Friday, September 27, 2013

Down the Digital Memory Lane

Copy of a Book Review published in the Hindu Business Line on 27 September 2013

Digital memory of a billion-plus nation
R. Dinakar

Digital Republic: India’s rise to IT power — History and Memoir By Mathai Joseph Publisher: Power Price: Rs 299

September 26, 2013:  

"Computing”, says Mathai Joseph, “has become a metaphor for what can be achieved in India. It has given recognition to India as no other science or technology has.”
He would know, as he was one of the country’s first computer scientists, was a part of the nascent Computer Group at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and a former head of research at TCS. Having spent over 45 years understanding the capability and behaviour of computers — from an era where ‘memory’ meant rolls of perforated paper, to the advent of cloud computing — he stands at a unique vantage point to narrate the story of India’s tryst with information technology.
Joseph’s book Digital Republic — India’s rise to IT power, is a memoir for our times. Starting with the early 1960s, Bombay provides a colourful backdrop to his college-years, the beginnings of an enduring love for literature, theatre and music, and to his long stint with TIFR. It is here that the freshly minted PhD from Cambridge struggled to convince the scientific establishment that computing deserved strategic support, alongside nuclear energy and space science.
The bosses at TIFR, however, refused to set aside their blinkers. While major strides were being made elsewhere, 1960-1975 marked the lost decade for Indian computing. Stuck in the fog of the Cold War, it lost not only the momentum gained from the first indigenous computer — TIFRAC (1960) — but also a great opportunity to create a manufacturing base for computer hardware in India.
Much like the story of IT in India, the book too has its ups and downs. The initial chapters might seem rather pedestrian, with their cryptic titles (Self at BBVT, Byculla Byeways) and rambling descriptions that almost make you wonder if you picked a Chetan Bhagat by mistake. However, if you persist beyond Chapter 3, Digital Republic gets back on track, and offers a fascinating narrative of computing through its formative years.
Initially, Joseph had been confounded by digital computers — “How could programs and data lie together in the computer memory?” he wondered, “just like a librarian stacked on a shelf with books!” Hands-on exposure helped. For the first time, at Cardiff, he had access to the latest machines of the time — ESDAC-1 and the Stance Zebra computer, and to the latest programming language — Algol 60. Expertise built on these systems helped him gain admission to Churchill College at Cambridge for a PhD. Later, a recommendation from Cambridge, and a fervent wish to avoid becoming an “immigrant”, brought him to TIFR in 1968.
The author returns time and again to the frustrations of working at TIFR. Initial admiration for the team leaders’ managerial acumen seems to have given way to a growing sense of disappointment. Instead of working on operating systems, Joseph was asked to work on computer graphics, where he found himself treading on a colleague’s zealously guarded turf.
So he moved on to experimental computing, seeking faster methods to translate programming language into machine language; better methods of allocating storage, and trying new synchronisation techniques in designing operating systems. Here again he found his team’s efforts being compared poorly against the experimental physicists who seemed to be on their own “serendipitous jaunt”, busy fitting “a few more pieces into an already well-understood mosaic”. Joseph sadly notes that “Science at TIFR was run as a collection of fiefdoms with the suzerainty of each leader unquestioned and unchanged till his eventual retirement”.
Finally, in the 1970s, when the Government set up a separate Department of Electronics, the career bureaucrats ensured it would remain under their thumb — unlike nuclear energy and space science. In the name of “self-reliance” they continued to make technologically unsound decisions, until companies such as TCS redeemed IT for India, with their world-class products and services.
This self-published book holds valuable lessons, not only for those with interest in science and technology but also for policymakers and bureaucrats. It is certainly a reminder of opportunities lost, and of what could yet be achieved in India, if only we can shake some of our institutions out of their smug, self-serving complacency.
A more fitting title for the book might have been, “India’s Rise to IT Power — despite the Government”.

The reviewer is an independent consultant specialising in ‘Technology for Development’.
(This article was published on September 26, 2013)

Printable version | Oct 2, 2013 10:40:57 PM | © The Hindu Business Line

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