Technology and terror, two responses to globalization

Posted in Terrorism | 16-Mar-04 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

BANGALORE, India Nandan Nilekani, chief executive officer of the Indian software giant Infosys, gave me a tour the other day of his company's wood-paneled, global conference room in Bangalore, India. It looks a lot like a beautiful tiered classroom, with a massive wall-size screen at one end and cameras in the ceiling so that Infosys can hold a simultaneous global teleconference with its U.S. innovators, its Indian software designers and its Asian manufacturers.

"We can have our whole global supply chain on the screen at the same time," holding a virtual meeting, explained Nilekani. The room's eight clocks tell the story: U.S. West, U.S. East, GMT, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia.

As I looked at this, a thought popped into my head: Who else has such a global supply chain today? Of course: Al Qaeda. Indeed, these are the two basic responses to globalization: Infosys and Al Qaeda.

Infosys said all the walls have been blown away in the world, so now we, an Indian software company, can use the Internet, fiber-optic telecommunications and e-mail to get superempowered and compete anywhere that our smarts and energy can take us. And we can be part of a global supply chain that produces profit for Indians, Americans and Asians.

Al Qaeda said all the walls have been blown away in the world, thereby threatening our Islamic culture and religious norms and humiliating some of our people, who feel left behind. But we can use the Internet, fiber-optic telecommunications and e-mail to develop a global supply chain of angry people that will superempower us and allow us to hit back at the Western civilization that is now right in our face.

"From the primordial swamps of globalization have emerged two genetic variants," said Nilekani. "Our focus therefore has to be on how we can encourage more of the good mutations and keep out the bad."

Indeed, it is worth asking what are the spawning grounds for each.

Infosys was spawned in India, a country with few natural resources and a terrible climate. But India has a free market, a flawed but functioning democracy and a culture that prizes education, science and rationality, where women are empowered. The Indian spawning ground rewards anyone with a good idea, which is why the richest man in India is a Muslim software innovator, Azim Premji, the thoughtful chairman of Wipro.

Al Qaeda was spawned in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, societies where there was no democracy and where fundamentalists have often suffocated women and intellectuals who crave science, free thinking and rationality. Indeed, all three countries produced strains of Al Qaeda, despite Pakistan's having received billions in U.S. aid and Saudi Arabia's having earned billions from oil. But without a context encouraging freedom of thought, women's empowerment and innovation, neither society can tap and nurture its people's creative potential - so their biggest emotional export today is anger.

India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan each spontaneously generated centers for their young people's energies. In India, they are called call centers, where young men and women get their first jobs and technical skills servicing the global economy and calling the world. In Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia they are called madrassas, where young men, and only young men, spend their days memorizing the Koran and calling only God. Ironically, U.S. consumers help to finance both. They finance the madrassas by driving big cars and sending the money to Saudi Arabia, which uses it to build the madrassas that are central to Al Qaeda's global supply chain. And they finance the call centers by consuming modern technologies that need backup support, which is the role Infosys plays in the global supply chain.

Both Infosys and Al Qaeda challenge America: Infosys by competing for U.S. jobs through outsourcing, and Al Qaeda by threatening U.S. lives through terrorism. As Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, put it: "Our next election will be about these two challenges - with the Republicans focused on how we respond to Al Qaeda and the losers from globalization, and the Democrats focused on how we respond to Infosys and the winners from globalization."

Every once in a while the technology and terrorist supply chains intersect - like last week. Reuters quoted a Spanish official as saying after the Madrid train bombings on Thursday: "The hardest thing [for the rescue workers] was hearing mobile phones ringing in the pockets of the bodies. They couldn't get that out of their heads."