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Computing in the Time of Decolonization
My fourth research project and third book, Computing in the Time of Decolonization, builds upon my previous work while venturing into new territories of inquiry. In my prior work, I advanced scholarly understandings of the politics of science, technology, and medicine in contemporary and colonial India. This new research historicizes the politics of scientific expertise and knowledge production by locating it within India’s postcolonial history. Consequently, Computing in the Time of Decolonization explores the history of computing in India during the era of decolonization, a topic that has been largely neglected both in mainstream narratives of South Asia, as well as by historians of computing. In particular, this book charts the efforts of Indian scientists and engineers to build a self-reliant computer industry in the first two decades after the region’s decolonization. During this time, India’s technocratic leaders aimed to position the country as a significant global hub for computing manufacturing. By the 1970s, this project seemed close to taking flight. One public-sector undertaking was building computers on par with the best in the world, while the government expelled IBM from the country. However, by the 1980s, this dream was abandoned in favor of the opposite vision: providing inexpensive labor for corporations headquartered in the Global North.
Guided by a curiosity about this trajectory of global computing, this book seeks to answer three questions: What role did computing play in India’s early postcolonial dreams of sovereignty in science and technology? What challenges did India's technocrats encounter in their quest for self-reliant manufacturing? And why did they abandon this vision? In answering these questions, I argue that the project of national computing self-reliance did not fail because of some essential lack of expertise. Rather, the obstacle lay in deliberate efforts by Global North countries and corporations to preserve their monopoly within this profitable sector, restricting the flow of computing expertise and knowledge. Despite some visionary attempts by MIT-led US faculty to boost computing in India, the broader terrain of Cold War geopolitics turned India into a region characterized by brain drain and low-cost labor, rather than a manufacturing base. This book illuminates the hierarchies that underpin the world of global computing today, with its manufacturing centers concentrated in a handful of sites in the United States and East Asia. The SHASS Levitan Prize funded this research, and the manuscript is under review by Princeton University Press.
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