Digital Republic: India’s Rise to IT Power

Mathai Joseph

Published by

Power Publishers

ISBN

978 93 82792 57 4

RRP

£2.06 (Kindle edition)

Reviewed by

Andrew Robinson and Jonathan Bowen

Score

9 out of 10

Despite the unparalleled success since the 1990s of India’s IT industry - today valued at $100 billion - there are surprisingly few good books about it, and even fewer about the history of computing in India: perhaps only journalist Dinesh Sharma’s The Long Revolution: The Birth and Growth of India’s IT Industry (2009).

Digital Republic: India’s Rise to IT Power, a briefer book than Sharma’s, which is both a history and a personal memoir by a significant Indian computer scientist, Mathai Joseph, is therefore required reading for anyone trying to understand the development of digital computing in India from its shaky beginnings in 1955.

Not only has its author worked at several key institutions - including Cambridge University in the UK during the 1960s, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai and Tata Consultancy Services in Pune (where he retired in 2007 as head of research) - he also writes with directness, candour and variety, telling pointed and often amusing anecdotes about research and life in India, the UK and the USA from the 1950s until now.

Neither the Indian government nor Indian academia has served computing well. ‘Of all the industries expected to create a technological transformation in India, this was the one least likely to succeed’, Joseph writes. Soon after Independence in 1947, the government began to lavish attention on space and nuclear power, but it controlled computers as if they were a ‘danger’ to employment, without the least vision of their ultimate importance.

The situation became so discouraging for Joseph by 1985 that he abandoned his secure position in Mumbai and moved to the University of Warwick until 1997. The reason for the software industry’s 1990s success was precisely that software did not fall under any established government categorisation. For a long time, it ‘was not even recognised as an industry.’

However, as he readily concedes, this commercial expansion has yet to invigorate either India’s R&D in IT or academic computer science, where the research community has remained virtually the same size for past two decades and ‘has produced only a few notable successes’, such as the internationally award-winning AKS primality test by Manindra Agrawal et al. to determine prime numbers. Digital Republic adds constructively to the debate around IT and computer science in India and should help, we hope, to develop and improve the field.

Further information: Power Publishers

January 2014