Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

November 2005
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Lest the IT Revolution Bypass Muslims
By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

The IT caravan is on the roll. The changes call for prudent policies for the Muslim Ummah to make amends in the way it lives, thinks and fashions its future.

We are under the throes of the Information Technology (IT) revolution. It is transforming the world like nothing else did ever before. Based on knowledge, the IT is likely to challenge and change all that we have so far taken as normal, held dear or considered conventional. Its unsparing sweep is bound not merely to alter our economy and society, but even our mode of living, behaviour, attitude, doctrines, dietary customs, cultural mores, and the way we think. Results would be breathtaking.

The 17th century Industrial Revolution centralized production, gave new impetus to quest for knowledge, decisively shifted the axis of power from the Orient to Europe, and consequently passed over the reins of civilization to its hands. It freed women from household chores of baking bread and weaving woollens and productively utilised them in factories and offices. In Alvin Toffler’s words, it ‘massified’ production with assembly lines coming up all over. Discovery of steam power had for the first time recognized a source of power other than the human muscles. As the caravan of discovery surged ahead, Europe explored new sources of energy and power and colonialism was the political offshoot of its progress. Arrival of computer in a major way around early 90s began to alter the mode of production. Again to quote Toffler, it began to ‘demassify’ the economy and society. In its current phase, the link up between computers and telephone has heralded the age of Information Technology (IT), a third revolution in as many centuries.

The 15 years of computerization and arrival of Internet on the world scene around 12 years ago, has ushered us in a borderless world of knowledge, communication, and information. The Information Technology has come about as a result of computers getting connected with the telecommunication network. The computer had already turned the axis from mechanical power to human brain. Now the leviathan network of computers enables the knowledge and information to have a free reign, much above the physical and national boundaries created by the geography or raised by the nations. And it is in the multimedia form, carrying with itself pictures, colour, diagrams, sound, motion, text and script, et al. It is urging the wealthy to join the bandwagon and much of the world nations have obliged. All visible and invisible barriers have collapsed or vanished without a trace. Knowledge trundles all over the globe unhindered and gets into languages, nations and societies to reach the human brain. Who knew ‘tsunami’ before December 26 last year? But it got into the tip of the tongue of six billion people within less than 12 hours. Knowledge is also breaking itself free from the prison of intellectual property rights (IPR). A conference scheduled for November 17, 2005, would discuss an alternative model for the IPR and discuss its relevance in a world where knowledge gains accretions and modifications every second. Guess is that knowledge is doubling every five years today. But it will not be before long that this tenure would shrink to just a few hours.

Muslims will need to use all emerging technologies to transfer themselves from victim to vanguard position. Technology is value neutral. It has no preference for virtues or vices. It works both ways. It need not be suspected for it baneful impact. It could be doubly beneficial if blended with positive values.

Just cast a cursory glance over the world we have seen transforming during the last 15 years. Today the newspapers that arrive with our morning coffee have news items on the front page and commentaries by the readers on the same events in the letters columns. How it came about? And the readers are not the ones merely from Trichy, Aligarh or Shimoga. They are spread across the globe from Dubai to Dayton. It took us a century to know that US Supreme court has Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) image among the 25 greatest law-givers of the world. But the violent reaction against the caricaturisation of the Prophet in an online edition of a Danish journal took not more than a couple of days. Cardiac surgeons at the Bangalore’s Narayana Hrudayalaya annually conduct 250 bypass surgeries at the Sanaa’s (Yemen) Al-Thaura Hospital. The coalition of camera, computer and telecom network created the possibility. The telemedicine network of the hospital now allows pre- and post surgery consultation for heart patients at Lahore and the remote capitals of the tiny North Eastern states. Doctors could listen to their heartbeats, judge pulse and gauge blood pressure with physical distances intact. Teachers at Hyderabad and Delhi undertake video tuition classes for kids in the United States. Families separated by the LoC in the divided Jammu and Kashmir can now see and talk across the line in Indian and Pakistani sides of the state over video link. The IT facilities allow you to monitor the progress through skies and the delivery of your parcel couriered by the DHL on your PC to any destination in the world. It is the same facility that makes it possible for you to make a train reservation between Guwahati and Dibrugarh in Assam from Chennai or Bangalore. Your niece in New Jersey need not be sad if she misses you on her birthday. There is possibility of your getting her delivered a bouquet or a box of Indian sweets bought from Little India of New York through e-commerce. And her mother could also watch the full six yards of a sari she wants to buy from Nellai Silks of Chennai on the website. It is the same Internet that can take you on a virtual electronic trip inside the Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace.

World of bizarre possibilities has expanded limitlessly. Changes that have come in its wake leave us breathless. They have tremendously hastened the pace of life and threaten to uproot the most entrenched of shibboleths. IT caravan is on the roll. It can neither be reversed nor can its pace be slackened. Only fools fight against the technology. Wiser nations incorporate the changes in their lives and lifestyles, mould them to their culture, develop adequate safeguards, put in place the protocols to regulate them, tap their benefits, think ways to mitigate their harmful effects on mores and morals, and tackle the grey areas carefully.

Merits from the new technology always outnumber its demerits. Americans pounce upon the technology to employ it for their imperialist designs. The British who donned this mantle decades ago, now use it for empowering their media, the financial sinews and the communication. Japanese encash it for bettering their trade prospects. (Weren’t they the first ones to put a compass on the Muslim prayer mat, invent the ‘Takbeer’ clock and devise tasbeeh calculator?) The Swiss induct it into their tourism promotion. The Chinese explore its potential to expand mass production. The 20 million Indian elite use it for consolidating the diaspora into a cultural entity, establishing a network of hawala, hundi, trade and export or smuggle expat labour. The Muslims scattered over the 66 countries of the world look askance at the new devices, then explore its deleterious impact on their faith, seek legitimacy from the ulema, and then fall in line to embrace it willy nilly once the rest of the nations have set its protocols. By that the West would have begun using it as a tool of oppression and its first victims would be Muslims. This attitude needs to be changed if the community aspires to empower itself. It will need to use all emerging technologies to transfer itself from victim to vanguard position. Technology is value neutral. It has no preference for virtues or vices. It works both ways. It need not be suspected for it baneful impact. It could be doubly beneficial if blended with positive values.

The Information Technology has caused massive convulsion in the global economy. Distances have collapsed and borders have dissolved. Education, banking and industry have taken its massive onslaught. It has pauperized the erstwhile owners of wealth and turned the youth into billionaires. Nehru’s temples of future India stand condemned today as smokestack industries. But yesterday’s typing institutes have emerged as sunrise industries merely by hanging on to the coat-tails of computers and Internet.

It has set off alarm bells for Muslims too. Convulsions are already evident. Liberalised economy is spelling doom for all those who insist on carrying on the trade and industry in the traditional way. Some of the trends that liberalization has introduced need to be understood in detail.

Economic liberalisation has synchronised with IT in a major way. Automation of industry is reducing the dependence on human hands. So banks have now ATMs. Status of train reservation can be gleaned at the computerized booths or simply on the home PC connected with Internet. Platform tickets, milk booths, beverages, can be had by automatic vending machines. Flight boarding cards can now be had at homes on your PC/printer. Electronic pencils now transfer bar coded prices onto computer in shopping malls. Solar powered street lights now burn or get switched off with the sunset and the sunrise. Whether you like it or not, the automation is set to progress.

Computer aided production now takes care of niche markets which earlier required ancillary units. Fifteen years ago you could have printed a letter with common text for 100 different people in a printing press but the address labels were to be prepared separately. Now the DTP in your office can personally address all these folk and print their relevant addresses on the letters. This of course is a very simple device to refer. Computer programmed production can now create different designs on the same cloth in a reel with varying colours. Thus assembly line production can now continue without interruption and can accommodate varied tastes of the consumers.

The IT has affected the world movement of labour considerably. Earlier the labour moved to places where the job existed. Now the capital and work move to places where workers are available or reside. The IT industry of Bangalore, Hyderabad or Pune is doing nothing but back office work of US banks, insurance agencies, hospitals and courts.

The production is getting centralized. All countries need not produce everything they need. They will produce what the raw material and skills available with them can produce and will exchange goods and services. Similarly, the cheaper telecom and information media now make it possible for the goods to move to the market in time.

In keeping with these changes wrought by the IT, let us take a look at the way our own ways of earning livelihood have been affected.

Garment industry has rendered the male tailors jobless in thousands. My limited experience in social work tells me that nearly 5,000 Muslim tailors are starving in Bangalore itself. Reasons are not far to seek. I have not stepped into a tailor’s shop during the last decade. So also the whole generation of youth. Should we then still distribute sewing machines as a welfare measure among the poor?

Embroidery and zari work has been a traditional occupation with Muslims. Now computer aided embroidery machines do much more work with a higher degree of finesse and within shorter space of time. An embroidery unit in Bangalore which previously employed 200 zari workers has now only 20 of them. It invested in computerized machines and churns out a much larger output with less input cost on administrative work. Graphic designers now sit in glass kiosks to design ever newer designs which are fed into machines to produce the patterns on fabric in a jiffy. One may have sentimental attachment with hand embroidery. But businesses do not run by sentiments. One might even differ with the automation policies. But businessmen would not be convinced. It is for politicians and ideologue to formulate policies for alternative situations.

Take the instance of Muslim silk reelers and twisters in towns like Ramanagram, Channapatna, Sidlaghatta and Kolar. Most of these silk filature units have been stand still for years now. Lifting of trade barriers under the WTO regimen has brought in a deluge of cheaper Chinese silk into Indian market. Those who once employed 20 to 30 workers in their unit, are now travelling to Bangalore daily to work as masons.

These are a few examples from our neighbourhood. For sure, there would be hundreds and thousands of businesses and trades elsewhere that may have been made redundant. The combined onslaught of the economic liberalization and the Information Technology have altered the way we eke out a living. The elite grasp them automatically and initiate steps to change their preferences and priorities. They direct their kids to greener pastures. But not the masses. Someone needs to hold their finger and lead them. An additional reason why the IT revolution would bypass us is continued negligence towards English which is the chief vehicle of IT and communication. (More about it later.)

The changes call for prudent policies for the Muslim ummah to make amends in the way it lives, thinks and fashions its future. Negligence would distance us from the sources of power and profit. A powerless community is ideal fodder for imperialist power, as is evident from the plight of the community.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])