March 30, 2004
How India thinks and what India learns

There is a fascinating article by Cherryl Barron in the latest Prospect (April 2004 – paper only so far as I can work out) about the reasons for the Indian computer software miracle.

The emergence of India as a software superpower is still generally attributed to the cheapness of its programmers and software engineers. But the underlying reasons are more complex and interesting, lying in the subcontinent's intellectual and pedagogical traditions.

Software is ubiquitous. It is at the core of processes in every strategic industry, from banking to defence. And the depth of India's advantage in software suggests that it poses a bigger challenge to the western economies than even China. China, strong in manufacturing and computer hardware, has been almost as unimpressive in software as Japan. Indeed, no developing country has ever taken on the developed world in a craft as sophisticated and important as software.

Indian software aptitude rests on both the emphasis on learning by rote in Indian schools, and a facility and reverence for abstract thought. These biases of Indian education are usually considered mutually exclusive in the west, where a capacity for abstraction is associated with creativity. In India, learning by rote is seen by most conventional teachers as essential grounding for speculation.

An educational tradition that spans learning by heart and exalting excellence in higher mathematics is just right for software. It fits the mentality of computers. These are, after all, machines so fastidious as to refuse to send email with a missing hyphen or full stop in an address. Yet no product on earth is as abstract, boundlessly complex and flexible as software. It cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched and is, to borrow Nabokov's description of chess – a game invented in India – a "spectral art."

India's software accomplishments reflect those extremes. Indian firms dominate a world elite of over 120 companies recognised for producing outstandingly accurate software, those which have earned a CMM Level-6 tag, software's equivalent of the Michelin 3-star rating. These establishments – of which America has less than half the Indian total—are certified to be following an exacting, detail-ridden methodology developed at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh for producing reliable code.

At the other pole of cyber-sophistication, most of the reigning US technology giants – Microsoft, General Electric, Texas Instruments, Intel, Oracle and Sun Microsystems – have established software design and development facilities and even R&D laboratories in India to take advantage of the world-class brains produced by the Indian institutes of technology, willing to work for an eighth of the starting salary of their US counterparts.

This next bit also alludes, perhaps without intending to, to what used to be wrong with people educated in India.

Western programmers' view of their craft tends to stress its more rarefied dimensions, such as this description by the US computer scientist Frederick Brooks: "The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible ... so readily capable of realising grand conceptual structures."

Yet "pure thought-stuff" is also an encapsulation of ancient India's contributions to the world's scientific heritage. In about 600 BC, before the Greeks, some schools of physics in India developed atomic theories, based not on experiment but purely on intuition and logic. Some western physicists marvel at how much closer the imaginative speculations of Brahmin atomic theory have come to current ideas in theoretical physics than those of any other pre-modern civilisation.

"The Indians advanced astronomy by mathematics rather than by deductions elicited from nature," the science writer Dick Teresi has noted in Lost Discoveries. Indian mathematics was also distinctively airy-fairy. Whereas Greek mathematics was largely extrapolated from mensuration and geometry, the ancient Indians most distinguished themselves in abstract number theory. Zero, infinity, negative and irrational numbers – all concepts that the Greeks dismissed as ludicrous – were Indian concepts.

Airy-fairy. "Pure-thought-stuff." Yes, that sums up the cliché stereotype Indian university graduate of my (older) generation. Very big on abstraction, can talk the hind leg off a donkey, but no bloody use for anything except becoming a bureaucrat and driving the Indian economy – what little there used to be of it – ever deeper into the dust.

Spatial extension and quantities of objects were far less interesting to pioneering Indian mathematical minds. In fact, the Indian leaning towards abstraction – so deep-seated that theoretical physicists and mathematicians still outrank every other sort of egghead in status – explains India's relatively poor showing, historically, in more practical sciences. The sinologist Joseph Needham observed that more practical study would have entailed defying Indian caste rules about contact between Brahmins and artisans. Similarly, the progress of ancient Indian knowledge of physiology, biology and anatomy was held back by the taboo on contact with dead bodies.

All of this brings to mind a remark by Peter Drucker from long ago to the effect that computers have provided something never before seen in the world, namely: paying jobs for mathematicians.

Could it be that the way that computers have enticed all these airy-fairies and pure-thought-stuffers away from being government bureaucrats will turn out to be their most important beneficial contribution to the Indian economy? Yes, these people are doing splendid things with their computers, but think of all the abysmal things they used to do and might still be doing instead, were it not for computers.

I can confirm the excellence of Indians at maths with one extremely anecdotal anecdote. By far the cleverest attender (way ahead of me) of those Kumon maths sessions I occasionally mention here was an Indian boy of about eleven or twelve. (One of the "slumbering giant" glories of Kumon is that it enables Kumon instructors to accept and help to educate pupils who are cleverer than they are. I think this is the single most impressive thing about Kumon. Think about that. But I digress.)

Barron ends as she began, by contrasting India with China:

It was the supreme pragmatists, the Chinese – whose intellectual traditions favoured practicality and action over airy speculation – who were the technological geniuses of antiquity. They invented paper, seismographs, the magnetic compass, the wheelbarrow, irrigation, ink and porcelain. But reasoning for its own sake was of so little interest to them that, unlike the Greeks and Indians, they never developed any system of formal logic. It hardly seems accidental that it is through the manufacture of physical objects that China is making its mark today, while India floats on the ethereal plane of software.

As regulars here will know, I have been trying recently to liven up this blog with pictures. And I think it says something about the priorities of Indian civilisation just now that when I typed "India" and "Mathematics" into Google, the pictures were all either terrible or irrelevant. How do you illustrate an ethereal plane? Just an Indian guy in front of a blackboard covered in mathematical symbols would have done nicely, but I could find nothing like that.

Lots of stuff about Ramanujan, though.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:40 PM
Category: ChinaIndiaMathsTechnology