Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People

Anjan Sarma

[ Digital North East Vision 2022 ]

When we printed and published the Assamese vernacular fortnightly MAHABAHOO IN 1980, we heard about Cicero, the Roman Republic’s greatest orator who wrote a book in 44BC for his son Marcus called de Officiis (“On Duties”). The book told Marcus how to live a moral life, how to balance virtue with self-interest, how to have an impact in this world of Almighty God. All of Cicereo’s words or sentences were not his own, he gathered the views of many Greek philosophers whose work were consulted in his library and most of which have since been lost. But Cicero’s works remain, because de Officis was read and studied throughout the Roman Empire and survived the subsequent fall. The book influenced the thoughts of Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus and centuries later Voltaire too. Voltaire said, “No one will ever write anything wiser.” I read somewhere and copied it in my notebook that ‘the book’s words have not changed; their vessel, though, has gone through relentless reincarnation and metamorphosis. Cicero probably dictated de Officiis to his freed slave, Tiro, who copied it down on a papyrus scroll from which other copies were made in turn. Within a few centuries some versions were transferred from scrolls into bound books, or codices. A thousand years later monks meticulously made copies by hand, averaging only a few pages a day. Then, in the 15th century, de officiis was copied by a machine. It was printed in Mainz, Germany, in a printing press owned by Johann Fust, an early partner of Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of European printing. It is dated 1466. Some 500 years after it was printed, this beautiful volume sits in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, which has been its home since 1916.’

Gutenberg died almost penniless, having lost control of his press to Fust and other creditors, but his invention’s effects were unimaginable for centuries which even he may not have imagined, and Cicero too- that his work for his son Marcus will be available in paperback, hardbound, and other forms centuries later. We started Mahabahoo in 1980 with enough respect to Gutenberg and his movable metal types (In 1436 Gutenberg began to work on a printing press. It took him 4 years to finish his wooden press which used movable metal type. Among his first publications that got printed on the new device were Bibles. The first edition had 40 lines per page. A later 42-line version came in two volumes) used for composition and galley proof and printing ; and obviously with great respect to Industrial Revolution – only for which we could be able to establish a real tradel print machine ( now obsolete), and a Chinese man named Ts’ai Lun who was credited with inventing paper. It was not even in our dream in those days that metal types and tradel print machines may be obsolete in the near future, though we heard about sheetfed printing machines, and offset machines. We were in a remote place of the world connected by a chicken-neck with Indian sub-continent and dream to dream was also light years away from us! Anyway, we printed and published the Assamese vernacular fortnightly MAHABAHOO for some years, and we had to stop the publication for some unavoidable reasons, and one of the main reason was we were not professionals, we were college students in 1980. After that, we experienced offset printing machines, metal plates used in offset, camera for filming the text prepared by monocasting machines or alfa-com or phototypesetters, etc- as I was connected with weekly newspaper and etc.

It is unbelievable now to believe those days of ours existed and unbelievable to believe this also that I’m typing this write-up on the screen of a device called Smartphone and the same write-up is for a e-magazine ! We were sailing a wooden boat prepared for us by Cicero, Gutenberg, Ts’ai Lun, and many more, slowly, carefully, in a limited speed for years- as world experienced speed of camel and horse for more than eight thousand years, limiting in between 8 miles (camel’s speed) per hour to 20 miles (speed of horse) per hour! Suddenly and silently the whole scenario has changed and now-a-days it’s unbelievable for us to believe this that we are still connected with the physical world with a chicken-neck of our childhood because of boundariless world of ours created by the Digital  World, a collage of internet, infrastructure, hardware, software, ‘e-subidha’ providers like STPI, DoEACC (now NeiLit), BSNL, Amtron, NIC, and many more- though for the first time I was personally influenced and convinced by Alvin Toffler, the writer of The Third Wave, Future Shock, Powershift, and none other than the Director of STPI, Guwahati, Sri P.K.Das in 2000 AD that a new age, a new Digital Age is coming soon with many offers for us we couldn’t even imagine, and he was right, here it is! Now we can read de Officiis of Cicero in Kindle, in Smartphone, we can read free online or download it as an e-book in English, Latin and many numbers of other languages! The Digital World now embraced us like Goddess Durga with Her thousand hands. It transformed nearly every issues of modern life like travelling to shopping to food delivering to working to entertainment to communication to banking to booking to many more areas that have been revolutionized in recent years, and it’s not possible to find a gadget that doesn’t incorporate digital technology in any way.

The Digital phenomenon is now connected with communication speeds, automation, learning opportunities, information storage, editing, social connectivity, versatile working, GPS and Mapping, transportation, tracking, entertainment, news, warfare, banking & finance, booking, education and almost with everything and now-a-days silently it has become an inseparable part of our lives, even if we still are geographically  living in a remote region of South East Asia connected by the chicken-neck and air-connectivity as earlier days – though we are not feeling it now due to the blessings of Digital Age and suddenly there are no boundaries for us and cyberspace is open to everyone for almost everything. We now receive more information available to us ever before and there’s almost an infinite number of ideas, resources available at the tip of our keyboard, and information is not just presented in writing- because Digital Age allows a range of visual, audio and word based information & ideas.

In a book titled “ The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business”, authors Eric Schmidt ( executive chairman of Google, served as chief executive officer from 2001 to 2011) & Jared Cohen ( director of Google Ideas) told us that “ soon everyone on Earth will be connected. With five billion more people set to join the virtual world, the boom is digital connectivity will bring gains in productivity, health, education, quality of life and myriad other avenues in the physical world – and this will be true for everyone, from the most elite users to those at the base of the economic pyramid. But being “connected” will mean very different things to different people, largely because the problems they have to solve differ so dramatically. What might seem like a small jump forward for some – like a smart phone priced under $20 – may be as profound for one group as commuting to work in a driverless car is for another. People will find that being connected virtually makes us feel more equal – with access to the same basic platforms, information and online resources – while significant differences persist in the physical world. Connectivity will not solve income inequality, though it will alleviate some of its more intractable causes, like lack of available education and economic opportunity….hundreds of millions of people today living the lives of their grandparents, in countries where life expectancy is less than sixty years, or even fifty in some places, and there is no guarantee that their political and macroeconomic circumstances will improve dramatically anytime soon. What is new in their lives and their futures is connectivity. Critically, they have the chance to bypass earlier technologies, like dial-up modems, and go directly to high-speed wireless connections, which means the transformations that connectivity brings will occur even more quickly than they did in the developed world. The introduction of mobile phones is far more transformative than most people in modern countries realize. As people come online, they will quite suddenly have access to almost all the world’s information in one place in their own language. This will even be true for an illiterate Maasai cattle herder in the Serengeti, whose native tongue, Maa, is not written – he will be able to verbally inquire about the day’s market prices and crowd-source the whereabouts of any nearby predators, receiving a spoken answer from his device in reply. ..”

In the January, 2007 issue of “Scientific American” magazine, 12 year ago, Bill Gates wrote “ A Robot in Every Home”, and he stated that “…but what I really have in mind is something much more contemporary : the emergence of the robotics industry, which is developing in much the same way the computer business did 30 years ago. Think of the manufacturing robots currently used on automobile assembly lines as the equivalent of yesterday’s mainframes. The industry’s niche products include robotic arms that perform surgery, surveillance robots deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan that dispose of roadside bombs, and domestic robots that vacuum the floor….according to the International Federation of Robotics, about two million personal robots were in use around the world in 2004, and another seven million will be installed by 2008. In South Korea the ministry of Information and Communication hopes to put a robot in every home there by 2013. The Japanese Robot Association predicts that by 2015, the personal robot industry will be worth more than $50 billion a year worldwide, compared with about $5 billion today…”

From the days of de Officiis (“On Duties”) and Gutenberg and  from the days of our Assamese vernacular fortnightly magazine MAHABAHOO to , it’s a long journey for all of us , specially for one living in Assam or Nagaland-Mizoram-Manipur-Tripura-Arunachal Pradesh-Meghalaya, deprived of  Agriculture Revolution & Industrial Revolution’s Fruits due to colonization of imperialists for long long time – suddenly became Global Citizens because of the Digital Age and we are publishing e-magazine from this part of the world! It’s known to everyone that many people fear ‘Change’, but ‘Digital Age” should not be feared. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said, “ in today’s era of volatility, there is no other way but to re-invent. The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility, that’s it. Because nothing else is sustainable, everything else you create, somebody else will replicate.” Now we are able to experience of Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Cloud Computing, Machine Learning, Data Analytics, and many more. We are living in a place called Assam, once described as country of Jungle & Snakes & Tantras & Floods, but  ‘Change’ has happened here too; in-front of my eyes when a group of 26+ young entrepreneurs (one has completed post-graduation from NID-Ahmadabad, one from IIT-Mumbai and one from Central University-Tezpur) visited my office and told me that they have started 3-D printing & etc ! 3-D printing in the North-East!! I was an admirer of Gutenberg in 1980s, in my student days; now I question myself, Am I the same person who is going to be connected with 3-D printing? Unbelievable! Though I am connected with the most sophisticated and biggest printing house of North-East, I couldn’t imagine that someday somebody will connect me and tell me that they have started 3-D printing in this region! It’s the ‘Change’! Only few years ago I’ve heard about “additive manufacturing”, or 3-D printing, machines can actually “print” physical objects by taking three-dimensional data about an object and tracing the contours of its shape, ultra-thin layer by ultra-thin layer, with liquid plastic or other material, until the whole object materializes. It’s described as “The Third Industrial Revolution” by The Economist magazine; and now that’s here, in Assam! And what a prediction by none other than Bill Gates about robotics, in 2007! In 2012 America’s intelligence agencies forecasted that Asia would soon be carrying more weight in the world than at any time since 1750. By 2030 “Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, based upon GDP, population size, military spending and technological investment”, the Spooks predicted. They made it sound like a foregone conclusion (The Economist, May 31st, 2014). Yes, the prediction was true. Today we’ve seen the warriors of Asia in the new Digital Age who conquered the many countries in the field of software, hardware, e-commerce, banking, pharma, many more. Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, apple, Google, WhatsApp, Alibaba, etc; they are creating new continents in the New Age, we became the Global Citizens, and we are sitting inside a high-speed vehicle of the Third Great wave.

Ryan Avent wrote,” most people are discomfited by radical change, and often for good reason. Both the first industrial revolution, starting in the late 18th century, and the second one, around 100 years later, had their victims who lost their jobs to Cartwrtght’s power loom and later Edison’s electric lighting, Benz’s horseless carriage and countless other inventions that changed the world. But those inventions also immeasurably improved many people’s lives, sweeping away old economic structures and transforming society. They created new economic opportunity on a mass scale, with plenty of new work to replace the old. A third great wave of invention and economic disruption, set off by advances in computing and information and communication technology (ICT) in the late 20th century, promises to deliver a similar mixture of social stress and economic transformation. It is driven by a handful of technologies – including machine intelligence, the ubiquitous web and advanced robotics – capable of delivering many remarkable innovations : unmanned vehicles; pilotless drones; machines that can instantly translate hundreds of languages; mobile technology that eliminates the distance between doctor and patient, teacher and student. Whether the digital revolution will bring mass job creation to make up for its mass job destruction remains to be seen.”

In the light of the New Digital Age, the prime minister of India Sri Narendra Modi’s declaration about Digital India and commitment for the North-East will be path-breaking if it is implemented seriously & honestly. At the same time IT Minister of India Sri Ravi Shankar Prasad’s statement about North-East and ‘Digital North-East 2022’, and specially Sri Prasad’s brainchild “Vision Documents for Digital North-East 2022” is a boon for the entire North-Eastern region in the context of rising Asia and North-East is the door for ASEAN Countries, and notably for the success of ‘Act-East policy’, declared by none other than Sri Modi. In Assam, now we can pay through online our electricity bills, municipality bills, life insurance bills, can transfer money; and it’s a boon for us for many reasons, including saving of time. But, lot to do, miles to go! The connectivity, the speed of internet, the passion for popularization of Digital Age, etc are very weak. In the e-book of the IT Ministry, Govt of India’s ‘Digital North East’, it is mentioned that one of the main mission objective is to provide mobile connectivity to all uncovered villages in NER’; but irony is, we have a printing house inside Guwahati Metropolitan District, at Panikhiti (Hatishila), established in 2007; but till now we are deprived of good quality internet service for last 12 years. Not only that, mobile service is also unimaginably poor in our printing complex- for which we have to face challenges regularly  to deliver the finished products to the customers of our region in time!

From 2000 AD, we had enough experiences of ICT Seminars, exhibitions, declaration, announcements from the late Union Minister of India Promod Mahajan to telecom minister Andimuthu Raja; but after 19 years of establishment of STPI at Guwahati, now we have a Digital policy from the Govt of India, for which we congratulate Sri Ravi Shankar Prasad with a great hope that he will ensure this policy will not be caged in world wide web only like the history of earlier policies for North-East , and we suggest him to create a monitoring committee for implementation of the ‘DIGITAL North-East Policy 2022’ with inclusion of conscious citizens of this region. The vision statement,” leverage digital technologies to transform lived of people of the North East, enhance ease of living and ensure inclusive and sustainable growth”, is important statement if spoken from the heart for the North-East! Again, the mission statement,” fast track implementation of Digital India Initiatives in the North Eastern Region through optimum utilization of ICT, bountiful natural resources and vibrant human resources,’ is indeed laudable if it is going to happen. The e-Vision Document, “Digital North East Vision 2022” of IT Ministry is stylish in design and technological point of view, but the e-Book is not user friendly at all! Even though I can count on the eight points – Digital infrastructure, Digital services, Digital empowerment, promotion of Electronics manufacturing, promotion of IT, ITeS, BPO, Digital Payments (BHIM), Digital innovation, and Start-Ups and Cyber-Security.

Now I would like to inform Prime Minister Sri Modi and IT Minister Sri Ravi Shankar Prasad that if some big companies come to Guwahati with the influences of ‘Advantage Assam’ or ‘Act East policy’, nobody, nor Assam Government or Union Government could provide them minimum 40000/50000 sq ft readymade area with all facilities required for Digital North East, and it’s the main tragedy for the entire North-Eastern region. So many Digital Service providers here in the NER under IT Ministry, but co-ordination is sadly missing! So, if IT Ministry empower one service provider or establish a NER IT department under the IT Ministry to centrally co-ordinate & monitor with the local citizens, I personally believe that will be workable and successful. Otherwise Policy or Vision will be in files – as before!

Again, the e-book of the IT Ministry should be publish in vernacular languages of the NER too, with elaborate discussion so that the youth of NER could understand it better, and could jump in the Digital Age for conquering the World. Who knows, someday someone like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg may take birth in this region – who will be able to create a new digital continent, a New Digital world with the help of Digital North East Vision 2022”! Thanks to Sri Ravi Shankar Prasad for this great initiative from the house of Hope, “Digital North East Vision 2022” will be a great success.


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