How information technology must beget compassion

Amartya Sen asks India's software industry to spread the love.

Published February 21, 2007 9:30PM (EST)

Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize-winning economist, part-time philosopher and all- around wise man, gave a keynote address at the annual meeting of India's National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) on Feb. 7. It makes for a sublime read, moving effortlessly between witty self-deprecation, millennia of Indian culture, the philosophy of David Hume and Isaiah Berlin, and the role of information technology in the modern world.

The gist of his speech is to urge India's information technology industry "to bring its influences somewhat beyond what can be seen as its traditional domain" and do more "to help the direction of Indian economic and social development."

Sen's moral call to arms has the Indian Economy Blog's Nitin Pai and a host of discussants at the Acorn riled up by what they see as an inappropriate and unnecessary mandate for corporate social responsibility that at best won't achieve much and at worst reeks of India's socialist legacy. But the critics skip over Sen's most interesting point: his interpretation of how information technology and globalization can be forces for mutual understanding and solidarity.

Culturally speaking, Sen says that in India "there has also been for thousands of years a very robust tradition here of admiring, using and learning from excellence anywhere in the world." He theorizes that one reason explaining the remarkable achievements of Indian IT professionals has been "their own valuational commitment to learn what they can from anywhere which has good ideas to offer"; their "open-minded willingness to comprehend, as [the philosopher and novelist Rabindranath] Tagore put it, that "whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin."

This in turn leads to the crucial observation that "There is, in fact, a very foundational connection between information and social obligation, since the moral -- and of course the political -- need to pay attention to others depends greatly on our knowledge and information about them."

Which brings us to David Hume, who wrote, in "An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals":

...again suppose that several distinct societies maintain a kind of intercourse for mutual convenience and advantage, the boundaries of justice still grow larger, in proportion to the largeness of men's views, and the force of their mutual connections. History, experience, reason sufficiently instruct us in this natural progress of human sentiments, and in the gradual enlargement of our regards to justice, in proportion as we become acquainted with the extensive utility of that virtue.

Back to Sen:

Negligence of suffering of others is sustainable, given human interest in justice and equity, only when we know little about that suffering. More information in itself goes a long way to breaking that chain of apathy and indifference.

This foundational connection also gives the information industry a huge opportunity to help India by trying to make its contribution to the systematization, digestion and dissemination of diverse clusters of information in India about the lives of the underdogs of society -- those who do not have realistic opportunity of getting basic schooling, essential health care, elementary nutritional entitlements, and rudimentary equality across the barriers of class and gender. This can also be said about problems of underdeveloped physical infrastructure (water, electricity, roads, etc.), as well as social infrastructure, that restrain the broad mass of Indians from moving ahead. There are particular causal connections also here: an enterprise that hugely depends on the excellence of education for its success -- as the IT sector clearly does -- has good reason to consider its broad responsibility to Indian education in general.

A recurrent theme in discussions of contemporary globalization is how advances in computer and communications technologies have made it possible for multinational corporations to seamlessly offshore and outsource their operations, and pitted the working men and women of the entire globe against each other in a digitally mediated global workplace to the great benefit of the holders of capital. Amartya Sen reminds us that these same information technologies also bring us closer to each other, expose us more readily to the plight of others, to the nitty-gritty workings of capitalism, and to the manifold ways in which we are all interconnected. The more we know, the harder it becomes not to act upon that knowledge.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works India