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Technology  and Society: Our experiences and a viewpoint.
The contents of this page were first written nearly 20 years ago. Their relevance can be questioned today. Yet, the points raised about the Digital Divide continue to be relevant now.
  A question we have often asked ourselves during the years of development of the software is, 
What do you look for in your work? Technical excellence or Social relevance?
    Even  after a decade of development, we continue to ask this question. We are not sure we have the right answers. The technical strength and the elegance of the Multilingual software is something to feel good about, especially when a computer system responds to you in the vernacular.  Yet we cannot escape from reality when someone asks us, "Well, you have shown aksharas on the screen and can input text, what next"? 

     Meeting a technical challenge is no doubt the primary motivation for an academic institution such as ours, to undertake such development as we have done.  But can we say that this technology solves (or can be applied to solve) a fundamental problem we face in society?  In other words, does Information  Technology really hold the promise for improving literacy and social awareness among the public, simply because user interaction is possible in the vernacular? 

  A more optimistic way of looking at this would be, now that IT in Indian languages is a reality, why don't we go ahead and spread it to the masses?  In either case, the real issues do not relate either to technology or the society per se, but have to do with the manner in which technology is taken to the people.  This is a problem that confounds even the most experienced technical person.  After nearly a decade of work on the software which had indeed provided a unique solution to IT in Indian languages, we are slowly beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem in  taking it to the people. In comparison, the technical challenge seems quite insignificant. 

    Technology, as we understand it today, is the manifestation of human creativity, something that looks and feels good and reduces one's burden as well.  We are not really clear that it will do more than that, though the real purpose of technology should be to bring the kind of benefits to mankind where a society and not merely a set of individuals use it move forward. So long as the society sees art in any engineering endeavour, there is room for sustaining the same over a long period of time, for art is an integral element of human life. 

    On the other hand, if technology were to aim only at lessening human burden all the time, substituting for all mechanical and often mental activity as well, we are more likely to loose out, since there is a very clear limit to what we do on a daily basis which can be taken over by a machine.  The technical excellence and the joy of seeing a machine do something effortlessly and without errors is conceded but unless that results in an enhanced understanding of the society and the world, it will become just a toy to play with.  Quite clearly we do not want technology to stop at the level of a toy. 

    Technology, that too one that pertains to information, is in reality a double edged sword. Though such technology has revolutionized our lives with computers playing a major role in all our activities, it has already started to hurt. It appears that no one really knows how to apply it properly without causing hardship to the individual in sustaining the activity. It is not enough to make it possible for information to be accessed and retrieved instantly but it is more important to see that what reaches you is relevant.  It is important to note that Information which you seek for reference is quite different from the information you seek as knowledge. Information technology seems to do well for the former but falls seriously short of meeting the requirements of the latter. 

  We have excellent methods to store vast amounts of information which can be accessed instantly with ever increasing bandwidths of our networks. But we need to know what we are looking for, something one can never be sure of when one is seeking knowledge.  In a country such as ours, we must concentrate more on getting Information Technology to help people learn, from the school child to the illiterate adults so that they are able to take a decision based on a balanced understanding of the world around them. 

    Technology that produces fantastic gadgets or technology that aims at reducing human burden all the time will never allow intellectual development in a society, which is what we  want foremost in our country as a means to eradicating illiteracy and bringing useful knowledge to the people.  The IIT Madras development team has always nurtured the hope that their technology will be of a kind which will bring benefits to a society, as people grapple with the problems of illiteracy. The solution need not be elitist in basic form but offer usability in a direct manner. 

    People in the software industry used to tell us that our characters lacked a professional look, a euphemism for scribbled text.  Our troubled minds were set at ease when literally thousands of persons started viewing the lessons that we put out with the help of Samskrtitapriyah on "Learn Sanskrit". The viewers found them purposeful, for they found the information they wanted and they got it just by clicking on a link, presented in a crude but guaranteed manner for displaying Devanagari! 

  On several occasions people would not accept to look at the software, for in their opinion, anything given free cannot be professional, much less useful. They would ask us as to why we are not providing the features found in "Word" or similar packages and why is it we are interested in Linux and not Microsoft Windows, the most popular platform in the world (according to them)? On many occasions we were provoked into explaining our stand as to why we did not want to commercialize the software. When schools do not have blackboards or electricity, how could we think of putting the students in front of computers? The world of IT runs on English and Indians have made a name with their proficiency in that language. Why then bother about the vernacular? We have consciously avoided getting into this elitist issue which has already sown the seeds of the digital divide.

    People saw fonts, glyph placements, character codes, html and what not in the IITM software and were comfortable asking all the above questions. Few saw the social relevance. The enthusiastic response from the visually handicapped persons who have started using the IITM software, is perhaps the first clue we have got that has reassured us about the overall goals of the project

   Needless to say, this is the kind of pat on the back that gives us strength to keep going forward.  The purpose of an educational institution is to impart knowledge and motivate young minds to acquire the skills with which they can produce something meaningful for the society.  In this respect, what has been achieved at IIT Madras is a typically Indian solution to a typically Indian problem, implemented in a typically Indian way. After all, there has to be something Indian about whatever we do! 

   It appears that an answer to our question may emerge in the light of the experiences mentioned above. If society is pleased to use technology for the sake of gaining knowledge, then our efforts are indeed not in vain. True to ancient wisdom that one cannot ever put a price on  a process that offers basic knowledge to a person using which he or she learns other skills, we have offered the software free to the people. It is our hope that this technology will help people gain basic knowledge so that one becomes literate though not necessarily develop special skills in using IT. 

   We have come a long way from the technology of Software Engineering to a technology that relates to "Social Engineering" in the country. It is here that our perceptions differ from the perceptions of the professionals in the industry who live by  "Technology". Their "Technology" comes with a price tag our society can ill afford today. It is probably more important to have technology devote itself to our lives as opposed to our lives being  devoted to technology. It is important always to have technology retain a human touch and remain an art  that  it is and bring pleasure to all.  There is much beauty in all works of art. Alas,  the decision makers think that art is for those who can afford.  For them Technology, excellent as it may be, can never be  be viewed from the angle of that art that the society can readily appreciate. 

    For fifteen years, the IITM project has inched forward with useful results. This has been a unique experience in itself. No other student project anywhere in the country has seen the kind of commitment shown at the lab. People accept this now and perhaps have started thinking about how this could have been possible.  Newspapers, magazines and television channels have given the lab some amount of national visibility and now there is moral obligation on our part to reach out to those who want to come up in life. It is a different kind of education that we must provide, one that does not require calculus, thermodynamics, aircraft structures, artificial intelligence and the like but a different kind that relates to those three "R"s the world has always emphasized. It will be interesting to observe how, this prestigious institution will accomplish this, armed with just the computer capable of handling the aksharas of our languages!

Here is a summary of our experiences in dealing with the society with respect to using computers in Indian languages.

1. Computerization per se is gaining acceptance only now (2003 as of this writing). For most people, a computer means a PC with MS Windows. Most places in the country recognize only the standard applications with Word, Outlook Express and possibly Excel.

2. Corporate Institutions use only Microsoft Windows based systems. Educational Institutions are also displaying the same trend.

3. Use of computers in Indian languages means primarily word processing and text preparation. With the elite, you can add email and chat offered by some Indian portals.

4. Linguistic experts have their own problems of dealing with text. Each person has his/her own software (often developed by friends in the west) for their personal use. Most use the software for preparing scholarly documents or manuscripts.

  Understandably, there is no standardization whatsoever in these custom approaches to linguistic processing even for a given language/script.

5. Computer aided instruction is seen in some urban areas but the lessons are merely replicas of what others have done in the west. The packages for the disabled are almost exclusively packages from other countries. Jaws is perhaps the most popular screen reader among the Visually handicapped elite. Braille is virtually non existent as a useful medium mainly due to the costs involved in production. Local Braille (Bharati Braille) is encouraged only in a few places where production facilities are seen.

6. For most journalists, Software is something that comes only from Microsoft. They cannot comprehend crude user interfaces that do not provide the click and see feel. They insist on beautiful text displays with fonts but may not pay attention to how easy or difficult it is to get the display. More than the average computer user, the Journalist will see only Windows.

7. Linux is gaining visibility but localization efforts are specific to languages. Unfortunately, the problems faced by developers in handling Unicode are more readily apparent in systems running Linux.

Surprisingly, the Unicode Test Pages at the Acharya site have become popular, though few admit that the popularity is due to the approach taken at IITM to handle multilingual text effortlessly! Even today (2005 Dec.), these pages remain unsurpassed in their usefulness for web based text processing in Indian languages.

8. Anything given free will have no value. Otherwise, it would not be given free! Worse, educational institutions do not understand the Market and so it is preferable to invest in commercial applications.
This is not our view, though we hear it said all the time!

In an environment that is increasingly coming under the influence of Globalization, the "Made in India" stamp has little value. The real irony is that only the strip (the label) is made here. Software solutions are no different. Clearly, what is attractive is the Market size and not relevance.

9. Technology is often associated with "consumerism", for technology always come with a price, just like all consumer products. It is therefore difficult to imagine good technology coming out of institutions that do not understand the market. Alas, a price on education, that too basic education! 

10. In education and literacy, success is measured by the amount of money invested in a venture and not the results. 


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Children of India. Still divided by digital technology!

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