Gurus of a spectral art


The emergence of India as a software superpower is still generally attributed to the cheapness of its programmers and software engineers. But the underlying reasons are more complex and interesting, lying in the subcontinent’s intellectual and pedagogical
traditions.

Software is ubiquitous. It is at the core of processes in every strategic industry, from banking to defence. And the depth of India’s advantage in software suggests that it poses a bigger challenge to the Western economies than even China. China, strong in
manufacturing and computer hardware, has been almost as unimpressive in software as Japan. Indeed, no developing country has ever taken on the developed world in a craft as sophisticated and important as software.

Indian software aptitude rests on both the emphasis on learning by rote in Indian schools, and a facility and reverence for abstract thought. These biases of Indian education are usually considered mutually exclusive in the West, where a capacity for abstraction
is associated with creativity. In India, rote learning is seen by most conventional teachers as essential grounding for speculation.

An educational tradition that spans learning by heart and exalting excellence in higher mathematics is just right for software. It fits the mentality of computers. These are, after all, machines so fastidious as to refuse to send email with a missing hyphen
or full stop in an address. Yet no product on earth is as abstract, boundlessly complex and flexible as software. It cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched and it is – to borrow Nabokov’s description of chess, a game invented in India –a “spectral
art”.

India’s accomplishments in software reflect those extremes. Indian firms dominate a world elite of more than 120 companies recognized for producing outstandingly accurate software, those which have earned a C. M. M. Level – 5 tag, software’s equivalent of
the Michelin 3 star rating. These establishments — of which the US has less than half the Indian total-are certified to be following an exacting, detail-ridden methodology developed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for producing reliable code.

At the other pole of cyber-sophistication, most of the reigning US technology giants — Microsoft, General Electric, Texas Instruments, Intel, Oracle and Sun Microsystems- have established software design and development facilities and even R&D laboratories
in India to take advantage of the world-class brains produced by the Indian Institutes of Technology, willing to work for an eighth of the starting salary of their US counterparts.

The most far-sighted Brahmin sage of 1500 BC-when the earliest of the vedas, Hinduism’s sacred texts, are thought to have been written down-could not have predicted this application of the teaching conventions born at the same time. Exactitude was central to
the pedagogy of the Brahmins, because their pupils were, effectively, human data storage media. The Vedas were preserved and passed down orally for hundreds of years (thousands, claims some Indian scholars) before they became texts. An exemplary Brahmin scholar
of the time had to be capable of holding in his head the equivalent of several books of the Bible and an entire Sanskrit thesaurus. Exactness in memorization mattered. A priestly acolyte had to be capable of not just a word- perfect, but a phoneme-perfect
recitation of Sanskrit mantras, with the proper intonation, because different sounds corresponded to different spiritual purposes.

The precise, specialised languages be used to program computers are like hieratic Sanskrit, deployed to get absolutely specific results considered vital by their users. Many details of computer languages and their rules-and variations of these for different
contexts-may be usefully memorized by computer programmers.

Rote learning still holds sway on the subcontinent, despite complaints about it in the liberal newspapers. And it seems to have served Indian programmers well in adapting to the tightly controlled processes essential to producing the exceptionally accurate
software that has earned Indian companies C. M. M. Level – 5 certification. Most Western programmers scorn those methods as mental strait jackets and insist that Indian companies and software specialists have adopted them only because of a need to stand out.

Western programmers view of their craft tends to stress its more rarefied dimensions, such as this description by the US computer scientist Frederick Brooks: “The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his
castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible… so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures.”

Yet “pure thought-stuff” is also an encapsulation of ancient India’s contributions to world scientific heritage, which are marked by abstractions encumbered by empiricism.

In about 600 BC, before the Greeks, some schools of physics in India developed atomic theories, based not on experiment but purely on intuition and logic. Some Western physicists marvel at how much closer the imaginative speculations of Brahmin atomic theory
have come to current ideas in theoretical physics than those of any other pre modern civilization.

“The Indians advanced astronomy by mathematics rather than by deductions elicited from nature,” the science writer Dick Teresi has noted in Lost Discoveries. Indian mathematics was also distinctively airy-fairy. Whereas Greek mathematics was largely extrapolated
from mensuration and geometry, the ancient Indians most distinguished themselves in abstract number theory. Zero, infinity, negative and irrational numbers-all concepts that the Greeks dismissed as ludicrous-where Indian concepts.

Spatial extension and quantities of objects were far less interesting subjects for India’s pioneering mathematical minds. In fact, the Indian leaning towards abstraction-so deep-seated that theoretical physicists and mathematicians still outrank every other
sort of Egghead in status-explains India’s relatively poor showing, historically, in more practical sciences. The sinologist Joseph Needham observed that more practical study would have entailed defying Indian caste rules about contact between Brahmins and
artisans. Similarly, the progress of ancient Indian knowledge of physiology, biology and anatomy was held back by the taboo on contact with dead bodies.

It was the supreme pragmatists, the Chinese-whose intellectual traditions favoured practicality and action over airy speculation-who were the technological geniuses of antiquity. They invented paper, seismographs, the magnetic compass, the wheel barrow,
irrigation, ink and porcelain. But reasoning for its own sake was of so little interest to them that, unlike the Greeks and Indians, they never developed any system of former logic. It hardly seems accidental that it is through the manufacture of physical
objects that China is making its mark today, while India floats on the ethereal plane of software.

Will software act as a catalyst for the wider “take-off” of India’s economy? IT accounts for just 3% of Indian GDP, and in 2002 –2003 revenue from software and service exports, including outsourcing revenues, amounted to less than a third of Microsoft’s annual
revenue of US $ 32 billion. Yet, despite the scale of India’s infrastructure problems, improvements have begun-slowly, but in earnest. If India ever has smooth roads and lights that can be counted to stay on, software and outsourcing will deserve a disproportionate
share of the credit.

Cheryll Barron is a former computer correspondent for the Economist.



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