Time for IT firms to take responsibility for the cities they ruined
When social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter first set off and were getting established, their goal was to improve how human beings connected with one another and to foster an alternative platform that could be used to strengthen human bonds and relationships. It’s clear today that they have grown and morphed into something a lot more sinister. Twitter has become a tool to sow division. No one understands the power of Twitter more than President Donald Trump, who continues to use the medium as a way to rally his strongest supporters and to alienate those with opposing views. Many feel that Facebook played a large role in the 2016 US presidential election and it has been accused of helping to foment genocidal violence, in Myanmar for instance. Uber’s business practices have been questioned. Bitcoin is being viewed with suspicion, and sometimes even called a “fraud” by people like Jamie Dimon.
American sociopolitical debate, and Europe’s heavy fines on firms such as Google have made it clear that Silicon Valley’s CEOs are no longer just start-up founders and software product builders. They have become society’s leaders and oligarchs in their own right and have the ability shape our opinions and our political leanings. And yes, they can also contribute in various ways in shaping the political milieu by influencing which politicians we vote into office. This influence is in no way contained to America and Europe, savvy politicians the world over, including here in India, have learnt how to harness the power of these platforms for their own political purposes and agendas.
Western commentary has started to focus on how such innovators need to consider the massive sociopolitical ramifications of their inventions, and how they must act responsibly in the light of the immense power they now hold. Susan Wu, a veteran American investor and tech evangelist neatly circumscribes current thinking there in an op-ed piece for Wired magazine: “The tech industry can either design for and build positive externalities, or we can inflict many negative ones—job displacement, fracturing of neighbourhoods, addictive behaviours, compounding isolation, fortifying tribalism, and widening income inequality, to name a few.”
My view is that such navel-gazing and contemplation among America’s technology elite is welcome, and that it might actually allow for these firms to start thinking of the broader ramifications of their work, and allow them, over the longer term, to work in concert with each other to maximize the common good. Tech leaders have been responding, partly through publicly genuflecting to such commentary and partly by trying to respond with action, such as vetting posts for violence and “fake news”.
Unfortunately for us in India, none of our information technology (IT) services titans seem to be thinking in this manner. During the early days of the industry when India’s governments wanted to give a fillip to employment, many of these firms enjoyed long tax-holidays through various schemes such as the Software Technology Parks of India or STPI, where one could simply build one’s own campus anywhere, comply with a scant set of rules to declare the campus as an STPI, and proceed to enjoy tax benefits denied to the rest of Indian industry. When pressed on whether these tax benefits were unfair, the usual response of these tech titans was that these benefits were certainly not unfair, since the people they employed were now contributing to India’s exchequer through income tax and other taxes levied on tech employees. To me, this was a rather disingenuous view; let’s not forget that the employees of firms who were not in the tech sector were also paying their taxes, while their non-tech employers were also contributing to the exchequer by coughing up taxes at a company level.
India’s tech-boom has laid waste to our cities. As real estate developers sought to cash in on the unprecedented migration into our cities caused by technology workers employed at India’s top IT companies, and by Western companies such as Accenture, Cisco, and IBM, our once salubrious (though not necessarily well-planned) cities have been reduced to concrete jungles with inadequate roads, falling water tables, questionable sewerage and drainage systems, and choking pollution. A study from the Indian Institute of Science says that Bengaluru might become unlivable by 2020. The thought boggles the mind, but just a day spent getting to and from a tech company’s offices in Bengaluru underscores how true that study may really turn out to be.
As the tech boom has stalled and new hiring has slowed to a crawl, many of the real estate developers are left holding the bag with a large inventory of unsold homes and unleased office space, all hastily built up in a naïve anticipation of never ending growth. Some of our cities now look like the banks of a polluted river that has receded after a flood. Debris are strewn everywhere, in the form of lost jobs, dashed hopes, and increasing crime.
During our conversations over coffee or dinner, we like to place the blame for our crumbling cities squarely on India’s governments at the city, state, and national levels. While ruing India’s lack of infrastructure probably has some merit, placing the blame for our crumbling cities solely on the government is unfair. Just as the Americans have called their tech titans (all of them firms who are not government owned) to the carpet to answer for the changing social construct in America, we should be naming and shaming our tech titans by holding them accountable for what has happened to our cities while they enjoyed their tax holidays.
While a small minority of the founders of these firms have publicly announced their intention to contribute to charity, very many have not. And even for the ones who are not Scrooges, as the old saw goes, charity begins at home. It is time they contributed directly to the cities that house them and whose ruin they have indirectly caused.
Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.