New Delhi’s Oberoi Hotel has brought me moments of strange epiphany. This week, I saw President APJ Abdul Kalam holding forth there on the Digital Divide that separates the haves from the have-nots and the knows from the know-nots.
While the focus was on using information technology to help the underprivileged, there was much to be read in the whole event and in the symbolism surrounding the place.
In front of Kalam sat Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer of Microsoft, whose revenue surpasses the national income of several nations, and NR Narayana Murthy, chairman of Infosys Technologies.
Both these honchos are symbols of the prosperity that technology can bring and the wealth that its entrepreneurs can create.
But Kalam’s own speech was, in a way, a challenge to the gentlemen. He asked technology companies to pool together funds as well as knowledge separately to create banks to help the less fortunate, particularly the 22 per cent that lies below the poverty line among India’s one billion people.
Kalam’s speech, in his school teacher-style that mixes casual humour, questions to the audience and sometimes incomplete or longwinded sentences, brought out both the heart and the vision of the man, as he pleaded for what could only be called ‘self-actualisation for the millions,’ focusing on education appropriate to each level.
What struck me was that the undertone of Kalam’s speech which was all about sharing and caring. This speech was about the heart, not the mind. Technology’s most successful people, whether they are making money for themselves or their shareholders, or engaging in genuine philanthropy for the underprivileged, are, on the other hand, usually creatures of the mind.
They set targets to enforce accountability; they are often preoccupied more with their tasks on hand than on a grand and distant vision. Of course, like the French, we can say <i>Vive le difference</i>! (Long live the difference!), while comparing the national president with the corporate presidents.
But somewhere the twain have to meet if this whole thing about the Digital Divide is to rise above the platitudes of corporate socialisation and the subtle strategies of long-term business development.
The real issue beneath the President’s seemingly incoherent speech studded with creative ideas and some real statistics and intention, is the business of the heart, which is where motivation lies.
Dr Kalam is not a rocket scientist content with writing esoteric equations to make a bomb, but is essentially one who managed to inspire hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists working in government-run establishments like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO).
The key point here is that these scientists have slogged for decades offering competence matching the best in Silicon Valley, but at wages and in working conditions of the Indian public sector.
Somewhere down the line, Dr Kalam and some others like him have done something right to keep motivations levels high, and the answer must lie in a child-like emotional connect he manages to make with people who do not fit into the corporate stereotype of rational thinking, number crunching, market surveys and enlightened self-interest.
Dr Kalam has been wary of closed-loop ownership-based software of the kind Microsoft makes. Pushed to the large sandstone walls of Rashtrapati Bhavan, he would probably prefer open-source free software like Linux over Microsoft’s paid-for Windows. He has, after all, talked in the past about the loss of intellectual property rights developed by Indians to overseas interests.
Clearly, however, there is a case where the interests of commerce must be reconciled with the need to bridge the divide between the rich and the poor, the urban and rural, the literate and the illiterate.
The real Digital Divide lies between political managers like Dr Kalam, who think with their hearts, and corporate managers like Ballmer, who feel with their minds.
This divide is of a galactic dimension, invisible in the few feet of the Oberoi’s Ballroom that separated them this week.