Knowledge or technology

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The digital age has brought the world together under one roof more than any other phenomenon in history. Whether this is good or bad is another debate altogether, but the inescapable reality is, there is no other way to move forward than to accept its inevitability and learn its ways. It has in many ways redefined democracy in spirit as well as in practice. Never before has the world come to belong to one “imagined community” as they are now. When Benedict Anderson wrote his landmark book defining a nation as an “imagined community”, bound together by shared interests, and shared aspirations, a bondage most visible in subscriptions to newspapers and news channels that represented these interests, the internet was still in its infancy. So he talked only about how newspapers represented this abstract “imagined community” which transcends immediate circles of friends, relatives and acquaintances of at the most a few hundred people. The telephone contact lists of people in the 1980s and 1990s for instance seldom went beyond 200-300. Today with the advent of social media like Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter etc, an individual’s “friends” or “followers” can run into thousands, and even several millions.The world under one roof has also meant the world as one market, and again nowhere has this been more true than in internet based businesses. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Flipkart etc, to name just a few examples.

We pick the Google story for this editorial today as it has been particularly fascinating for many things. David A. Vise, who chronicled the rise of the Google phenomenon in his book “The Google Story” gives us a glimpse of this internet search company’s short but spectacular history. Vise traces the success trajectory of the two extra bright Stanford University Ph.D scholars, Sergey Prin and Larry Page, whose thesis on the calibration of websites by tracking the number of links each site is associated with became the foundation of this multi-billion dollar company that gave an explosive start to the 21st Century. Their achievement in the field of information revolution is compared even to those of Johan Gutenberg 500 years ago when he invented the movable font printing machine. Google was founded toward the end of 1998, and its two founders were billionaires in less than 10 years before they were 30. The word “Google” has also become a verb in the English language and in 100s of other languages of the world. Incidentally the name “Google” is, Vise’s book reveals, is a misspelling of the term “googol”, which stands for a very big number –10 followed by 100 zeros. That the two thought of this number is understandable, for while calibrating websites they were dealing with billions after billions of data. But by the time they realised it was a misspelling, it was too late, for the misspelled name “Google” had caught the world’s imagination.

The Google story has one other prominent hero other than the two friends – Stanford University. And it is this aspect of the story that this commentary is interested in with a view to suggesting to our own academia of an approach that has resulted in ground breaking innovations that spawned phenomenally successful leaders of the new age industries. The Google story exemplifies this more than any other. Imagine a doctoral thesis, and an internet search engine programmed on its basis as part of the same doctoral course, resulting in what may yet be the most phenomenal enterprise of the new century. The moot point is, it was no accident that this happened in Stanford University, for the university actually has a programme that encourages this. Its Office of Technology Licensing even goes to the extent of not claiming propriety to ground breaking on-campus works by students and professors. Obviouisly, it sees no contradiction between academics and financial rewards and has served as the incubator for some of the most successful technological enterprises on earth, including Hewlett-Packard, SUN Microsystems (SUN actually stands for Stanford University Network), Amazon.com etc. It departs a little from the purist approach that the primary duty of the academia is to train the next generation professors and researchers alone. What it also does besides this is to give emphasis on linking its knowledge bank with the world outside to the benefit of both. The question is, shouldn’t it be worthwhile for our own institutions of higher learning to give this approach a thought?


Source: Imphal Free Press

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