In Bombay, a hypercompressed city of 17m people (nearly the population of Australia), the value of the individual is bound to be diminished. Even knowing that, I was struck by the casualness with which servants, driver and other laborers are deployed.
By casual, I mean this sort of thing: On the chance that you might want a car and may not want to flag one of the 65,000 taxis (true number) that circulate constantly, virtually all of them empty, a driver is asked to wait all evening outside your meeting place. Houseboys actually appear at the ring of a bell; it's a favorite game of one friend's three-year-old. "Send your man" is the suggestion for any errand, no matter how slight. And street vegetable stands home-deliver orders of less than a dollar.
The class divide in India is extreme; democracy has arrived but not egalitarianism. Yet there is little complaining. Waiting hours on end on the whim of richer people is considered a relatively good job compared to the alternatives.
Coming, as I do, from the land of the overscheduled, the amount of idleness on display in Bombay is shocking. This is a nation of grossly underutilized labor and talent. As I looked out a restaurant window one evening on the tide of empty Ambassador cabs lit by blue neon from within, I wondered whether this overabundance of human potential has an analogy in technology.
The enabling insight of the Silicon Age was Carver Mead' s counterintuitive 1980 call to "waste transistors". Until then most of the focus in software was on writing tight, efficient code that made the most of the scarce (and typically shared) computing resources available at the time. But the era of the personal computer was dawning, and with it the arrival of more MIPS on the desktop than most people knew what to do with. Mead suggested that programmers imagine that transistors--computing power--were free. Rather than protecting them, they should think of ways to exploit them without a second thought. And thus was born such computationaly extravagant eye-candy as the graphical user interface--and the Mac and Windows.
The same can now be argued for storage, memory and bandwidth. The original iPod's 10GB hard drive seemed profligate compared the flash memory of the average MP3 player of the time, but it introduced the concept of taking your entire music library with you everywhere you went, rather than having to anticipate ahead of time what mood you might be in when a moment to listen came. And that is why Manhattan is now a sea of white earbuds. Likewise, I carry a month's worth of email on my Treo because there's no reason not to; 1GB SD cards are cheap.
In all the computers that surround us, the CPU idles virtually all the time, spinning its gigahertz wheels waiting for us to give it a command. Carver Mead's advice has been taken. Standing on the street in Bombay, I think of 65,000 taxi drivers doing the same.
Is the analogous lesson of India "Waste People"? Is India's key competitive advantage the ability to think of people not as individuals but as available resources, deployable in the millions? It may look that way from a Silicon Valley being depopulated by outsourcing, but I think the answer is actually no.
I imagine that somewhere in one of the planning ministries of New Deli there is a technocrat who is nevetheless thinking that way. But then I think of the call center workers I've met and, more importantly, their parents, who hold the managers of the operation accountable for the moral and professional integrity of their daughters. I think of the 90% annual turnover rate at these centers (comparable to the employee churn in the American fast-food industry). And I think of the security guards in the parking lots who are there not to protect property but to stop the newly independent 20-year-olds from having sex in the cars. The doors to the roof are locked for the same reason.
Until you come to India you cannot really understand what a traditional society it is, and how important the family remains (arranged marriage is still the norm). This is the limiting factor in India's ability to scale its outsourcing industry. The call centers have tapped out the local population of qualified kids and must now import them from around the country. Rather than living at home until they are married (and sometimes after), these young men and women are now living in shared apartments in the big city and working all night with members of the opposite sex, to say nothing of the exposure to American culture. The natural happens in a culture not yet ready to accept it.
It is statistically tempting to look at the 30m Indians entering the workforce each year, many of them college educated and English-speaking, and see them as cheap and available labor on a scale unimaginable in the West. Yet meet a few and you are reminded that each one of them is a person with a family, and culture sometimes takes precedence over economics. Carver Mead's slogan created Silicon Valley, but its analogy may not work in India. Outsourcing will hit its limits in India's traditions, and their ability to absorb the social effects of globalisation. There is no Moore's Law of culture. Transistors don't quit under parental pressure. Transistors don't have sex on the roof.