Pandemic, climate, and now third crisis is an intensely digital world: Nandan Nilekani

At the recent e-Adda, Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and non-executive chairman of Infosys, spoke on technology for transformation, digital hygiene and why tech giants in India don’t speak up

(Clockwise) Nilekani was in conversation with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express Group, and P Vaidyanathan Iyer, Executive Editor-National Affairs, The Indian Express
(Clockwise) Nilekani was in conversation with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express Group, and P Vaidyanathan Iyer, Executive Editor-National Affairs, The Indian Express

On his new book
The Art of Bitfulness: Keeping Calm in The Digital World (Penguin Random House), which is co-authored with Tanuj Bhojwani, came out during the pandemic. During the pandemic, all of us experienced much more digital intensity in our lives. I am a big believer in technology for transformation but this kind of technology where people are just taking away all their attention needs people to have some good ‘digital hygiene’. How do we use devices in a better way?
We can’t throw away devices. Is there a simpler pragmatic way of doing it? So it’s not an anti-tech book at all. It’s a pro-you book. How do you become the master of your digital technology.

On whether technology is winning in the humanity vs technology debate
Technology has become very pervasive and the pandemic has only accelerated that. We order food digitally, we buy things digitally, we have relationships digitally, our grandmothers talk to their grandchildren digitally. The last two years have accelerated the digital role in our lives. We talk of this as a third crisis because the pandemic was one crisis where we had a virus that went exponential and we all had to lockdown, then we have the climate crisis, so this is the third one. In this increasingly digital world, how do we be on top of things, don’t let technology overwhelm you, use it for your own benefit, get all the value of the fantastic things out there but don’t succumb to it and become miserable?

On how to use social media responsibly
Actually I don’t use social media. I have three devices for the three modes in which I work on a computer. I have a create mode, which is where you work, and you need to be focused and you can’t have distractions. There is a curate mode where you read or watch or just browse. And there is a communicate mode, which is where you talk to people through various channels. So my model is very simple. I have a laptop on which I do all my work, I have an iPad on which I do my reading and curation and watching, and I use the phone only for communication and again I only use voice and SMS. I don’t use any other social media. I do use Twitter but in a broadcast mode. I want to send out a message. I don’t get into discussions on Twitter. So I have a simplified model of engaging with technology, which may sound old-fashioned to some.

On data protection and privacy
Well, obviously a law would be good and I know that law is in Parliament now. I assume that it’s being looked at, but it’s also up to us. Finally, privacy is boundary management. How do you make sure that you define the boundaries?You can say the law will come and all but how do we take agency over these things and create approaches? That’s what we’re trying to address in the book.

On digital creating inequalities
Obviously, the child who has access to a smartphone or whose parent has a smartphone has a bigger advantage over a poor family that doesn’t have a device. So, the more you rely on technology, the more people who are left out of technology will be left behind. We had two years of children not going to school, so clearly that’s one kind of thing. The second is the divide between the people who have jobs that they can do digitally and those who have proximity jobs. Then the third is increasingly, a lot of biotech and genomics anomalies, creating personalised health but then again, will be available only to a few, because that’s going to be for the elite. So whether it’s health or jobs or access to learning, this whole situation has, in many ways, become complicated and unequal.

On the relationship evolving between government and tech giants
It varies from country to country. In China, after many years of light regulation, you can see that they’re trying to bring in some kind of measures to regulate them. The US has more of a light-touch role, but increasingly they are beginning to realise that they need to do something. In Europe, of course, it varies from country to country. In India, there are broadly two views. One is, ban all this stuff. The other is don’t think of crypto as currencies, but think of them as commodities that you can buy and sell. If so, then obviously the government would like to take a share of the tax of any profits made on that.

On why tech giants in India, unlike the West, don’t take positions
If there’s something we have to say, we should say it behind closed doors or be quiet about it, because I don’t see any value in just going public about something if you don’t agree with it. I think of myself as somebody who can make a difference, but through action, by maybe convincing people about it. It’s not clear to me that just taking a public position is necessarily the way to go. I’m not an activist, I’m a problem solver, and I want to use my capital to solve problems.

On whether Infosys would want to speak up after it was called anti-national
We live in a very vibrant system with a lot of views, and what companies and individuals have to do is separate the noise from the signals and focus on doing the right thing. We are not journalists, getting into editorial opinions and so on. We have to run our business. We have to meet our obligation to society, and we have to satisfy our customers.

On whether the huge valuations in the startup sector are sustainable
We are already seeing some value compression. As the US moves from an era of high liquidity and low interest rates to less liquidity and interest rates going up, value compression could happen. The future value discounting will be less but also as they say, the stock market in the short term is a voting machine, but in the long term, it is a weighing machine. So, in the short term, people will follow some exciting new development and calculate hopes for it. But in the long term, they look at performance, revenue, profits and cash flow. So, we are going to see that as the markets become tighter on interest rates and liquidity.

On geopolitical tensions and the semiconductor industry
There was a time when the US was a very big semiconductor producer, but in the last 10 years, with the splitting of the design from the foundries where things are made, we have seen massive growth in semiconductor manufacturing, for example in Taiwan. As global tensions have gone up, everybody’s realising that this globalised supply chain is not working, which is why you see a big push in the US to have more domestic semiconductor manufacturing.

Your most millennial habit.
I don’t know if it’s a millennial habit, but I binge-watch.

What’s the last show that you binge-watched?
Right now, I’m watching a show called Inventing Anna on Netflix.

A business leader you admire.
Globally, I met people like Bill Gates; in India, of course, Narayana Murthy, Ratan Tata and Azim Premji are all phenomenal business leaders, and of course, my good friend who passed away, Rahul Bajaj — he was an amazing person.

The one milestone in your life that you feel most proud of.
The fact that I was able to keep my promise when I went to the government, delivered Aadhaar and came back. Now, I think the fact that in the last four years I’ve been at Infosys and it’s become a much better situation.

Google or Facebook, the lesser evil?
Both are amazing. What I like about Google is that the products are very useful.

China or America, which country will end up leading the world in EVs (electric vehicles)?
In the short term, clearly China because it has invested hugely in EVs and LTP batteries. But you can never discount innovation in the US and once they unleash the innovators, they do amazing things, see what’s happened with Tesla, or the new Ford Explorer from Ford.

BJP or Congress — who used the Aadhaar better?
Congress gave me the freedom and space to build it, which I’ll always be grateful for, and BJP applied it in the most efficient and effective way.

The one government service that you wish Infosys did.
We are grateful for the opportunity to build the entire indirect and direct tax system of India, and we just want to make that better and better.

Tushar Kumar, Entrepreneur & founder, Argasia Education Pvt Ltd
Is technology facilitating the human brain to evolve further, or is it actually paralysing the brain for its evolution?
That’s a great question, and, in fact, that’s a big part of what we talk about in the book. If you just use technology in an unrestricted way, you will end up being pulled in so many different directions. So, you have to consciously put in systems on how you use it. Once you get to work within those systems, you can have a much better equation with technology.

Vishal Sehgal, MD, Nischay Educorp Pvt Ltd
You spoke about the importance of digital tech goods and public platform. There’s an opportunity for Indian companies to take these technologies to a new set of countries — like UPI or ONDC or the health platform. Do you think the government should also get into it through something like an Exim Bank to create tech soft power for India in these countries?
Oh, absolutely! And I think the government is getting at it. To start with, just the announcement this week that NPCI (National Payments Corporation of India) is launching UPI Nepal. That is an example of an export of technology built here into Nepal. A couple of weeks ago, there was an announcement that Sri Lanka was going to build an Aadhaar-like system and the governments of India and Sri Lanka signed an agreement. If you look at the digital vaccination certificate that India has, which is part of the CoWIN platform, that technology is being used in Sri Lanka, Philippines and other countries. So, you’re already seeing that Indian digital technology built as public goods is going out, and the government is playing a role in that. They’re offering the Covid package to countries that want to implement a vaccination platform. So, you’re definitely seeing what we just said — the Indian government is promoting Indian digital public goods globally.

Jayanta Ghoshal, Consulting editor, India Today group
There is a chapter in your book on ‘How to be Together’. In this digital age, on social media, there is fake news and post-truth, so how to handle that as a community? Although you have mentioned a few things on how to handle social media networks, what about social consciousness? How to rebel without building a movement, what can be the solution to combat the fake riot in the social media, and how to protect our sense of privacy?
There are no easy solutions. We are trying with this book to come out with a philosophy of how to operate in this intense digital world. We have tried to capture what individuals and societies can do; you can’t get everything right. But we also have to bring awareness to the fact that this is a big issue and all of us have to start thinking about it. Just as we worry about the pandemic or about climate change, we also have to worry about how we create a stable interface for all of us with our technology.

Dharmakirti Joshi, Chief Economist, CRISIL
There is a difficulty with becoming aware that we are falling prey to technology, and without that awareness, course correction is very difficult. It’s often argued that technology firms and apps are collecting a lot of information, which you also alluded to, and which can be used to manipulate your behaviour. So, in that case, it becomes very difficult for people to wean themselves off the platform or technology. This is what (Israeli historian-writer) Yuval Harari calls ‘hacking’ the ‘brain’. Do you think firms need to be regulated for the welfare of the society in general? Or, do people have to be discerning enough to not fall prey?

I think it’s both. Obviously people have to be discerning enough because of the business model, which originally came because there was no commerce possible. They couldn’t buy things or there were no payments on the internet. The only business model that emerged was advertising, and advertising was directly linked to how much you are able to engage a person. That’s why this whole attention economy has come about. Around the world, governments are much more seized of this matter. If you look at the spate of proposals in the US and in Europe, they are trying to see how to create laws and regulations to bring some moderation here. It’s both on the individual and on society to deal with this.

Sharad Somani, Partner & Head of Infrastructure – Asia Pacific, KPMG Singapore
What’s the future of work, with Sweden going for a four-day work week, and work-from-home becoming a norm? Do you see our life moving into the Meta virtual world totally? And how does the future generation cope with this drastic societal change?
There are a couple of dimensions to the future of work. One is where you do the work and the question is: do you do work in the office, or at home, or partly from home, partly from office — is this the hybrid model? That’s one of the big issues that people are facing and we don’t really know the answers. We don’t know what is going to be the steady state of this work in the coming years and it’s fascinating. Different companies are grappling with this. So, that equilibrium will only come post-pandemic and different companies may have different equilibrium. Some may have a third of the people in the office, some may have nobody in office. So that’s all up for grabs. The second part is this metaverse stuff. So, if you’re going to be working more and more remotely, how does technology make it a more immersive experience? For example, if five-six of you are in a room, how do you create a way where I can see the guy to my left, I can talk to the guy on my right. Some of them may be physically in the room, some of them may just be avatars. So, how do you create a more immersive experience to make collaborations easier? That centre is where the metaverse in the business world is going to work, so it’s related. But it’s all part of the fact that increasingly, work will be done in a distributed way — some of it physically in the same room, some of it with people far away in their homes or even in other countries.

In the room: Ashok Kela, MD, Aetek Timbex; Nilesh Shah, MD, Kotak Mutual Fund; Dilip Piramal, CMD, VIP Industries; Hemendra Kothari, Chairman, DSP; Kirit Parikh, Chairman, IRADe; Arijit Chakravorty, Founder, AI Robotics; Sanjay Pugalia, CEO & Editor-in-Chief – Media Initiatives, Adani Enterprises; Neel Raheja, Group President, K Raheja Corp; Kiran Khalap, Co-founder & MD, chlorophyll; Aakash Sachdev, MD, Foundation Holdings; Venkataraman R, Dean, Institute Building & Examinations, ICFAI Business School; Mridu Dalmia, Trustee, Dalmia Group Holdings; Krishna K Maheshwari, CEO, Marudhar Tanchem; Arvind Paranjpye, Director, Nehru Planetarium; Mahesh Munjal, CMD, Majestic Auto; NP Singh, Vice-President, Rashtriya Kisan Majdoor Sangh; Shashi Sharma, Founder & CEO, SSBC India; Vikram S Shriram, Vice-chairman & MD, DCM Shriram; Gurdeep Singh, Chairman, Kloeckner Pentaplast India; Dilip Chenoy, Former Secretary-General, FICCI; Girish Luthra, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation; Thomas Kuruvilla, Managing Partner & Board Member, Arthur D Little Middle East; Raj Chengappa, Group Editorial Director – Publishing, India Today Group; Ameya Chandavarkar, CEO (International Business) & Executive Director, FDC; Naman Pugalia, Founder, Peppo; Anu Malik, music composer

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First published on: 06-03-2022 at 06:30 IST