Mowgli Goes Digital

Noticing The Creeping Demise Of National Sovereignty

I guess ol' Pat Buchanan's been overtaken by events. Or an event. The Internet.

Buchanan has been worried, if I understand him, about the internationalization of everything. We're going to lose our sovereignty, and have a world economy, and all. The UN will rule us, probably from weird helicopters. I can't imagine the UN ruling itself, much less anything else, but never mind. I think we've already got a one-world economy, or almost, and there's not much Pat can do about it.

I was in some airport a while back and bored to the point of gibbering prostration. In desperation, I bought a copy of Wired magazine. Sure, I knew it would be geeky and adolescently pretentious and deeply puzzled by contractions. I was prepared to try anything.

Wired was disappointing, being intelligent and well-written. You can't depend on anything these days. Anyway, it had a piece on slave coders in Bombay. These are Indians who do computer programming on contract for big corporations in America.

Now, we all know that India is dirt poor and has flies and everybody says it's hopeless. I don't believe I'd bet on it. The flies, maybe, but not the hopelessness. What India also has is a whole lot of seriously smart people, many of whom speak tolerable English.

What India doesn't have is investment capital or too much infrastructure. So if Indians can find a way to make lots of money, without having any to start with, they're likely to think that's just peaches.

Which brings us to programming. To be a programmer, you don't need money. You need an IQ, a pirated book called something like "How To Program in C++ Like Wild Screaming Garbanzo Beans," and maybe a thousand-dollar commodity computer. This comes to a thousand dollars and fifty cents. You also need a market for code, which there isn't too much in India just yet. But if you have an Internet connection, someone figured out, you can sit in Mumbai, which is what Indians mistakenly call Bombay, and program for companies in New York.

The United States is a big market for code.

When the Indians figured this out a while back, New York became deliriously happy, because Indians did good work for peanuts. The Indians became deliriously happy, because what New York thought was peanuts was wheee-mama! money in India. India in aggregate became happy, whatever that means, because the country could leap into high-tech, sproing. A fair number of American programmers may eventually be not so happy, because they will encounter cheap, smart competition. In fact, there is talk that the US might lose its programming base or something.

Incidentally, it seems that a whole lot of the slave coders (their kidding phrase for themselves: they aren't really chained in caves) are women, which I understand is a new concept in them-there parts. I guess India had better get used to it. If you can write code, the real world isn't going to be too interested in your chromosomes.

What intrigues me in this is the separation of brains from capital investment. India flat can't afford to play much in the semiconductor business just now. Chip fabs run a billion-five per each. (Or is it two billion now? Anyway, bunches of money.) You don't get that kind of rice by pulling rikshas. But the intellectual side of the computer racket -- programming -- is cheap in terms of investment. Or, as we say, the barriers to entry are low.

Now, I'm not a digital designer, so maybe I'm missing something. But it isn't clear to me why Indians, having gone to MIT first, which most of them seem to do, couldn't sit in Bombay and design microcircuitry on contract. No, they couldn't come close to competing with Intel's massive design teams for CPUs. They would have to start simple, with minor stuff like ASICs or washing-machine controllers or whatever. But I see no obvious reason why they couldn't do the design work in India, ship the results by Internet to a fab somewhere to go on silicon, get the results back, and debug.

Which suggests to me that India, or anywhere with disciplined brains and an uplink, could start being a world-class player, fast, in high tech. Brains are sort of democratic. One grows on top of almost everybody.

Note that this differs fundamentally from designing shoes in American and having peasants assemble them in Indonesia. Programming is high-end, cutting edge stuff. Shoes aren't. The talent is in India. Not the same.

Some years ago I went to Seattle to do a magazine story on Boeing's design of the 777. The beast had no paper existence. Boeing designed it entirely in four big mainframes, if memory serves, with something like 2500 workstations hung on them. ("Uh, sir. . .this is the computer room. I, er, well, see, we just accidentally reformatted. . ..") The engineering teams used industry-standard design software -- CATIA, actually -- and, if I remember correctly (I'm hedging because people at Boeing are going to read this, and I'll hear from them if I screw up), some parts of the plane were designed in other parts of the country and electronically assembled, so to speak.

Then, having figured out what the monster was supposed to look like, they put it on a floppy and sent it to the airplane factory.

OK, a really big floppy.

Now, the idea of designing parts of something in different places is far from new. But I don't see why countries that are rolling in underemployed brains (China, Vietnam, whole herds of them) couldn't turn themselves into exporters of intellectual products the way other countries export electric fans. The American company would set up a branch in India to take advantage of local intelligence, the Indians would get good, and then they'd start working on contract for anybody who wanted pieces of airplanes designed.

Remember that with four times our population, they have four times the theoretically deployable intelligence. If you design in software, you don't need to be at the factory. If the Internet lets smart people anywhere play with the big boys, it will be a . . .

Whole. . .new. . .world.

Like I say, a lot of folk make a hobby of worrying about the arrival of a world economy, and world government, and black helicopters, and who knows what all. I think we're about there. Technology is not so much eroding national sovereignty as simply ignoring it. If Indian programmers work by Internet for Microsoft, what might be the role of national governments, except to make nuisances of themselves?

I don't know where we're going. But, Dorothy, it isn't Kansas.