The Indian Genius

                

(The original version of an essay published in Prospect, April 2004 )

 

Pontificators at smart dining tables in London and

Washington D.C. hopelessly confuse cause and effect in

debating outsourcing and the reasons for India’s rise

to prominence as a source of software brainpower. “It

all began with those Indians in Silicon Valley, didn’t

it?” they say. Or, “Of course it’s those Indian

technical colleges, those IITs – what, half a dozen

clones of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? –

turning out programmers and computer scientists by the

container load.”

 

The best that can be said of these

attempts at explanation is that they are an advance on

the idée fixe of a year ago, which was that Western

companies were only paying Indians and Indian

companies to write and design software because they

are cheap – because programmers and software engineers

in India can be hired for roughly a fifth of what they

would earn in America.

 

The actual reasons for India’s soaring stock in

software are complicated, border on the bizarre, and

are rooted in the subcontinent’s earliest intellectual

and pedagogical traditions.

 

Software is ubiquitous and all-pervasive. It is at the

core of processes and tools in every strategic

industry – from banking and finance to microchips and

defence. The depth of India’s comparative advantage in

software suggests that India poses a far more

interesting challenge to the Western economies than

even China does. China, strong in manufacturing and

evolving into a powerhouse in computer hardware

production, has been almost as unimpressive in

software as Japan – and India the reverse. No

underdeveloped country has ever taken on the developed

world in a craft as sophisticated and important as

software.

 

Indian software aptitude rests on an unlikely pair of

factors: an emphasis on learning by rote in Indian

schools, and a facility and reverence for abstract

thought. These biases of Indian education are all but

mutually exclusive in the modern West, where a

capacity for abstraction is closely associated with

creativity and stimulating, inspirational learning. In

India, learning by rote is seen by many, if not most

conventional teachers, as essential grounding for

creativity – like Picasso’s mastery of perspective and

anatomy in his youth – and for unbounded invention and

speculation.

 

An educational tradition that spans learning by heart

and exalting excellence in higher mathematics and

physics as the height of academic accomplishment is

just right for software. It perfectly fits the

mentality of computers. These are, after all, machines

so rigidly conformist as to refuse to send email with

a missing hyphen or full stop in an address. Yet no

product on earth is more abstract, boundlessly complex

and flexible as software, which cannot be seen, heard,

smelled, tasted or touched – is, to borrow from

Vladimir Nabokov’s take on chess, a game invented in

India, “a spectral art.”

 

India’s software accomplishments to date reflect those

extremes. At one pole, Indian firms overwhelmingly

dominate a world élite of over 120 companies

recognised for producing outstandingly accurate

software – having earned a CMM Level-5 tag, or

software’s equivalent of the Michelin 3-star rating

for restaurants. These establishments – of which

America has less than half the Indian total – are

formally certified to be following an exacting,

tediously detail-obsessed methodology developed at

Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh for producing

reliable code.

 

At the other pole, most of the world’s reigning

American technology giants – Microsoft, General

Electric, Texas Instruments, Intel, Oracle and Sun

Microsystems – have established software development

facilities and even R&D laboratories doing fundamental

research on the subcontinent. They see India as a

bargain basement for an unlikely commodity,

world-class technical and scientific brains –

engineers, computer scientists and researchers. A top

electrical engineering graduate from an Indian

Institute of Technology earns about an eighth of the

starting salary of an American counterpart.

 

The most far-sighted Brahmin sage of circa 1500 B.C. –

roughly when the earliest of the Vedas, Hinduism’s

sacred über-texts, are thought to have been written

down – could not have envisioned any such application

of the teaching conventions born at the same time.

Exactitude was of the essence of the pedagogy of the

Brahmins, fiercely exclusionary scholar-priests,

because their pupils were not merely acolytes but,

effectively, human zip disks – data storage media. The

Vedas were preserved and passed down orally for many

centuries (some Indian scholars claim, thousands of

years) before they became texts. That meant that an

exemplary Brahmin scholar of the time had to be

capable of holding in his head the equivalent of

several books of the Bible and scholarly commentaries

on them and an entire Sanskrit thesaurus.

 

Preservation aside, exactness in memorization mattered

because, as Nicholas Ostler of the Foundation for

Endangered Languages has explained, Sanskrit mantras

“are Vedic hymns used as incantations,” or as “sacred

formulae whose incessant repetition was held to have

important mystical effects.” A priestly acolyte had to

be capable of not just a word- but phone-perfect (as

in phoneme) recitation of them, with the proper

intonation – because different sounds corresponded to

different spiritual purposes.

 

The precise, specialised languages we use to program

computers are, like hieratic Sanskrit, deployed to get

absolutely specific results considered vital by their

users – even if they serve largely economic ends, and

mantras religious ones. Many details of computer

languages and their rules – and variations of these

for different contexts – have to be memorized by

computer programmers. The ability to retain details of

large chunks of indigestible information is just as

critical for a programmer as for traditional Brahmin

scholars.

 

Although Indian children no longer learn by rote to

serve as zip disks, and Sanskrit – when it is taught

in modern Indian schools – has much the same museum

quality as Latin and Greek in British classrooms, rote

learning still holds tremendous sway on the

subcontinent. As newspaper editorials routinely

attest, the most common lament about the state of

Indian education is about the continuing reign of

rote. Children commit facts to memory for an edge in

examinations, and defenders of rote among educators

argue that the effort involved acts as a sort of bench

press for the brain.

 

The cerebral equivalent of Arnold Schwarznegger’s

bulges, and the discipline it takes to acquire them,

have served Indian programmers well in adapting to the

structured and tightly controlled processes essential

to producing the exceptionally accurate software that

has earned Indian companies CMM Level-5 certification.

Most Western programmers scorn those methods as mental

straitjackets. Frederick Brooks, a revered American

authority on their craft, has captured what they love

best about it, which is software’s rarefied

dimensions: “The programmer, like the poet, works only

slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds

his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion

of the imagination. The media of creation are so

flexible . . . so readily capable of realising grand

conceptual structures.”

 

Yet “pure thought stuff” is also a perfect

encapsulation of ancient India’s contributions to the

world’s scientific heritage – which are marked by a

bias towards abstraction unencumbered by empiricism.

Some schools of physics in India developed, in about

600 B.C., atomic theories entirely separate from Greek

atomism, constructions that many Western physicists

scoff at for not being based on experiment but purely

on intuition and logic. But others marvel at how much

closer the imaginative speculations of Brahmin atomic

theory have come to current ideas in theoretical

physics than those of any other pre-modern

civilisation – something no one has ever been able to

explain.

 

“The Indians advanced astronomy by mathematics rather

than by deductions elicited from nature,” the science

writer Dick Teresi has noted in Lost Discoveries. But

Indian mathematics was also distinctively airy-fairy.

Whereas Greek mathematics was largely extrapolated

from mensuration and geometry, it was abstract number

theory in which the ancient Indians distinguished

themselves. Zero, infinity, negative and irrational

numbers – all concepts that the Greeks dismissed for

centuries as ludicrous – were Indian conceptions.

Spatial extension and quantities of objects were far

less interesting to pioneering Indian mathematical

minds. In fact, the Indian leaning towards abstraction

– so deep-seated that, to this day, theoretical

physicists and mathematicians outrank every other sort

of egghead in status on the subcontinent – explains

India’s relatively poor showing, historically, in more

practical kinds of science. The sinologist Joseph

Needham observed that their study would have entailed

defying Indian caste rules about contamination, and

about contact between Brahmins and artisinal workers.

The progress of ancient Indian knowledge of

physiology, biology and anatomy was held back by the

religious taboo on contact with dead bodies.

 

It was the supreme pragmatists, the Chinese – whose

intellectual traditions all favoured practicality and

action over airy speculation – who were the

technological geniuses of antiquity. They invented

paper, seismographs, the magnetic compass, the

wheelbarrow, irrigation, ink and porcelain. But

reasoning for its own sake was of so little interest

to them that, unlike the Greeks and Indians, they

never developed any system of formal logic.

 

It hardly seems accidental that it is through the

mass-manufacture of physical objects – including

nearly every sort of computer hardware, from keyboards

and circuit boards to fully assembled personal

computers – that China is making its mark today and

India, on the ethereal plane of software.

 

The biggest check on excessive optimism about India’s

economic prospects is the abysmal state of the

country’s material infrastructure – its pot-holed

roads, chronic power failures and foul waterways and

air. Yet, as The Economist reported in February, the

subcontinent’s successes in outsourcing and software

are stimulating critical reforms and progress in

manufacturing industry – a stubborn under-performer

for most of the six decades since Indian independence.

Their power as catalysts is out of all proportion to

the attention-getters’ smallness, in statistical

terms. Information technology accounts for just 3 per

cent of Indian GDP, and in 2002-3, the $9.5 billion

total for software and services exports, including

outsourcing revenues, amounted to less than a third of

Microsoft’s sales of $32 billion in the year to last

June.

 

Yet, not least because virtually every recent

commentary by domestic or foreign analysts on India’s

future in software has mentioned the infrastructure

problems as a serious bottleneck, improvements have

begun – slowly, but in earnest. If India ever has

smooth roads and lights that can be counted to stay

on, software and outsourcing will deserve a

disproportionate share of the credit.

 

An incisive observer once remarked about Calcutta that

if only the city’s intractable problems could be

reassigned from the realm of the concrete to the

abstract, keen Indian minds would solve them

overnight. Stretch that idea across the subcontinent,

consider software, and there is a sense in which

cerebration really does appear to be redeeming

obdurate matter.

 

Cheryll Barron

postgutenberg@gmail.com

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One thought on “The Indian Genius

  1. Pingback: Why are Indians so good at code? | Matters Mathematical

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