Version 2000


Time past

Nine hundred and ninety nine years ago people outside China were not aware of something called printing. Arab and Hindu astronomers had described the earth to be round but no one had actually circumnavigated the world to prove the point. Most people believed in the geocentric universe. Norsemen had crossed the expanse of water now called the Atlantic Ocean and had reached the coast of North America but had ignored it. These facts convey the distance that has been travelled by human beings from the year A.D.1000 to the present day. Much of the transformation emanated from the West or from Western initiatives. Man�s perception of his world and its place in the galaxy was radically altered by the proof of a heliocentric universe which followed from the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. The introduction of the moveable type and the printing press changed man�s approach to knowledge and its preservation and dissemination. The adventures of Magellan, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama demonstrated the existence of two new continents and of a new ocean. These landmark voyages began the process of expansion which led to Europe living off the rest of the world. Europe�s dominance of the world and its consequences have been the central feature of at least 500 years of this millennium. It was broken only by the rise of the United States in the last seventy years of this century.

For India, the European conquest had momentous results. All available qualitative evidence suggests that even as late as the 17th century, the Indian subcontinent was more prosperous and in many ways more advanced than most parts of Europe. It is easy to ascribe the subsequent decline of India and the progress of Europe to imperial exploitation. The fact of exploitation cannot be denied but there were factors internal to India which acted as brakes on material advance. There was a noticeable aversion to technology, most remarkably manifest in emperor Jahangir�s refusal to accept clocks as a gift from a visiting Englishman. The rigidity of the caste system was a major obstacle to social and economic change. Indian villages bearing the brunt of the leviathan like Mughal state and its revenue demands were largely self-sufficient and isolated. More than material wealth perhaps what was lost were forms of indigenous knowledge as �modern� learning from the West came to be accepted as the only form of knowledge. Such was the strength of this suppression that indigenous knowledge in many cases vanished without a trace. It may be for this reason that Indian intellectual achievement in this millennium appears to be so unremarkable on a global scale.

In this century, one Indian has left his mark on the field of political mobilization. Mohandas Karam-chand Gandhi�s experiment with non-violent mass movements successfully drew in under one umbrella large sections of the Indian people cutting across caste and religion. Gandhi�s message of ahimsa and his use of it against the British Empire in India was unique in a world torn by violence and strife. Out of this experiment was born a new nation state called India with all the trappings of modernity and power. Gandhi, if he had lived to see contemporary India, would have disapproved of almost everything that India stands for today. The Indian achievement is one of promise and betrayal. A national movement which stood for a united India accepted independence with the country partitioned. A nation state advocating secularism and non-violence has been stalked by communal violence. After more than a century of modernity, caste inequalities and poverty continue to be features of the Indian reality. At the threshold of a new century and a new millennium, there exists a possibility of a different kind of encounter with the West. Meeting this challenge demands a new will, an honesty to discard past hypocrisies and a fresh approach to existing problems.    

A bit of history was made when Microsoft lawyers called a cherubic Finn as a witness for the defence during the software giant�s antitrust court case. The lawyers pointed to Linus Torvalds and said he had created one of their firm�s greatest threats. But the Linux computer operating system had been hacked out by Torvalds in a university dormitory. Linux has no corporate backer, no whizzkid promoter and earns its founder zero dollars � the programme is given away free on the internet. Yet it has the biggest force in information technology in cold sweat. On this optic fibre hangs a millennial tale.

This millennium is ending on a silicon note. Microsoft�s head geek, Bill Gates, is the wealthiest man in history. Thanks to dotcom shares, the worth of global stock capitalization is greater than the worth of the world�s economic output for the first time ever. The impossibility of keeping online secrets is ushering in the end of privacy and the start of total transparency. The change is dizzying.

Polls show that even in the booming United States there is deep popular unease about the pace of change. Understandable: whether it was the wheel, the steam engine or the computer, all technological advances toss some people out of jobs and leave plenty on the wayside.

Information technology is breeding its own silicon backlash. Even in India, jobs, money and stock options are flowing in the direction of the wired elite. The unlettered are always left behind. But now so are the C average high school graduates as the information economy puts ever more stress on brainpower.

A 1995 book, The Bell Curve, argued a new class system based on mental ability was evolving. Management guru Peter Drucker and labour scholar Robert Reich are among those who have coined terms � information workers and symbolic analysts, respectively � to describe this brainpower elite. Even Manuel Castells, touted the first philosopher of cybersociety, worries about �social exclusion�� caused by the �extraordinary gap between our technological overdevelopment and our social underdevelopment.��

Superficially, it does seem the playing fields are tilted in favour of a binary aristocracy. In its first phase, the information economy duplicated many sins of early industrial capitalism. It had its suffocating monopolists like Microsoft in operating systems, Intel in silicon chips and Cisco Systems in internet routers. It had its unlovable rich Rockefellers and Morgans in the form of Gates and Andy Grove. The administration of Bill Clinton has publicly fretted about a �digital divide�� between network savvy haves and computer unfriendly have nots.

Which brings us back to Linus Torvalds. The operating system bearing his name is the most successful example of what is generically called open source software. This is software made by cooperative action and then distributed free. Linux is the practical face of the anarchic brilliance of computer hackers. Hackers blazed the trail for the cyber age � inventing chip, mouse, internet , printer and much of the software that ties all these things together. And they did it for fun, not for profit.

Hackers were pushed to the margins by the corporate wallahs. They responded by making Gates their community Satan. Torvalds saved them from being a footnote in information capitalism, the happy tribe wiped out by the march of bulldozers. Instead, Linux posited an alternative information economy that stressed cooperative action, giving away products and services, and near perfect competition.

Torvalds was a 21 year old student when he typed out a primitive operating system and posted it on the internet. He posted even its source code. In other words, the programme had its insides exposed so that others could play surgery with it. Ten people downloaded this Linux forerunner. Five of them sent the programme back � with improvements. This set the pattern. By 1993, Linux had 20,000 users and, most important, over 100 programmers serving as foster parents.

Torvalds delegated the business of weighing and incorporating the stream of suggestions to a group of five. Linux was now a juggernaut, tapping an inexhaustible flow of hacker energy through the internet. Torvalds wrote, �The power of Linux is as much about the community of cooperation behind it as the code itself.�� In 1991, proto-Linux had only one user and a source code of 10,000 lines. In 1998, Linux 2.1.110 had eight million users and a source code of 1.5 million lines. It evolved at hyperlight speed. The Linux 2.1 version was released in 1997. Within a year it underwent 110 updates. More than 10,000 programmers now work on the internet to improve Linux.

Microsoft�s software development programme moves at a snail�s pace in comparison. It also produced obese products. Windows 2000, the company�s latest operating system, has a stultifying 20 million lines of source code.

Linux is superior to Windows. It never hangs or crashes. It can handle high speed, high volume functions with greater surety and security than any Microsoft ware. It drives 36 per cent of the world�s server computers, giving its rival Windows NT a run for its money. Many large companies have switched to Linux. In India, for example, Linux is wildly popular with individuals and firms alike because it is free, stable and even runs on even old 386 chips. The Eicher Group is among the converted. �Customers Love It,�� complained an internal Microsoft memo.

Linux did not spread into households because it had no friendly graphic interface � only geeks used it at home. That has started to change with various firms writing Linux software for desktops. Red Hat sells a Linux 6.0 package. Then there�s GNOME and K Desktop Environment. Even Big Blue plans a Lotus Notes for Linux. Any company can make a software programme like a Linux based word processor or spreadsheet. But Linux is public property so there can be no enslavement a la Microsoft.

Linux already does well among servers. It may yet crack the personal computer market. In June this year Microsoft admitted Linux systems were outselling Windows 98.

The real test will be the race to get operating systems to run the new wave of platforms: super cellphones, intelligent cars, smart refrigerators, website drivers and so on. Microsoft is struggling in these fields. Best would be to have a single operating system for all, a cross platform code. Cellphone could then talk with car and car with website. Linux is a candidate if enough companies base their programmes on it and enough hackers burn the midnight oil.

There are other open source software species. Apache is used to serve websites and has Gates worried as well. No one expects open source to become a dominant theme in information technology. Though some cyber ponderers claim the internet is spawning a cooperative gift economy. �Make anything cheap enough and it will no longer be scarce enough to be considered an economic good,�� one advocate argues.

But Linux is hardly an example of anarchy. Control and commerce are still central to its future. Torvalds ensures Linux�s software core is never contaminated and, he says, is �very cautious about allowing new code and new features into the kernel.�� And profit seekers like Red Hat will determine whether Linux moves from the margins to the centrestage of software history.

The tale of Torvalds is evidence that there is no foundation in the layman�s fears that the cyber age will be dominated by a handful of corporations and products. The information economy is different from old industrial capitalism. The very promiscuity of information makes it easy for anyone to enter the commercial arena.

You do not have to be overly brilliant to make software if, like Torvalds, you can tap the collective brainpower of the net. Linux shows one can succeed with minimal marketing. You had to have big bucks to take on John D. Rockefeller in oil. You only have to have chutzpah and a better product to take on his information technology equivalent.

There�s a reassuring message in this for a world readying for an information roller coaster in coming centuries. And because he sends a message that there will always be a space for the maverick in an otherwise uncertain future, Torvalds deserves to be anointed the man for the new millennium.    


Roll over, Dion

Sir � Love stories are for real. Celine Dion is retiring for a while to �enjoy the simple things in life�. She is planning to be wife to her agent husband rather than feted diva. With all best wishes to her, she has to be told that there is nothing very simple about playing wife either. Certainly, it would not invite the pressures afflicting a high profile star. But wives, being women and therefore driven by original guilt � as opposed to sin � take on ever burgeoning roles, bread-earner, cook, sexual partner, mother, tutor, hostess, char, driver. Reciting the roles can be quite empowering, but playing them is a little different. Hope Dion never has to find out.

Yours faithfully,
Girija Das, Calcutta

Thousand year itch

Sir � Many believe the millennium should not be celebrated on January 1, 2000. These strict correctionists grudge the celebrations a year in advance. How disappointing to be told that according to the Gregorian calendar, which begins the Christian era in AD 1, the third millennium does not begin until 2001. Or worse, that it began in 1997, if the third millennium is taken to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. Consider the exciting possibilities � we might have as many as three millennium celebrations.

The question is, which is the true beginning to the millennium? I would go along with what Bill Clinton reportedly told CBS radio, �We�ve got a democracy here and that�s the way we�re going.� India too is a democracy, everyone has the right to squeeze out as much enjoyment as possible. And given India�s vast population, there will be a lot of merrymaking. Forget the despair of the population pundits and think of the vast market it opens up. And to think there can be more than one such opportunity.

There is magic in strange numbers. So celebrating with three noughts is only fitting.

Yours faithfully,
Anita Gupta, Jamshedpur

Sir � Perhaps the idea of the next millennium beginning on January 1, 2000 takes its root in the possible Y2K problems. The media too is to blame for spreading this misconception. One millennium is 1000 years: the first began on January 1, 1 AD. and ended on December 31, AD 1000. The third will begin on January 1, 2001 and end on December 31, 3000.

Yours faithfully,
Sukla Das, Jamshedpur

Sir � The faulty mathematics of most people is evident not only from the fact that January 1, 2000 is being hyped as the day from which the next millennium will start. It is also shown in the way most calendars of the year 2000 show February as having 29 days. Anyone who has progressed beyond secondary school should know that after every four years, February has 29 days, with the exception of every 100th year, when it will have 28 days and, further, that every 400th year it will have 30 days.

Yours faithfully,
Mahendra Agrawal, Kishanganj

Sir � Because of the millennium mania consumer durables companies are having a great time. Sales promotion projects are at their most inventive, what with millennium contests, exchange offers and the luckiest man or woman of the millennium.

Yours faithfully,
Nitin Hoskote, Mumbai

Sir � The �why two key� problem is causing people sleepless nights. A television commercial has an ingenious answer, �Jab ek refill gone, to doosra on.�

Yours faithfully,
Rajesh Kumar Bhutra, Howrah

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