Could the spread of programming solve problems between India and Pakistan?
A couple of months ago, I was searching through a pile of horrible news stories for a topic for this column when I asked our departing intern, Holly Dolezalek, for her choice of the story of the week. She suggested the impending war between India and Pakistan. “But good luck finding the tech angle,” she said, to which I replied, “What about the hundreds of thousands of Indian programmers and the companies that depend on their work?” Still, I felt that the war was way too gloomy, so I wrote about the stock market crash instead (oh, joy).
Since then, tensions between the two countries have thankfully cooled somewhat. But an Aug. 11 column in the New York Times by my favorite international correspondent, Thomas Friedman, has forced me to doubt my original decision. Yes, India and Pakistan are far away, but the IT world is becoming a very small place. And tech’s insurgence in the world has a lot of far-reaching effects, including our sense of security at home.
Friedman wrote the column from Bangalore, a southern Indian city of more than 3.3 million inhabitants, most of whom work in high tech. Several large U.S. companies have set up programming and support services divisions there to capitalize on the cheap and highly educated work force. General Electric has a research center there that employs 1,700 Indian engineers, for example. Indeed, as Friedman notes, tech is one of the few equalizers in an otherwise stratified Indian society. Regardless of gender, caste, religion, or regional heritage, young Indians can join the middle class if they apply themselves and learn technology skills. As he reports, once the old-guard Indian political machine got wise to the fact that the country would lose thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic infusion from United States companies, it quickly reversed its hawkish stance. When I read Friedman’s column, the geek in me smiled a great, Grinchy smile–tech had brought about peace.
Contrast the situation in India with the news on our site last Wednesday of a tech convention in Karachi, Pakistan. “More than 1,000 armed police and paramilitary officers inspected cars and barricaded all roads leading to the Expo Center in east Karachi, site of the Information Technology and Commerce Network exhibition,” the story said. It went on to report that President Musharraf skipped a dinner with dignitaries from the show for fear of assassination.
While geeks whiz through the streets of Bangalore on their scooters in peace, they would need armed guards to feel safe in Karachi. Why the contrast? As Friedman noted in a column later last week, it has to do with their respective educational systems. While India’s educational system is largely agnostic, Pakistan’s is rooted in fundamentalist Islam. The result: Indian youths have firm math and science foundations on which to build tech skills; Pakistani youths learn the Koran and little else except disdain for the West. Though India has hundreds of millions of Islamic people (thousands of whom are toiling in Bangalore cubicles as you read this), not one al Queda captive hails from India. On the other hand, the largest nationality represented in al Queda is Pakistani, followed closely by Saudi Arabian. Though there are Pakistani techies, most of them had to learn and ply their trades outside of Pakistan. And unless Musharraf’s government reforms its educational system, that is the way it will stay.
Musharref knows he must reform the educational system if he is to keep control of his country and improve its economic situation. All he has to do is look at Bangalore as a model. In 10 short years, it has been transformed into a thriving tech hub. Karachi, once a haven for American interests in Pakistan, could return to its former distinction if Pakistan rededicates itself to its public education system, which once rivaled India’s. The optimist in me sees a world in my lifetime in which the tech reformation sweeps through the entire planet and becomes the great deterrent for war and terrorism, as it has been in India. It may be a pipe dream, but you wouldn’t begrudge an editor battered by a summer of horrible news one Grinchy smile, would you?
James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com