Buying into the future

01 Jan 1900

The Future of Technology
Edited by Tom Standage
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
Pages: 358 pages
Price: Rs395
This book is available at the Landmark bookstore, Bangalore,
and at

The problem with the future is that it keeps changing. Those of us who are a little older than others will remember how things like the transistor radio, the pressure cooker and the tube light were received with so much pomp as well as perplexity, and how those who didn't have them at first envied those who did.

If you are too young to remember those days, think of how people greeted the advent of colour TV, the personal computer, the Walkman, cable TV, the mobile phone and the internet. Today all these things have become passé. What, then, will the future bring, which we (or our grandchildren) will envy for a while?

You can get a glimpse of the future, or at least the present continuous, in a book called The Future of Technology, which has been compiled from articles and surveys on technology issues published between 2002 and 2005 in The Economist weekly.

Don't expect the pop thing here, like hot badges, magic pens, emotion communicators, interactive books, and so on, which companies like Philips are looking at seriously. Being made of sterner stuff, The Economist focuses on things like nanotechnology, fuel cells, biotechnology, security issues, and such-like. Not easy-to-wade-through stuff. But essential, if you are at all involved with anything to do with long-term strategic planning.

It doesn't matter if your company makes cement or steel, and has nothing to do with nanotechnology or digital communications; the book gives you a basic understanding of some of the technologies that will shape the future. What it doesn't do enough is give an idea of future technologies. By definition, future technologies must be technologies that aren't available today.

Oh, for a revival of Omni (print edition shut down: 1996; website edition closed: 1998; website shut down: 2003), which dared to take leaps into the future by providing a mix of science and science fiction! The bird's eye (or should we say a satellite) view of the future must involve speculation as well as fact. Some science fiction speculation can turn out to be fact, such as Arthur C Clarke's educated speculation in the 1940s about satellite communication (years before the technology became a reality), or the science fiction (or science fantasy) stories of micro-shrunk doctors in 'The Fantastic Voyage' navigating the innards of a human body to battle disease, which may find a reality avatar through the application of nanotechnology medical devices.

The Future of Technology doesn't give you an overarching view of the future; rather, it seeks to build a vision of the future by examining individual technologies in as much depth as a non-technical reader's brain can stomach, to mix metaphors. Because of that, the book is, in a sense, really about the present state of technology rather than its future.

Being a compilation, the book lacks the all-encompassing vision to address the gripe, "the future isn't what it used to be", voiced by people as different as Paul Valery, French critic and poet, and Yogi Berra, baseball player and wit. So, for example, when the book looks at the 'digital home', it delves so deep into the entrails of the digital network, we don't really get a bird's eye view of the future home.

Now, if this sounds like a condemnation of the book, it is not. The book's limitations are inherent in its objective, which is to merely compile some of the best writing on the subject of technology in the weekly, which its editor, Tom Standage, technology editor at The Economist, has done remarkably well. Nobody can argue, certainly not I, that the weekly's technology writing is poor, or even so-so; it is excellent, and a 350+ page compilation of such writing for just Rs395 is an absolute steal.

The section on energy, for example, taken from an Economist survey published in 2004, sums up many of the technology issues we are still grappling with. It's fun to read the weekly's typically polemical treatment of the hydrogen power issue, where it treats the approaches of Romano Prodi and George W Bush with equal irreverence.

Readers in India will love the pages on outsourcing, where the book extols the benefits of outsourcing. It asks, 'Can India's IT industry do to the West's IT giants what Wal-Mart has done to rival retail firms, or Dell to computer-makers?' It quotes Infosys managing director Nandan Nilekani as saying, "Almost everything that is done can be done by us faster, cheaper and better." For proof, the book adds: 'Accenture's revenue is 14 times that of Infosys, but the American firm's market value is only one-third higher than its Indian competitor.'

It says: 'A sudden increase in global competition could force faster and deeper restructuring in rich countries. Big IT-services firms such as IBM and Accenture have scrambled to hire tens of thousands of new employees in India to compete with Indian IT firms such as Wipro and TCS. This could happen in other industries too, as India becomes expert at providing outsourced banking, insurance and business services.'

Unfortunately, these are the IT and related services that the book describes as the information technology layer that will get commoditised. Nilekani and the book may well be right in saying that India has an advantage. But they are both talking of today. What will happen in the future when a few million Chinese, Vietnamese or even Azerbaijani programmers throw their hats in the arena?

The Future of Technology doesn't answer that question (it doesn't even ask it), and we shouldn't expect it to, since that is not its scope. But every senior manager in every Indian company must ask such questions.

Today IT (or other industry) outsourcing out of India is really supported by an India brand — which is like a store brand, not a product or corporate brand. Country brands are susceptible to the Ricardian or post-Ricardian economics of international comparative advantages. The cluster theory (a la Michael Porter) has worked so far with IT in India. But the Indian cluster story is based on cost advantage rather than a quality advantage, as with the fashion industry in Italy or champagne or cognac from France.

The quality advantage needs to be grafted on to the cost advantage (and quickly) if the Indian global competitiveness story has to be continued deeper into the 21st century. That advantage will come only if Indian enterprises build the capabilities to speculate on the future of the world (which is very different from speculation on the future of share or commodity prices, where many of them are pretty smart), where they are very weak compared to their American, European, Japanese, Korean or Chinese counterparts.

And that is precisely where The Future of Technology doesn't provide the answer. But, what the heck, if it could provide such answers, it would have been priced at a few thousand dollars!
Kiron Kasbekar

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