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Past present: The pros and cons of technology

It is said that when someone presented a printed book to the Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) for the first time, he found it crude and rough as he was accustomed to books with beautiful calligraphy and illustrations by the court painter. Actually, during the medieval period, the literate elite class had no problem accessing books as there were scribes who immediately copied the manuscripts onto paper. These books and manuscripts were not just available in the imperial library but also in the libraries of nobles and scholars. Therefore, medieval India had no need for the printing press.

In its early period Christian missionaries published only religious literature to help them in preaching. Therefore, these publications did not do much to increase the overall knowledge of the common man nor did they bring any change in society.

During the Ottoman Empire, the printing press was first set up by the Jews. First, the government set up restrictions regarding the publication of any religious text. Later on, when another printing press was established, the sultan ordered that no book should be published without the permission of a board of ulema. The press soon closed down as there was no demand for any book that would have passed through such strict scrutiny.

The printing press which brought a revolution in Europe failed to create much impact in Muslim societies. Perhaps the reason was that the literature produced by the scholars was religious; there were no creative writings in the 15th century on philosophy or science. As the production of knowledge was limited, so were the consumers. There was no large demand for varied forms of literature. The limited demand of scholars was fulfilled by scribes who copied books for them.

The authors of Why Nations Failed enumerate some technological inventions which were not implemented because of the vested interest of rulers. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (37 BCE-14CE) a man presented him an unbreakable glass in the hope of getting some reward. The emperor asked him if he had told anybody about his invention; when the man said no he ordered his servant to take him away and kill him. The reason was that by implementing this invention, he did not want to make thousands of potters jobless.

The same story was repeated when another man invented a mechanical machine which could carry marble columns from mountains to the city. Another Roman emperor rejected his offer on the plea that it would make thousands of workers unemployed. Fortunately, he merely dismissed the man and did not kill him. In the third example, William Lee invented a knitting machine; he brought it to Queen Elizabeth the First (1558-1603) and requested her to patent it in his name. The Queen refused and dismissed him saying that she did not want to see her subjects being made jobless. The reason for rejecting these inventions by different rulers was that they wanted to keep society intact without disturbing the structure. In case of unemployment, there would be discontent and turmoil which could result in rebellions and chaos.

Before the arrival of the British, Indian textile was the best in the world. After the Industrial Revolution, textile manufacturing factories in the West replaced the hand-woven Indian cloth and captured the market. The Indian weavers became not only jobless but, after losing their skills and profession, were reduced to unskilled labourers. Gradually they were absorbed in different professions and India lost its status as the leading textile manufacturer.

After 1857, Punjab became the centre of book publishing. The growing demand for calligraphers was fulfilled by private centres where master calligraphers trained students in this art. There were entire villages which consisted of scribes who inscribed books for printing. The best calligraphers held titles such a Shirin Qalam or Gohar Raqam (sweet pen and pearl light, respectively). Sadly, this profession suffered when computers arrived and text composing became a simple, computerised process. It made the whole class of calligraphers jobless within no time.

Those societies who are in touch with modern developments can easily adjust in the new circumstances. Those who are not conscious of the latest trends suffer a setback. It is difficult for them to accept new realities and adjust to them.