Signposting tech trends that touch you

10th January 2018
Signposting  tech trends that touch you

These four books hold important lessons  on how technology will impact us  2018
Anand Parthasarathy, Bangalore, January 10 2018: 
Aadhaar: beyond the controversies
Aadhaar, the Indian identification system continues to attract controversy:  the supreme court is yet to deliver judgment on some troubling concerns regarding privacy;   stories of coercive and insensitive mandating of Aadhaar    by banks, mobile phone providers and government departments  continue to  make headlines, drowning out its stated  purpose of  ensuring efficiency in  citizen-related services and benefits.|
Politico-economic analyst and journalist  Shankkar Aiyar  has written delivered  what is   perhaps the first and most  serious study on the subject.   In "Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution", he  traces the circumstances that helped create the rationale for an  identification  technology like Aadhaar:  over 85 % of the money allocated to poverty alleviation programmes,  never reached the real beneficiaries, siphoned away by middle men, contractors and sheer administrative costs.
It was a  casual conversation with an old friend and Finance Ministry  official , K.P. Krishnan,  that drew  Infosys CEO and co-founder Nandan Nilekani to lead the Universal Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in 2009 with a daunting task: creating  the world's largest personal identification platform, using   a mixture of high tech and jugaad: uniquely Indian frugal engineering techniques.
Thankfully two successive governments the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA  displayed commonality of purpose  in promoting Aadhaar ensuring almost equal numbers of registrations, some 600 million each. Indeed the present government is being faulted for exceeding the stated purpose of the UID scheme and  using it as a way to  snoop on  dozens of citizen activities and transaction in what is widely seen as an assault on privacy.  The coming weeks will see some clarity on these issues, as the courts  render  their verdicts; but these concerns,   may cloud the sheer technological  achievement of Aadhaar : the world's biggest, most advanced biometric data base of personal identities. Aiyar  goes into the fine detail of  the  massive nation-wide data collection scheme and  documents the work of dozens of technologists and bureaucrats, whose contribution,  remained unsung.
One in  seven person on the earth  now has  an Aadhaar ID.  It  is not an achievement to be sniffed at. There remain concerns  about data protection, privacy and misuse.  The author   airs them dispassionately, but in the end this is  a  necessary and sufficient  record of one of the biggest Indian technology success stories of this century.

Indian e-commerce: taking on global biggies
If there is one message at the end of 2017 it is this: Inspite of unprecedented assaults by the world's best and biggest in the business,  home-grown  Indian e-commerce,  is alive and well enough to fight another day if required. For every Uber, there is an Ola; for every Amazon or e-Bay, a FlipKart  and Indian customers  have embraced these  indigenous  offerings even as they  patronize the global biggies.  in "Click", Jagmohan Bhanver and Komal Bhanver, both prolific writer in their own right, have joined to  review the evolution  of the e-commerce sector in India  and try to predict its future directions. The heart of their book is a detailed study of 8 Indian e-biz players:  Justdial, MakeMyTrip, InMobi, redBus, Flipkart, Snapdeal, PayTM and Pepperfry.  Together they make for a valuable record of  how Indian startups  rode the  mobile phone explosion and the growth of the Internet.
Once misses  a closer look   (beyond brief mention) at some of the pioneers  in the business of  Internet-driven enterprise -- like the first the first web entity,, way back in 1995, or the largely unsung achievement of IRCTC in making rail ticketing  largely hassle free for  millions.
The  final section  is a valuable resource for would-be netrepreneurs on the challenges that remain. It also summarises the trends in key verticals: classifieds; foodies; cab aggregation; furniture, naming names of competitors and  drawing lessons from their experience. It is also a valuable peek into the opportunities that will  manifest in 2018 like : 3D printing and AI-driven smart assistants.

The  Microsoft take on the future
In his years at the active helm of Micosoft, Bill Gates wrote two seminal books:  "The Way Ahead" was a 1995 work  and a daring peek into future directions of technology. "Business @ the speed of thought", in 1999, was more sharply focused on the digital nervous system that would  drive enterprises in the new century. Almost two decades have passed since then -- and it is left to  Microsoft's current head  and only third CEO, Satya Nadella,  to fast forward  to the future and share the company's take on where technology is taking us today.
Unlike the Bill Gates book,  Nadella's "Hit Refresh"    has large elements of the autobiographical before his own transformational journey morphs into that of Microsoft.  But perhaps  the most useful sections are the ones  where he explores  coming technological shifts  in three areas: Mixed Reality, Artificial Intelligence  and Quantum Computing. For Microsoft  MR means the Hololens  which appears to be a work in progress.  Nadella suggests that AI is a confluence of three breakthroughs: Big Data,  massive computing power and sophisticated algorithms which together are turning  science fiction  into fact. And quantum computing may yet emerge as the technology to drive computers in  a future where  we run out of improvements in the current technology using silicon chips.|Nadella also takes head on, issues like privacy, security and free speech and for this reason  alone, his book becomes a necessary tool to understand such complex issues as they unravel in 2018.

March of the Big Four
The  unbridled growth of  some of the world's biggest tech companies -- Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google -- has become  cause  for  worry in many circles.  India-American  technology  entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa said  recently that the last three  have gained so much  information and power that they can rig elections... in fact Facebook is a bigger threat to privacy, than Aadhaar he adds ( Economic Times Magazine, November 19 2017).
Bloomberg wrote recently  that the tech Fab Four provide the world's most used services, yet together they are often accused of  bullying and monopolistic corporate practices. As we slip into 2018,  still in thrall and heavily dependent on the services of all four tech biggies, it is all the more important that we understand the challenge.  And  Scott Galloway's book "The Four" may go some way in  analysing their   DNA. Their combined value of stock is over $ 2.3 trillion. Yet unlike old-time  industrial giants like  IBM or General Motors,  the wealth of the Four does not translate into well being of millions of workers. Their wealth is cornered by a small number of investors and very talented people, leaving the bulk of their own workers untouched.
Scott asks why the stock market forgives them for since that would destroy other firms.   They have completely infiltrated our lives and  we are slaves to their tools and services  to a an unimaginable degree.  This has virtually remade the competitive landscape, leaving little room for competition.   It is a worrying thought and as of now,  problem without  a solution.
The books:
Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution:  By Shankkar Aiyar; Westland Publications; Rs 350 ( hard cover)
Click: The amazing story of India's e-commerce boom: By Jagmohan Bhanver  & Komal Bhanver; Hachette India; Rs 499 ( hard cover)
Hit Refresh: The quest to rediscover Microsoft's soul: By Satya Nadella; Harper Business; Rs 599 ( hard cover)
The Four: The hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google: By Scott Galloway; Bantam Press (Penguin) Rs 699 ( paper back)