Making in India

Mathematician and columnist Rohit Gupta on the politics of innovation and why we need to look at technology as art

Excerpts from an interview;

What is your impression of the way Jugaad is being exported as an Indian phenomenon?

It is problematic in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.

Allow me to explain: Frugal innovation is seen across many regions such as Latin America, Africa and South-East Asia, so it is certainly not an India-specific phenomenon. It is being used, I feel, to offset our dismal marksheet in the realm of fundamental science after Independence. Another negative connotation here is that jugaad innovations lack in sophistication, as opposed to the Large Hadron Collider or laparoscopic surgery.

These are subtle gestures. What is being hinted is that “while your jugaad is a commendable contraption, in order to do real science you need money” such as large institutions or big corporations. This is the political aspect of innovation, which subliminally discourages citizens from engaging in science.

A recent TV commercial for epitomizes this sort of patronising tone. “Look at these rural inventors, they made a windmill,” it says like a pat on the back. And then, “Now imagine if they had

Internet….what would they make?” So clearly a windmill is not cool enough for some genius at Facebook who is the Vasco Da Gama of CSS & HTML.

How does India’s Maker Movement compare with what has been ongoing for a while in the West?

Maker movements in Europe have evolved in the last few decades to the point that they all have different agendas, philosophies and aesthetics. They have different festivals for music technology, generative design,

3D printing and so forth. In India, if you’re doing something with technology you’re probably a start-up bro, & not an artist.

It would be a huge leap forward if people start looking at technology as an art, and not merely in terms of commerce.

We are yet to see a concrete philosophy behind making in India. Think about the philosophy behind the Make In India campaign, for example. What should we make? Aloo-parathas? No, the focus on “digital India” is pretty clear, but what is this aversion to the analog world? Trains are analog, people are analog, the world is analog.

Communication is digital. So is there a preoccupation with communication & media in this message? Either that or these are just arbitrary buzzwords that betray a lack of originality.

Is popular culture seeing a resurgence of science with youth even in terms of mainstream American television or the maker movement for that matter?

Quite the contrary, the paranoia around terrorism is creating an environment where people simply can’t play with chemistry, physics or whatever. Just look at what happened to that kid Ahmed. This is a complete failure of society to deal with science & education. What we’re left with is popsci journalism and science-fiction.

Science-fiction or popsci is not enough create a scientific temper in the mainstream. You don’t become a painter by looking at Picasso — at some point you have to pick up the brush and paint. Just compare the list of things that a tinkerer needs in a minimal electronic or chemistry lab, with the things you can take aboard an airplane. This is the worst time for a science hobbyist in the last 300 years.

For me the most iconic phenomenon of popular culture right now is ‘selfies’ and that is bloody annoying. It reeks of a monumental narcissism in culture, but I don’t know — maybe evolution has some hidden purpose behind it which I’m too stupid to fathom yet.

Want to get in touch with Rohit? He doesn’t bite, usually.

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