How I stopped worrying about computers and the anti-computer strikes

Did the Left really ruin Keralas chance at being Indias Silicon ValleyCornellanense
Blog Computerization Wednesday, May 11, 2016 - 15:18

By Prem R Menon

I know the story – them commies hate computers. Once upon a time they fought against it, thus we lost the golden chance to be the Silicon Valley of the east – or so says our Chief Minister. Being a little Johnny who always wanted to play with computers, I was pissed at the communists for ruining my promised future; my shot at being the Steve Jobs from Kerala.

But when I fact checked this story, like most such stories, this one also turned out to be just plain old bullshit – believe me. If you don't, let’s talk about what happened then.

First and foremost, the 1980s strike had nothing to do with the mainstream communist parties, but was organized by the trade unions in banking, insurance and telecom sectors. There is a world of difference between these two political entities. Political parties exist “to represent citizens' voices, opinions, and perspectives in the public policy making processes.” But trade unions are in the business of protecting the interest of a group of workers they represent. The so called anti-computer strikes of the eighties were organized not just by the left-backed trade unions but also unions affiliated to parties such as BJP and Congress. A glaring example of this is the case of BMS, trade union of BJP, observing 1984 as anti-computerization year. Bonus trivia: the now technology evangelist (sarcasm intended) Oommen Chandy presided over CUSO, a UDF-backed trade union which once fought against computerization at Calicut University.

Chronicles of this “unwanted” strike will tell you the story of bright engineers in Post and Telegraph department, specially trained to upgrade legacy electro-mechanical exchanges to electronic systems. During their work hours they instrumented the modernization of India’s telco infrastructure, and afterwards they took torch rallies to streets protesting against the policy framework which made them do so. Did they protest just for the heck of it, since their own jobs were fine? No, they were interested in protecting the soon-to-be obsolete jobs of their fellow colleagues – You have to admit, it's kind of a nice thing to do.

Folks of that era even had the “belligerence” to take position for indigenous technology development in public sector as opposed to importing foreign technology: In tech talk, the classic “buy or build” question. Techies of those days had perfected the art of both developing technology in-house and effectively transferring technology knowhow from partners. But at some point, our central government decided to reduce the R&D budget for and started relying on imports for the technology needs of a growing nation.

Back from trade unions to ruling a state. Of course long term growth and technology policy must become concerns of political parties who rule a state. Let’s see how the left parties of Kerala fared in this aspect.

In 1991 the then government led by a communist EK Nayanar kicked off a pioneering experiment called Technopark, a first of its kind technology workspace in India, which actually created jobs in our state unlike some of the “Smarty” tech cities floating around. Successive left governments have been instrumental in furthering infrastructure and job growth in IT Sector. For instance, from 2006 to 2011 when the Left ruled the state, the number of companies investing in the state doubled while the number of jobs created leapfrogged from 16,000 to 44,000.

In contrast under the watch of technology evangelist Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, we saw Infosys cancelling a major planned project which would have created 10,000 jobs. This was not an isolated incident. We also saw Accenture and CapGemini shifting their operations out of Kerala.

I can also point out many examples of left government’s effective technology policy in action over the past few decades – ER & DC, C-DIT, FRIENDS, IT Mission, Information Kerala Mission, IT @ School and ICFOSS to name a few. One simply cannot write the IT story of this state without mentioning these pioneering initiatives. Our state didn't just focus on building up plug n’ play office spaces, we worked to make IT improve the quality of life for the common man.

Beyond that, a cursory examination of technology policy will tell you that the left has a balanced, cohesive and informed view on matters regarding tech – be it a strong stand on net neutrality or a free software based e-governance approach. Given an option to choose between UDF and LDF on policy making in IT, I would pick the informed opinion makers of the Left instead of the windbag howlers of UDF who are more interested in slogans.

Here is one simple but eye opening example of how the current technology evangelist CM-led government approaches technology development of the state. Story goes like this: Previous Left government reaches a deal with mobile companies. State gives permission to lay optical fiber cables across the state, mobile companies agreed to provide free connectivity to schools and government institutions along the route where cabling is being done. Fair and square deal. UDF comes to power, the actual work of laying optical fiber cables start. Guess what? Nobody from the Chandy government bothered to ensure that mobile firms stand up to their end of the deal. Today the state is condoning the failure from the companies for a minor fine.

Coming back to our original question over jobs and computers, do computers kill jobs? Like any other question on any topic, the opinions are divided in this too. With the coming of Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and Big Data into business, the IT world is increasingly moving in the direction of automation. Automation in itself doesn’t necessarily translate into job loss. But the kind of automation powered by AI, ML and Big Data is definitely moving in that direction. People who are worried about this loss of jobs are no longer limited to your good old trade unionists, but even include tech czars like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and even the world renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. Making fun of people worried about job loss because of computers used to be fashionable, but it no longer is.  

This is how I stopped worrying about computers and anti-computer strikes.

What I am worried about is jobs. I am what one would call a tech guy, somebody who jabs away a computer keyboard all day every day for a livelihood. I specialize in helping enterprises manage their business application workflows by writing programs – I hear that in the near future, a mere AI plugin can do it without any manual intervention. I wouldn’t mind if some group advocates for me and says your right for work should be protected, that I should be accommodated – because I am not just a point in some scatter plot, I am an actual person with a real life. You will say I should diversify, invest in updating skills yada yada yada. I know bro – I am just asking for a breathing space to do so – which translates to that ‘notorious’ slogan raised by commies in the 80’s - “Paniyethikkoo Kaikalilaadyam, Pinnedaakaam Computer” (Help me keep my job, let’s have computerization afterwards).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article.

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