Technology and Society: Our
experiences and a viewpoint.
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.
we have often asked ourselves during the years of development of the software
do you look for in your work? Technical excellence or Social relevance?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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
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!
is a summary of our experiences in dealing with the society with respect
to using computers in Indian languages.
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.
Corporate Institutions use only Microsoft Windows based systems. Educational
Institutions are also displaying the same trend.
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.
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
Understandably, there is no standardization whatsoever in these custom
approaches to linguistic processing even for a given language/script.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
is not our view, though we hear it said all the time!
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.
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!
In education and literacy, success is measured by the amount of money invested
in a venture and not the results.