TECHNOLOGY IN INDIA AND CHINA
Nov 8th 2007
From The Economist print edition
China and India have much to offer the world of technology, argues Simon Cox (interviewed here), but more still to gain from it
TOWARDS the end of the 11th century, while tardy Europeans kept time with sundials, Su Sung of China completed his masterpiece: a water clock of great intricacy and accuracy. Standing almost 12 metres (40 feet) tall, Su's “Cosmic Engine” wavered, it is said, by only a few minutes in every 24 hours. From twin tanks filled by servants, a steady flow of water was cupped and spilled by a series of buckets mounted on a wheel. The rotation of the wheel turned the clock, as well as an astronomical sphere and globe that charted the movement of the sun, moon and planets. Drums beat 100 times a day; bells chimed every two hours. A replica, painstakingly built with contemporary methods, now turns in Taiwan's National Museum of Natural Science.
Clockmaking was only one scientific endeavour in which China and India comfortably led the world before the 15th century. China outstripped Europe in its understanding of hydraulics, ironsmelting and shipbuilding. Its machines for ginning cotton, spinning ramie and throwing silk seemed to lack only a flying shuttle and a drawbar to match the 18th-century contraptions that launched Britain's Industrial Revolution. Clean your teeth with a toothbrush, rebuff the rain with a collapsible umbrella, turn a playing card, light a match, write, pay—or even wipe your behind—with paper, and you register a debt to China's powers of invention.
India's genius, then as now, was in software not hardware. Its ancient civilisations ushered in a “mathematical revolution” from the fifth century, when Aryabhata devised something like the decimal system. In the seventh century Brahmagupta explained that a number multiplied by zero was zero. By the 15th century, Madhava had calculated pi to more than ten decimal places.
After the 15th century, however, the technological clock stopped in both countries, even as it accelerated in Europe. This peculiar loss of momentum, noted Joseph Needham, a great historian of Chinese science, takes some explaining. Why, he asked, did the science of Galileo emerge “in Pisa but not in Patna or Peking”?(Patna A city of northeast India on the Ganges River northwest of Calcutta. It served as Asoka's capital in the 3rd century B.C. and as a Mogul viceregal capital in the 16th century. Population: 1,370,000.)
In his book “The Lever of Riches”, Joel Mokyr settles on a simple explanation for China's technological stagnation: the country's imperial state lost interest. Its purposes were better served by continuity than by progress, and there was no rival source of power and patronage to pick up the threads it dropped. Roddam Narasimha of India's National Institute of Advanced Studies reaches a similar conclusion for India. “Up to the 18th century, the East in general was strong and prosperous, the status quo was comfortable, and there was no great internal pressure to change the global order,” he writes.
That diffidence no longer hampers either state. Both China and India are now restless with technological ambition. China's government does not have the luxury of choosing between progress and stability; it cannot enjoy social peace without economic advance. For the past 30 years it has tried to turn the clock forward. By 2015 its research scientists and engineers may outnumber those of any other country. By 2020 it aims to spend a bigger share of its GDP on research and development (R&D) than the European Union.
India, for its part, surveys the future with uncharacteristic optimism. Its technological confidence has grown immeasurably thanks to the success of its software and IT firms. The heirs to Aryabhata and Brahmagupta, India's digital ambassadors have won acclaim for their mastery of ones as well as zeros.
But even as India's technological powers make a splash in the world, they stir only the surface of its own vast society. India produces more engineering graduates than America. But it has only 24 personal computers for every 1,000 people, and fewer than three broadband connections. India's billion-strong population cuts both ways. Whenever an Indian demographic appears as a numerator, the resulting number looks big. But whenever its population is in the denominator, the number looks small. It is like looking at the same phenomenon from opposite ends of a telescope. As of now, India matters more to technology than technology does to India.
This is a pity. India and China still have more to gain from the adoption and assimilation of technology than from invention per se. Some of their best minds are adding generously to the world's stock of knowledge, but the more urgent task for the countries themselves is to make wider use of know-how that already exists. Indeed, the World Bank has calculated that India could quintuple the size of its economy if it only caught up with itself—that is, if the mediocre firms in its industries closed the gap with the best. Both countries miss out when policies to promote invention, such as China's push for “indigenous” innovation or India's recent patent laws, serve to stymie diffusion.
A year in China, foreign residents say, is like ten years outside. Its clock is already turning rapidly. But the cogs and levers that drive technological progress are as intricate and delicate as Su Sung's mechanism. China's government is in danger of trying to do too much. Its monumental efforts to educate and train have filled the tanks of its innovation engine. Now it is time for it just to let the water flow.