2018.

[4] Kant, AmitabhIn an Innovation Nation,” Economic Times, November 25, 2018. Accessed at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/in-an-innovation-nation/ on July 23, 2018. See also Pandikattu, Kuruvilla. (2003) “The Indian Paradox: Scientifically Foreword, Religiously Inward and Economically Backward.” In: Pandikattu, K., Vonach, A. (eds) Religion, Society and Economy. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, pp. 133-148.

[5] Tharoor, Shashi, The Elephant, the Tiger & the CellphoneIndia, the Emerging 21st-Century Power, Penguin Viking, 2007.

[6] Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. London: Atlantic Books, 2008. 

[7] Bhagat, Chetan. One Night at the Call Centre. London: Black Swan, 2012.

[8] Sharma, Pranjal, Kranti Nation: India and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. New Delhi: Macmillan, 2017.

[9] Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, London: Allen Lane, 2005.

[10] Bhattacharya, Soumya (2005) “Beyond the Call Centre” The Guardian, Sun 3 Jul 2005. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jul/03/historybooks.features on November 2, 2018.

[11] Sen, 2005, 13.

[12] Sen, 2005, ix.

[13] Sen, 2005, 23.

[14] Sen 2005, 159.

[15] Sen 2005, xi.

[16] Wendy Doniger, The Rig Veda, London, Penguin, 2005.

[17] Tharoor, Shashi. The Great Indian Novel. Haryana: Penguin, 2014.

[18] Rao, J. S. “Science and Technology in India.” Science, New Series, Vol. 229, No. 4709 (Jul. 12, 1985), p. 130.

[19] Tharoor, Shashi. Why I Am a Hindu. London: Hurst & Company 2018.

[20] The Screen Revolution (2013), The Economist, March 16, 2013, https://www.economist.com/business/2013/03/16/the-screen-revolution, accessed on March 3, 2018

[21] Ibid.

[22] Kumar. Duru Arun (2012). “Technology Growth in India − Some Important Concerns,” Polish Sociological Review, No. 178 (2012), pp. 295-302. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41969446

[23] Bhagat, 2012.

[24] Kant 2018.

[25] Schwab, Klaus, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond,” World Economic Forum, 2016, accessed at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/14 Jan 2016, on Nov 2, 2018.

[26] Worldfolio, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on India’s job creation and skills enhancement,” 2015, accessed at http://www.theworldfolio.com/news/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-and-its-impact-on-indias-job-creation-and-skills-enhancement/4083/ on Sept 4, 2018.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Tan, Teck-Boon and Wu Shang-su, “Public Policy Implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Singapore: Coping with an Uncertain Future,” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (2017) accessed at https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep17650.7 on July 3, 2018.

[31] Sharma, 2017.

[32] Panda, Subrata, “How the Fourth Industrial Revolution Can Make or Mar India’s Fortunes,” The Print, 2018,https://theprint.in/pageturner/afterword/industrial-revolution-india-kranti-nation-review/47789/ 8 April, 2018. Accessed on August 2018.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Panikkar, K. M. A Survey of Indian History. London: Asia Publishing House, 1971, 2-3.

[35] Malik, S.C. “Science, Technology and Culture: A Holistic Approach,” Indian Anthropologist, Vol. 27, No. 2 (December, 1997), pp. 1-17.

[36] Sen, Amartya. Employment, Technology, and Development. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.


Author

Kuruvilla Pandikattu is a professor of Physics, Philosophy and Religion at Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, India. Currently, he is the Dean, Faculty of Philosophy, Jnana-Deepa Vidaypeeth, Pune, India. He has been actively involved in dialogue between science and religion. He is a Jesuit priest belonging to Dumka-Raiganj Province of the Society of Jesus. Main topics of his research are: anthropology, eschatology, life-management and transhumanism. 

Address: Faculty of Philosophy, Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, India.

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