SIGCIS 2010 Workshop Papers

Name:Marie Hicks

Institutional Affiliation:Duke University


Paper Type:Traditional

Paper Title:“The World Looks to Britain”: Technology Transfer, Heterogeneous Engineering, and British Computing Companies’ Attempt to Capture the Indian Market, 1955-1965

Paper Abstract:Material elements of technological systems rely on a variety of immaterial techniques, standards, and expectations in order to effectively function. John Law has postulated that the most successful sociotechnical systems engineer their economic, political, and even cultural environments to better integrate with the technologies that they seek to implement. This paper discusses how British computing companies attempted to engineer the labor and market context of Indian computing in line with British technological and business interests. It will argue that the lasting effects of these efforts resulted in both intended and unintended consequences for both Indian and British high technology, and led to a situation in which the cultural expectations attached to different computing job categories significantly altered during their transmission from the British to the Indian context. This paper ties into the theme of materiality and immateriality by discussing the effects of different cultural and business contexts on a nascent high technology field.

Struggling to retain their early lead in the field of electronic business computing, British computing companies attempted to leverage economic and cultural links with commonwealth and former colonial countries. With the backing of the British government, they sought to capitalize on old imperial relationships to capture markets before IBM had a chance to attain dominance. As a result, British computing companies embarked on a program of construction and training to heterogeneously engineer the market context in India and other countries. Shoehorning expensive and delicate labor-saving systems into markets with inadequate infrastructure and no dearth of labor, however, presented problems. Accordingly, computing executives needed to transmit and institute British business ideals and work organization methods. Crucially, they also imported labor training and selection rubrics that had their basis in the context of Britain’s massive and long-standing industrial and governmental data processing establishments.

The expectations of British computing company emissaries, backed by their government and borne out of experiences with British labor markets, meant that the class intimations and gendered expectations attached to different categories of machine work were reconstituted in postcolonial contexts as part of a broader attempt to create a viable market for British computing products. The importation of labor expectations specific to the British context created both tension and opportunity as Indian workers, managers, and technologists adopted and adapted them. Ultimately, they had very different effects than in the home market—effects which reverberate within the global high technology labor market today. This paper will add to the literature on technology transfer, the social construction of technology, non-western histories of computing, and technological labor forces.