Ajit Balakrishnan offers lessons from another tech revolution not so long ago.
“I will not go to college today if you don’t buy me a nylon sari,” I heard the sobbing voice of my sister talking to our parents.
“What is wrong with the half a dozen saris we have bought you for college?” I heard our mother ask.
“They are all cotton saris — only old women wear them!” I heard my sister say, again in a sobbing voice.
This memory is from the 1960s, when I was a high school student and my sister had just entered college. I found myself remembering this scene just the other day, nearly 60 years later.
What was it that brought this apparently trivial incident back to my mind?
Well, let me for a moment go back to that time: My parents pacified my sister by getting her the nylon saris she wanted as apparel for the ‘modern’ girl. Fast forward to today.
Today, in the 2020s, not one of my women friends/relatives would agree to be seen in a sari made of anything remotely synthetic, let alone nylon.
What is it that transforms something from a symbol of modernity to something to be avoided?
Will something similar happen to our current enthusiasm for artificial intelligence/digital revolution/machine learning/deep learning, to use some of the words that describe the things that capture the headlines of our everyday life today?
Maybe we can decode why such things happen if we study the path of the chemical revolution, which was a technological wave as major as artificial intelligence (AI) is today.
The chemical revolution started in a small way in the late 18th century, rose to a peak in the 1960s, and then slowly faded away to such an extent that anything ‘plastic’ has become synonymous with ‘pollution’ and demands are made on all that only ‘recyclable’ plastics be used, including, for example, that tea ought to be served in perfectly biodegradable and environment-friendly earthen cups instead of plastic ones.
The much-despised synthetic chemicals of today were at one time the pride and envy of the whole world. Synthetic chemical fertilisers and pesticides came into force in the early 1900s and helped increase food output dramatically and thus served to prevent starvation.
In the early 20th century, synthetic chemical drugs such as penicillin, and vaccines against measles, mumps, chickenpox, rubella, and hepatitis saved the world from a wide variety of diseases.
Innovation around the properties of combustion of gases led to the invention of the internal combustion engine and thus the birth of motorised vehicles like cars.
And then, in the 1960s chiffon saris made from polyester or nylon became the rage in India and featured in many Bollywood movies of that time.
While all this was going on and businesses that brought all these wonderful products to the market were booming and widely lionised by the media, there were earth-shaking negative effects under way as well.
The most earth-shaking of these during the chemical revolution and the spread of nylon and polyester saris, and shirts and trousers (and even dhotis and kurtas) was the crash and burn of cotton textile spinning and weaving mills.
In Bombay alone over a 100 cotton textile mills shut down.
The pattern of such closures again is worth noting. As a first step, they saw a fall in sales, which gradually increased to a point that mills had to cut bonuses, and then refuse pay increases and struggle to pay basic salaries.
Then the 200,000-odd workers affected by this formed militant unions and went on strike.
As the technology wave worked its way further, the cotton textile mills closed down.
This is exactly what happened in Bombay textile mills (and cotton textile mills in other parts of India as well) in the early 1980s.
Unfortunately, even today, if you ask what caused the Bombay textile mills collapse in the 1980s, you get the answer ‘Datta Samant and the unions’ (Datta Samant was an aggressive union leader leading the Bombay textile mill workers union and was assassinated in 1997).
While this raucous drama was being enacted, the silent, creeping effect of the invasion of synthetic textile technology lay hidden under the surface and was rarely discussed then or, I should add, even now.
One of the side effects of this spread of chemical technology was the boom in the number of manufacturers of toothpastes and washing soaps and liquids and such conveniences of day-to-day life.
Colgate, Unilever, and a hundred others are creatures of this chemical revolution.
What was interesting was that this availability of chemical technology was so widespread that manufacturers were unable to differentiate their products on real physical features, so the next miracle happened: The advertising agency was born and took on the job of differentiating products on ‘image’… perception of products created in the citizens’ minds by the skilful use of ‘creative advertising’ in newspapers and magazines first, and then in cinema and on television.
The plentiful advertising money which flowed to sell the ‘commoditised’ products of the chemical revolution also led to a boom in newspapers, magazines, cinema and TV as a side effect. The hidden hand of the chemical revolution behind all this was rarely noticed or discussed.
And now, here are some points to ponder: As the AI revolution works its way through society, what new industries will it create?
What current industries will it erode?
What new jobs will be created and what jobs will disappear?
But most important, what practices that we now throw away as ‘old-fashioned’ and not befitting the ‘modern’ AI-dominated world will stage a comeback, like the cotton sari did?
What thoughtful policy initiatives will guide us as a country through this complex journey that lies ahead of us?
Ajit Balakrishnan ([email protected]), founder and CEO, Rediff.com, is an Internet entrepreneur.
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