Microsoft Research India: friend or foe?

I’m going to make no excuses here—I was a chardonnay socialist and it’s time I came out and everyone gathered together and gave me some support. I have, from the time I was a little child been dreaming of hammers and sickles and the like, had a knee-jerk reaction to: big corporations (evil), government (evil), conservatism (evil), and stiletto heels (rank consumerist EVIL). So if you were to say “Microsoft”, I’d say “Where? Let me grab my stake and crucifix!”. However, as I’ve aged and discovered social theory, I’ve realised that “evil” doesn’t really cut it. Systems themselves aren’t evil, because they are run by people. And, some of these people are selfish bloodsucking capitalist pigs (sorry, force of habit). But some of the other people come up with brilliant and devastating ideas that can make the world warmer and fuzzier, and then other people implement those ideas and everybody gets excited.

A couple of days ago, I stumbled across a press release on Webwire. It turns out that a couple of weeks ago UC Berkeley hosted what is to be the first in a series of conferences entitled the International Conference on Information and Communications Technology and Development (ICDT). The idea behind this conference centers around the need to explore how existing technology can be adapted or rebuilt to meet the needs of developing nations. The conference took a multidisciplinary approach to the topic; not only technology but also the social impact of such technological advancements. It’s compelling stuff. And it’s primarily focused on India, the new darling of the technological world.

Excellent. All for it. The topics covered sounded great—some of them things like microfinance, empowerment of the people through low cost IT, text free and speech recognition interfaces for illiterate users, and using same-language subtitles in Bollywood films to encourage literacy. And UC Berkeley’s playing a big research role? Great. We know UC Berkeley have historically been FOSS friendly. Cool. And UC Berkeley’s co-host and partner in this laudable project?

Microsoft Research India.

Okay. Now I know what a fascinating site India is for this kind of research. It has a blend of poverty and high tech savvy that makes it pretty interesting, and an excellent place for some R & D. I also know that FOSS is hot there right now—for all the obvious reasons.

What I want to know is, will Berkley and Microsoft be exploring the FOSS options when the research is being bankrolled by the fudslingers?

I honestly believe that the academics involved in this research are going to come up with some excellent and innovative stuff. I have no doubt, also, that they will be looking at empowering solutions that teach a man to fish for a lifetime, so to speak. However, in a recent interview in Technology Review with Kentaro Toyama who heads up Microsoft Research India, Toyama states the importance of India in particular to Microsoft as a huge potential market for their products, and cites specialised educational packages for poor, ruralised schools as an example.

I am hoping that to develop these products there will be grass roots consultations, not just ivory tower westerners deciding what the rural preschoolers “need”. And whether their needs will involve seeing the world from a certain point of view.

I’m also hoping that Microsoft’s little research projects will be exploring, AND PAYING ATTENTION TO THE RESULTS OF, data that isn’t just market relevant, but is also socially relevant. And that if that means FOSS the research is still valid.

Here’s hoping!


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