Gatekeepers II:  why not learn, like Bill Gates — so as not to dismiss subjects like intellectual India from blind ignorance?

‘The Indian Genius’: watch the menu at the top of the home page for a forthcoming compilation of articles on subcontinental topics.
Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling out and walling in …

‘Mending Wall’, Robert Frost, 1914

Gatekeepers would get more respect in this sceptical internet age if they could only acknowledge the vastness of what they – like the rest of us – do not know. The assumption of omniscience is inevitably a curiosity-killer. Satisfying deep curiosity – as even the most hopeless pilgrim on the road to wisdom knows – calls for humility, and for moving out of your zone of comfort in more than one sense. So it was that soon after Bill Gates stepped out into 44°C heat in the northern Indian city of Lucknow a few days ago, he went on Twitter to send out a link to a new post on his blog, thegatesnotes.com — a preview of a video report about this latest expedition to the subcontinent:

His entries about the trip are what you would expect to see in the online diary of the world’s most prominent philanthropist. He explores slums. He calls on chief ministers of Indian states. He visits medical research laboratories to check on progress in developing new vaccines. At the end of the short video clip, he gives his chief reason for travelling to this part of Asia: ‘Most of all, I go to learn.’

It was not subcontinental weaknesses and poverty but India’s strengths that originally put this country on his radar screen, when Bill was still running Microsoft. About a decade ago – and before he and his wife Melinda assumed control of their charitable foundation – he acknowledged Microsoft’s extraordinary dependence on Indian engineers for its operation and continued success. (See, for instance,  ‘Gates goes gaga over India’s developers, education system,’ The Economic Times, 14 November 2002).

As everyone in Silicon Valley is well aware, whereas the Chinese shine most brightly in computer hardware research and design, software is where Indians excel. This is not accidental. Cultural traditions going far back into antiquity supply highly plausible explanations for the difference. But you would be hard-pressed to find any book-length accounting for it.

Why?

Because book publishers in both the UK and US do not believe that readers have any interest in the subject – even though many thinking people, not just technologists and tech-entrepreneurs, know …

  • … that in the late 1990s, help from Indian programmers was crucial to averting the Year 2000 (Y2K) crisis that could have been disastrous for people using computers everywhere – however indirectly, as in digital telephone networks and computerised banking. Their energetic re-programming corrected the error that had left most computer software with no means of recognising, or independently adjusting its time-keeping for, the start of a new millennium.
  • … that, as much of a shock as it was for many Westerners to have to turn to the land of bullock carts and yogis for help with computers, the Year 2000 work was relatively trivial by comparison with evidence of the Indian aptitude for software design and development at the most sophisticated levels. That is why the loftiest rungs of research and management at Google, Microsoft, Adobe and other technology leaders are thickly populated by professionals of Indian origin.

In 2003 and early 2004, a book proposal and essay discussing the reasons for these phenomena were shopped to more than one newspaper and magazine – before a letter about the project landed on the desk of David Goodhart, the founding editor of the British magazine Prospect (whose charter, at its 1995 launch, called for it to succeed as a cross between the vanished Encounter and The New Yorker.) His unusual curiosity, easily the equal of Bill Gates’s, led over the years to him coaxing contributions to his magazine out of Francis Fukuyama, Margaret Atwood, and J.M. Coetzee, among other provocative intellectuals.

An article accepted and edited by David, setting out a hypothesis about Indian excellence in software and titled ‘The Indian Genius,’ ran in the April 2004 edition of Prospect. Its writer was invited to address a seminar in Paris at the French Senate on India’s transformation by globalisation, and gave a paper that had an exceptionally enthusiastic reception.

None of this changed the minds of our gatekeepers in Western publishing or led them to delve into the question of whether there was indeed an audience for a cultural and historical explanation for India’s competitive advantages in software, and how the West should react to them. Did they make any effort to fill gaps in their knowledge of Asia — if only as a gesture towards matching the depth and breadth of Indian interest and immersion in the Western cultural corpus? Apparently not.

What is to be done about this? Paul Kiparsky, a professor of computational linguistics at Stanford University, also a Sanskrit scholar, does not believe that the project will find the support it deserves until a sufficient number of wealthy Californian entrepreneurs of Indian origin are not just ploughing their money into new technology ventures and alleviating poverty in India, but turning their attention to Indian culture, scholarship and art.

While we await that happy day, post-Gutenberg will — as time and stubborn formatting gremlins permit — compile a small archive of essays and articles related to Indian intellectual contributions. Our first post will be the original version of the Prospect piece on India and software, truncated as the magazine was going to press, to make room for a reaction to train bombings by terrorists in Madrid.

In searching for links to post here for readers, we found that British Library Direct has begun to charge close to £ 20 for access to the article’s edited version. This, oddly enough, is being done without the permission of the author, or an offer to share any part of the proceeds – but its being offered on that site is additional confirmation that there is a readership for the subject.

If book publishing’s gatekeepers were less incurious, would the ascendance of China and India have come as such a shock to the West?

The answer is, unfortunately, all too obvious.


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