Launched in 2015, the Smart Cities Mission aims at creating citizen-friendly and sustainable cities through technology-led urban renewal. While the policy documents shy away from defining a Smart City, all projects suggest that technological interventions will revamp city governance and infrastructure. The illnesses of our cities have been diagnosed differently over the years, and policy makers posit that technology is the panacea of our times, which will take care of issues ranging from waste collection to traffic management, water supply networks to citizens’ participation.
Bridgital Nation begins by suggesting that we need to look beyond the smart city at a ‘smart nation’ and offers digital technology as the pill to pop that will ease us into a better future. Its language is cautious in constantly reminding us that other changes in policy and society are integral to this future, but sticks close to its claim that technology will be the bridge that enables this vision.
The authors N. Chandrasekaran and Roopa Purushothaman are both senior executives of the Tata group, and the book can easily be seen as a giant campaign for Tata Consultancy Services (the digital technology wing of the group) in its assortment of anecdotes, truisms, graphs and infographics picked out of boardroom powerpoints, projected figures from their own surveys as ‘evidence’, and its proselytising language.
The hotchpotch of chapters present Reader’s Digest worthy human stories from health, education, and employment to describe various crises, but return to the key refrain of digital solutions. The book does evaluate the ills successfully—for instance, it details the lack of manpower, budgets and infrastructure at regional health care systems. But if the book (or TCS) aims to be the prophet of this ‘bridgitization’, its vision is reductive—surely the tech giant could provide solutions that go beyond providing digital tablets, online platforms and integrating processes? Even after recognising that hospitals do not even have budgets for basic medical machinery, the suggestion that networked tablets are what we need to focus on is laughable. Similarly, after a detailed section identifying social conditions preventing inclusion of women in the workforce, the book has an unimaginative pitch ready—create an online platform where skilled women can seek work. Don’t job sites already exist?
While automation has taken over some jobs in various sectors, the book says that digital education will transform our large population into a skilled workforce. While this is definitely possible, I am extremely sceptical about the projected numbers. For one, it does not identify the domains or interventions where such a large skilled workforce can be accommodated. Second, if bridging technology to existing services seems to be the mainstay of the book’s case studies, then where is the added productive value of the <newer> jobs? Third, when highly qualified members of the workforce are already enmeshed in the gig economy, would digital skilling be sustainable?
The scepticism is deepened by the sources of these job projections—the book relies heavily on internal reports by TCS and pointedly ignores academic studies that are much more restrained if not contrary in their projections. Studies have also pointed out to the lopsided outcomes of the Skill India Mission, leaving women without jobs despite skilling or being pushed into low paying gender normative job profiles. It is also deeply suspicious how the authors leave out any conversation about Artificial Intelligence. TCS leads AI solutions in multiple sectors. Surely they are aware that many of the service and process jobs they predict will be created are also easily prone to automation and reduced human intervention. Will TCS-tablet toting ASHA workers who guide patients for nutrition and tests be one day replaced by algorithm-based automated alerts?
Through its shoddily organised sections and chapters, the book has a constant rider for its vision of platforms and tablets—they are not responsible for everything else, society is. Like a kaka musing over evening tea, it is rife with its didactic reminders that society needs a ‘change in mindset’. At a time when fake news and hate speech proliferate on online platforms, promoting gendered, casteist and communal mindsets, one wonders how exactly the authors intend to bring about this change. The kaka-esque voice reappears in a chapter of barely 120 words to remind us that we need attitude changes towards women in work. ‘It’s time we did it in spirit’, it triumphantly concludes. Sometimes the authors have worrying proposals—in one place, they earnestly suggest emulating China as a leading model for data privacy regulation.
There is no denying that we have to contend with digital and technological transformations. These transformations are not necessarily in the future but are already around us. TCS has been an instrumental player, providing access and streamlining services across the country in education and healthcare. But Bridgital Nation seems to be merely a giant sales pitch for further expansion into a fast-growing market that it already dominates. But even as a pitch, it is selective in its evidence, grandiose in its projections, cringe-worthy in its narrative and sloppy in its organisation and writing.
The book’s larger approach to these transformations is simple—the industry will take care of digital technology, while society (and sometimes the government) is responsible for everything else. And therein lies the rub—it disregards how technology can be exclusionary for those without access, without social capital, without safeguards for their privacy, or even simply literacy. It ignores the implications of the Data Protection Bill, is unconscious of caste, class and regional inequalities, has no suggestions for democratising technology, and has no nuance in its obsession with tablets, platforms and processes.
If we do need to create smart cities, or indeed a smart nation, we need to acknowledge that technology is not outside our social transformations but indeed deeply intertwined with it. While bordering on quackery, the authors turn what should have been a consultancy report into a palatable technological utopia, like transforming a generic placebo into a branded and well-packaged panacea.
About The Author
Khaliq Parkar works on digital citizenship and smart cities as a PhD student at the Université Paris Diderot
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