Reminding Silicon Valley entrepreneurs of their digital “responsibility” is as preposterous as it is comic.

Why US academics lecturing Silicon Valley on Modi is both arrogant and comicImage: Narendra Modi FB page
Voices Sunday, August 30, 2015 - 13:37

People who write open letters to famous people generally seek reflected glory. The missive by a group of American academics warning Silicon Valley companies and entrepreneurs from investing in India’s Digital India initiative falls into this category. The letter comes ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the region scheduled for September 27 this year.

“As it stands, “Digital India” seems to ignore key questions raised in India by critics concerned about the collection of personal information and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally-protected right of the citizens,” they write from a country whose security and allied apparatus has been exposed for spying systematically on all and sundry. (emphasis added)

The letter details all the usual suspects (Nalanda, NGOs etc.) and a new addition to the bouquet is the controversy over the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. “Those who live and work in the Silicon Valley have a particular responsibility to demand that the government of India factors these critical concerns into its planning for digital futures,” the letter says. The signatories include Thomas Blom Hansen (Stanford), Wendy Donniger (University of Chicago) and Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University). The rest are defined in the first line of this piece.

My first reaction was to ignore the letter, but its remarkable, and might I dare add, hilarious disconnect with reality was too tempting to pass. In addition, I have lived in the region and studied in one of its top universities and seen student-academic politics closely.  I have friends in the region who include CEOs and others. I can even claim to have some idea of how entrepreneurs think, work and grow their businesses globally.

Risk is a key factor for them. Nobody understands risk better than American business people and perhaps it is the only country in the world where failure is truly seen as a stepping-stone to success. Stanford University, for example, has benefitted hugely from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs many of whom have graduated from the university and set up their own companies benefitting from the spirit of enterprise and risk in the region. Start-ups are a dime a dozen and I am among those who believe that the next Google will also come from the US or something where Americans have massively invested.

Academics do not understand risk. They are not required to. Many of them spend long years in US universities chasing full tenures. University funding comes from all kinds of sources including some dubious ones, but that never becomes an issue of human rights as jobs and tenures, doctoral students and large project hinge on them.  All governments keep an eye on what is going on in their country and spies abound in universities including American universities.

Reminding Silicon Valley entrepreneurs of their digital “responsibility” is as preposterous as it is comic, given their own history and possible complicity in the American surveillance regime. It also pre-supposes that India and Indian institutions are incapable of ensuring the democratic rights of its people. But let us look at the good side – the more you hate, spread and support it, the more marginal you will become. Democracies are about good for the largest number of people, secured through democratic processes and institutions – extreme views wherever they come from will eventually fall off the table.

I am willing to bet that most of the signatories who claim to defend the rights and responsibilities enshrined in the Indian Constitution have not read it.