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Day 976: America’s Continuing Battle With Necessity And Innovation

ZDNet: Indian techies snubbing US jobs to stay home

Indian tech graduates are increasingly turning their back on western countries in favor of finding work at home … Between 1964 and 2001 the number of IITians staying in India was 65 per cent but this jumped to 84 per cent between 2002 and 2008.

I suspect most of this is because western companies in India have now opened up jobs to locals that are more technically sophisticated in nature than simple call center positions.  The overabundance of IIT graduates is an immediately available brain trust.  All a western company has to do is set up a technology center in Bangalore or Baroda, hire locals, ship them projects and oversee the work through a western supervisor.  Yet, even when Indian workers are paid half of our salaries allegedly to do the same thing, they live better than us because of the cheap cost of living in India.

Besides, why move to the US when the dollar has tanked and we have very little to export in the way of The American Dream?

While Indians are brilliant workers, they are not born innovators.  Again, what was The American Dream in its heyday?  It was the pursuit of financial as well as intangible rewards in return for good old hard work and Yankee ingenuity.  It wasn’t just making money to buy, it was staying competitive and making sure your kids excelled in school so that they could be strong American social and economic contributors (which, incidentally, made for the greatest form of American patriotism).  In those days, so many more people and kids tinkered and were encouraged to be part of the American technological experience, not passive consumers.  While the work ethic still exists in many parts of this nation, an equivalent demand on our innovative capability does not.  Instead, we want to make more money doing the same old thing to buy products cheaply constructed by someone else.  Furthermore, we don’t want anyone else in our midst to innovate, lest they create a threat to our financial stability.  This is how we’ve devalued ourselves and continue to do so by not investing in education while shipping jobs abroad at rates no American can or wants to live on.

It seems that most Americans are not required any longer, but we’re still being born.  My advice to ourselves is not to look for the quick fix in the next seemingly big thing, which really possesses little in the way of substance, i.e. Web 2.0, the housing market, mortgages.  It is way past time to want to do little work in return for these dollars, which makes the dollars eventually worthless.  Let us focus on what we do best – invention.

Firstly, degrees ought not to be the piece of paper which gets an American in the door towards consumerism.  American college and graduate students have to stop thinking in terms of coasting through pre-packaged degrees with minimum-required GPAs that guarantee them a job.  Unless there is a lot less rote learning and students work hard to knock an exam out of the park in which the taught material is not only regurgitated but also freshly applied to a new problem, that education will not supply the tools for innovation and renaissance and the upcoming job may not be around for much longer.  This, in turn, requires a university to stop being a factory in which 90% of undergraduates and their fat tuitions are nothing more than coal in the furnace that heats the research of a small group of innovators, whose products are waiting to be patented and sold, but whose abilities to query and investigate are transferred to a very small portion of the student population, if at all.  In other words, we can’t have professors who are primarily researchers and, in their wee spare time, teachers.  We urgently need researchers as well as an equivalent number of teachers who actively engage all students using the tools and skills of technological inquiry.

Secondly, Americans have to learn take care of themselves, regardless of the spiritual or political flavor of the day.  This requires less reliance and more imagination.  Putting it differently, God gave us brains for a reason.  India and China are very old countries with very deeply religious and philosophical folks, but, unlike poor Muslim countries and America (see what I did there?), they have almost never let prejudices or fervor interfere with pure learning.  For instance, my own Hindu grandparents’ skepticism about evolution did not hinder their children and grandchildren from learning biology or becoming successful technologists with solid groundings in matters of reason versus those of faith.  Somewhere along the way, Americans have lost the notion that destiny is often a tangible and malleable thing within our reach.  We misplaced free thought.

Finally, it might just be too late for America, especially when 99% of Americans don’t control what we own and our economy is based on consuming more than producing.  I am less and less inclined to believe that our government-economy complex can do more than bail out companies while leaving people out to dry, in the name of propping up Wall St.’s house of cards.  Therefore, innovation may also involve re-inventing ourselves in a land to which The American Dream has moved.  Is this giving up on America or is it refusing to support what we have become?  The spirit of America is that aspect of every one of her citizens which is strong and spontaneous and yet aw-shucks casual and hospitable.  No other country has those values on us.  None.  That, however, will not help recover America in the long run.  The question is how to help our children (and, maybe, ourselves) retain this strong identity as more and more of them move out into the world.

These are just some thoughts and questions I offer as someone who ponders her own job and place in the American framework of things.  In the day and age of the disposable American, very little is a given.  I’d love to hear what you think on these matters, so please comment away.

3 comments… add one
  • racymind May 1, 2008, 10:55 AM

    Oh my, do I love this post.

    I have said many times before that one of the most valuable, unique assets our nation has is the network of universities. Despite tuition hikes, the opportunities to learn are mind-boggling for those with the desire. Sadly, the desire is what we are lacking. How can we innovate without a critical mass of people who want to learn by building on each others knowledge?

    There are barriers to any significant change, and it seems ironic that they exist because of the strength of the corporatist state. The concentration of wealth and power has a stranglehold that has gotten much worse over just the last few decades. Just as an example, how else is it that after all the go-go of the rise of the internet that most of us get our internet service from AT&T, Time Warner or some other behemoth that has been around for a long time? We accept the dominance of certain corporate institutions.

    Was I alone in thinking that the main objective of so many “innovators” of the last tech boom was to score an IPO so they could cash it in? (and I got a slightly sickly feeling from it)

    I do think we are at the point where we must ask the question you pose at the end, when you state:

    “Finally, it might just be too late for America, especially when 99% of Americans don’t control what we own and our economy is based on consuming more than producing…”

    Is it too late for this country? Or really, where does an honest answer to the question leave us? I doubt our ability to even answer the question honestly anymore, because too many in the USA are locked into ideas of their own superiority. This, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

    Yeah, I think it is too late for this country as we know it. As of yet, I don’t see the bravery necessary to invoke the socioeconomic shifts we will need. It’s the concentration of wealth and the prevailing mentality that accepts it as normal… we will choke on it.

    The next “innovations” that bring about the nation we want will be in the political arena. If we can handle it.

  • Mr. Gunn May 16, 2008, 3:03 PM

    Well said, Maitri, and of course, you’re not the only well-read intelligent person with an international perspective saying these things. See here and here.

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