How Indian Thought Helped Shape The Digital World

How Indian Thought Helped Shape The Digital World

India has had a profound influence on the techno-scientific thinkers of our time – from physicist Werner Heisenberg to tech entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg. 

When Mark Zuckerberg revealed that he visited a Hindu temple when he was confused about the future of his company, the immediate interest is to identify that particular temple. But, perhaps, it was not the temple per se that did the magic for him. According to him, “seeing how people connected, having the opportunity to feel how much better the world could be if everyone had a stronger ability to connect reinforced for me the importance of what we were doing and that is something that I have always remembered over the last 10 years as we have built Facebook.”

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Sure enough, the temple resolved his confusion. Mark went back home ‘reconnected’ with his original mission. He was not the only one to be influenced by an Indian connection. Overall, an Indophilic mindset does permeate the cybersphere. For example, Mitchell Kapor who launched the innovative spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3 (named after the Indic symbol of enlightenment) was a former Transcendental Meditation teacher. Mark Perce the co-creator of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language), described the virtual reality environment as “virtual kundalini, an expression of philosophy without any words, a state of holy being…”.

However, the connections between India and evolution of connectivity goes back to 1920s. In 1929, German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, spent some time in India as  the  guest of Rabindranath Tagore. He had long conversations with the poet about science and Indian philosophy. He observed that some of the quantum mechanics ideas that seemed ‘weird’, like interconnectedness (not only is the behaviour of a sub-atomic particle affected by the simple act of being observed, but its behaviour can also affect how another seemingly arbitrary particle far away from the first one behaves) formed the very basis of the Indian spiritual traditions.

After these conversations with Tagore, some  of  the  ideas  that  had  seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was a great help for me,” Heisenberg told Fritjof Capra.

It is interesting to see that both in the case of Heisenberg and Zuckerberg, the interconnectedness and the connectivity they observed in Indian society have helped the physicist and the tech-entrepreneur.

Clearly there is a fundamental archetype that connects the fuzzy-connectivity that is characteristic of Indian culture, the quantum interconnectedness and digital connectivity. Physicist Danah Zohar (with psychiatrist Ian Marshall) provides a hint in her Quantum Society. Drawing a parallel between the quantum super-imposed possibilities of Benzene molecular structure she speaks of ‘a community of communities’ with the ‘boundaries of each overlapping through shared possibilities.’ This is something that the West has lost in its development narrative while it is something that still functions in India. She further states:  

At the most primary level of quantum reality, the necessary relation between a kind of natural pluralism and the evolution of quantum systems is obvious. …I believe this same pluralism drives evolutionary process in society at large and enriches each community that participates in the process.

The value systems of ‘Eastern mysticism’ are deeply embedded in the counterculture of the 1960s. Perhaps this was one of the influences that allowed the techno-counterculture kids to take over what was basically a government-controlled, military-oriented technology (the basic internet technology was built in the US defence labs at the height of the Cold War as a final fallback communication system in case of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union) and make it the most powerful tool for the democratization of knowledge. Here is an example.

The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) was founded in late 1984. It was a new version of the famous ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ of Stewart Brand. It was a virtual community of computer users structured in bulletin boards for online discussions. It is considered an important milestone in the evolution of Internet. Time magazine calls it ‘a precursor of every online business from Amazon.com to eBay’.

WELL was created by Stewart Brand and Lawrence (Larry) Brilliant. Both of them have Indic influences in their formative stages. Stewart Brand was associated with an unconventional art group called USCO. Fred Turner in his From Counterculture to Cyberculture explains the influence of this group on Brand:

Like a cross between a touring rock entourage and a commune, USCO was more than a performance team. It was a social system unto itself.

USCO was founded on a fusion of Eastern mysticism and ecological, systems thinking. Its members chose the name USCO in accordance with the teachings of Ananda K. Coomeraswamy, an early-twentieth-century scholar of Indian art then popular among Manhattan bohemians. Coomeraswamy had asserted that artists in traditional societies were as anonymous as tradesmen. The members of USCO saw themselves returning to a more traditional mode of tribal living and collective craftsmanship. The tribe would be bound together through various rituals involving drugs, mystical forces, and electrical technologies.

Similarly, Larry Brilliant was a disciple of Hindu saint Neem Karoli Baba. Given the Deeksha (initiation) name ‘Subramaniam’, Larry was asked by his Guru to dedicate himself to the eradication of smallpox. Larry himself recounts:

I had been living in an ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas, studying with Neem Karoli Baba. My teacher told me of the smallpox eradication programme and of the great good smallpox eradication would mean for the people of India and sent me to volunteer to work with the WHO programme.

Larry took the initiative and spent the next few years coordinating volunteers, medical professionals, government staff, WHO staff and management. In 1977, India was declared smallpox-free. This experience became important for Larry in creating people-oriented decentralized technologies that connect and democratize knowledge.   

Larry also started SEVA (Society for Epidemiology and Voluntary Assistance) along with Dr G.Venkataswami of Arvind Eye Hospitals. Today SEVA has performed more than two million operations and is credited with restoring more sight than any other organization in the world. When Larry Brilliant took over as executive director of Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the digital giant in 2006, he wanted Google to change the way philanthropy was done and make the world a better place.

Thus, from Heisenberg to Zuckerberg through Larry Brilliant, and scores of others, India has been an important influence. It can claim that it has shaped the way digital technologies connect communities, democratize knowledge and decentralize social institutions.

When Dr Abdul Kalam envisaged providing urban facilities in rural India, he pointed out the need for three connectivities. One was physical connectivity through the roads to rural India, which was admirably accomplished by the Vajpayee government. Now the Modi administration has taken up the much bigger challenge of creating the other two connectivities: digital and knowledge connectivities. Understanding the way India has influenced the evolution of cyber technologies does provide a pointer towards achieving that goal.   

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