Silicon Valley has a global mystique unrivalled by any other economic region, one which has become intertwined with the fate of India, as Indian technologists and entrepreneurs have made their mark in an area that was once, like so many others, the preserve of white men. Sundar Pichai, now CEO of Google, epitomises these changes, following on Satya Nadella of Microsoft (not in Silicon Valley, but linked to it nonetheless), Shantanu Narayen of Adobe, and others, going back to pioneers such as Vinod Khosla, Kanwal Rekhi and Suhas Patil.
With wave after wave of innovation, mostly in digital technologies, Silicon Valley has been at the core of reshaping how economies function, and how people work, play and interact. With grand visions of Digital India and Make in India, it makes sense that India’s (relatively) new Prime Minister is visiting Silicon Valley. It is only surprising that he is the first to do so. The visit fits a pattern: the Prime Minister has visited places that can offer money and expertise to an India desperately in need of both, as it seeks to cash in its potential demographic dividend.
In this context, it is interesting that the Silicon Valley visit became the focal point of an intense debate about India’s current and future direction, with the Indian diaspora involved on both sides. When the Prime Minister indicated his intention to woo the Valley’s tech titans, a group of American academics, mostly but not exclusively of Indian origin, addressed their own appeal to those titans. There were some very prominent academic names among the signatories, and the letter underwent a considered process of discussion and revision. The language was mild, expressing concerns about protection of privacy rights in a more digital India (directly germane to the Valley’s expertise), but also extending to concerns about erosions of religious, academic and other freedoms under the new government.
And of course, the Gujarat pogroms of 2002 received prominent mention. The letter ended with an appeal to Silicon Valley technology enterprises to be mindful of their ethical responsibilities.
Now, one can wish for similar concerns to be expressed about human rights violations in China, or privacy violations by the US government, or dozens of brutal, repressive governments around the world. Even with respect to India, I could wish for more concern to be expressed about the pogroms against Sikhs in 1984, their aftermath, and lingering legacy of suffering. But it is reasonable for a group of thinkers with shared interests in South Asia to express their concerns collectively (especially when done so politely), even if they are not perfectly even-handed in their concerns about global inequities and suffering.
What has been surprising is the vehemence of the response to this letter, both in the US and in India. Interestingly, the responses have been much more muscular in their use of language than the original letter: they contain vigorous defences of the Prime Minister, dismiss the concerns expressed, and impugn the letter writers. In my opinion, many of these responses represent the worst of hero worship and ultra-nationalism, and are detrimental to a dialogue that will move India forward.
The problem is that there are very few heroes in all of this. Previous governments in India have been riddled with corruption and incompetence. Aside from the unsavoury ideology that surrounds the new government, there is a certain continuity in terms of attitudes among those who rule, attitudes not always geared towards improving the overall welfare of India’s population. Ironically, after the respondents’ dismissals of the academics’ concerns about digital surveillance, the Indian government embarrassed itself and its leader with a privacy-destroying draft encryption policy. A junior scientist was hastily blamed, and the policy withdrawn, but only to fix the wording—it remains to be seen what its true intent is.
It is true that previous governments have also been dismissive of citizens’ rights (for me, 1984 comes to mind again), but one cannot use that as an excuse for never trying to improve matters. The real issue, of course, is timing and context. A meeting of “great Indians” in Silicon Valley represents a glorious vision of India, one that is strong and respected, even “world class.” Many Indians see the Prime Minister and India’s Valley titans as delivering on this vision together. At some level, this is true—India’s economic development will come from innovation, not just technological, but also the organisational innovation that has been a hallmark of the Valley. Indeed, if the Valley really comes to India, it will bring many positive changes—innovation and risk-taking, openness to diversity and to failure, venture capital, large but disciplined visions, meritocracy, and so on.
It seems to me that the faculty letter did not object to these possibilities, though the signatories may not fully appreciate the value of markets as a resource allocation mechanism. But the respondents seemed to completely miss the counterpoint, namely, that one can strive for a humane and open society without sacrificing material progress or national pride. My own hope is that Silicon Valley, itself far from ideal in its functioning, will still help to point India in the right direction, both with respect to economic growth, and with respect to pluralism and equality of opportunity. Let us bow to that hope.
The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz