June 21, 2010
Getting informed in Delhi
I don’t think there's really any way to learn how dependent you've become on information technology until you're forced to go without it. Here in Delhi, I only have sporadic access to the internet. In fact, due to fairly regular power outages, I often can't even use a computer. Moreover, when I do have access to all the resources to which I'm accustomed, they are rather less useful than might be hoped. For instance, as far as I can tell, there is no searchable record of street addresses in Delhi—at least not publicly available. That is to say, Google maps is not going to get you anywhere. From what I've gathered, there aren't even reliable phone books.
And yet, the not-so-wired information systems here are hardly nonfunctional. Actually, it's quite interesting from an outsider's perspective to see how differently information is distributed here. To continue with the same example, signs visible from the street perform a much more comprehensive role than in the U.S. Whereas there a sign exists basically to broadcast what business is in a building in some visually appealing way, in Delhi you will often also find the owner's mobile phone number, hours of operation, credentials, specialties, etc. It seems that Delhiites actually store a good deal of this information in their memories. I recently stumbled upon a podiatrist in a barely reachable back alley of a local market. Later I inquired how anyone would ever know to look there in absence of some sort of public record of the business. I was informed that locals would just ask around, and someone would know where it is.
Another case that is particularly relevant to my work here has been the relative unavailability of books. Amazon does not deliver to India, and Flipkart (something of an Indian equivalent) leaves much to be desired. Moreover, the prices of many English-language books would be prohibitively expensive for most Indian salaries. I am fortunate to live within walking distance of several of the best social science libraries in India (one is in CSDS), but none of these allow you to check books out. However, I recently learned of an interesting practice. If you manage to find a book in a library, you can take it to a copy shop inside the library and have a copy of the entire book made for around 80 rupees (less than two dollars). You can even have it bound with a cover for another 100. Given that you are reasonably comfortable flaunting copyright laws, it's really quite an effective system.
I should note, however, that not everything works so smoothly. A well-informed friend of mine recently informed me of a veritable crisis of information in higher education. All across India, it seems, there are universities in which it is possible to obtain a Ph.D. essentially without studying by giving bribes, personal favors, calling in caste privilege, or similar corrupt practices. These "doctors" will then obtain professorships that require them to publish to be tenured. Since they are non-experts pretending to be experts, they naturally write absolute tripe (I've had the unfortunate experience of reading some of this—that means you, Basudeb Sahoo). However, there are publishing houses that exist solely for the purpose of publishing this glut of works that nobody else will touch. The publishing houses then bribe university librarians into buying the books. Apparently, some libraries are stocked primarily with this sort of material. It's a fully functioning corrupt industry that exists to perpetuate the availability of bad information. It's sad to think that these books would be the entirety of the exposure some students get.
Posted by jeizenga at June 21, 2010 05:27 AM