A case for Indian insourcing
First Monday

A case for Indian insourcing

Abstract
The controversy surrounding the "off–shoring" of IT jobs from the United States to other countries, in particular to India, has become a focal point in American political discourse and has been widely represented in the media. Disturbingly, little attention has been paid to this occurrence beyond its implications for American employment opportunities. Representing Indian and American IT workers as unified groups whose interests are mutually exclusive and opposed to one another is problematic given the material realities that propel "outsourcing." Among the potential benefits of growing demand for, and supply of, skilled IT workers is increased participation in the Open Source Software (OSS) movement. Expanding global involvement offers a significant opportunity for developing countries to influence the direction, importance, and future of OSS.

Contents

Introduction: (Mis)Framed race, class, and gender
A third world FLOSS boom
FLOSS–ing without participating
Economic and structural demands of FLOSS involvement
Economic exploitation
Conclusions

 


 

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Introduction: (Mis)Framed race, class, and gender

Polarized positions on the offshoring of information technology (IT) jobs have quickly deteriorated into racist, sexist, and orientalist arguments in the United States. Dominant discourse assumes the identities and interests of Indian and American IT workers to be static and relatively unified. The flattening of categories and lack of attention paid to the diaspora space inhabited by workers from both categories is one means by which race, class, and gender have been usurped by appeals to continued economic stratification and gender– and racial–ethnic essentialism. Diaspora space

"can best be conceptualized as the intersectionality of diaspora, border, and dislocation as a point of confluence of economic, political, cultural, and psychic processes." [1]

Diaspora space serves as a useful tool for bringing together/engaging with these intertwined elements, such as found surrounding the issue of IT (in/off)shoring.

Constructions of IT worker identity in the current outsourcing debate still rely on the codes and tropes of Orientalism (Said, 1978). American IT worker identity stands in relation to current representations of the "other" in the form of Indian IT workers. The caricature most often presented of India and the Indian worker is that of a foreign, exotic "other." The representation of the Oriental woman is of utmost importance in this relationship, for in many of the articles and pictures discussing both the positive and negative impacts of IT (off/in)shoring, the Indian woman has remained a dominant figure. As can be seen in Figure 1 (Pink, 2004), the impressions of "unlimited sensuality," "veil," and "sinister intentions" are still maintained [2].

Figure 1: Cover of the February 2004 Wired.
Figure 1: Cover of the February 2004 Wired. See also http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.02/india.html.

This most enigmatic representation of an imagined Indian IT worker is veiled by her own hand, which is in turn covered by a henna script that encrypts an imagined "foreign" computer code. The accompanying headline, "kiss your cubicle goodbye," reveals her sinister plan to demolish the American IT workplace, and simultaneously the livelihood of millions of Americans. Concomitantly, the image is strangely erotic; a possible attraction to her exoticism, her beauty, and her veiling, which prompts the question, "What lies beneath?" These are all precisely the images that Edward Said referred to when writing of Orientalism as a writing practice, one in which the orient is "restructured" or "re–visioned" in romantic ways by European observers [3]. Every aspect of this image is a projection that can be read for what it says about the cultural situatedness of white American identity. Between the blending of Indian and Arabic imagery of the Orient, the mistake can be made of assuming a unified and homogeneous "other"; certainly one that fits into a post–9/11 fear of Middle Eastern peoples (Ahmad, 2002; Spigel, 2004). An image construct has been projected onto the Indian IT worker, that of "other."

As the more familiar construction of the American IT worker has taken hold, it has become normalized, accepted and embraced (timidly perhaps). The image of the nerd that once dominated our perceptions — that of the white, thin, male, timid, and most importantly chaste (Eglash, 2002; Noble, 1992; Turkle, 1995) — has segued to the image of the white male, middle class, married (heterosexuality, once questioned is now assumed) with 2.5 children, and a home owner; the perfect personification of the American dream. The nerd image has shifted from "fringe" to the ideal. A surprising and particularly good example can be found in the popular portrayal of Linus Torvalds. Figure 2 (Rivlin 2003) depicts Linus, not only as FLOSS IT worker, par excellence, but as the "Leader of the free world." Throughout the examination of Linus’ home life, and in particular his material possessions, a common conflation emerges: one in which consumerism dominates the discourse, and another focusing on worker as family man.

Figure 2: Cover of the November 2003 Wired.
Figure 2: Cover of the November 2003 Wired. See also http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.11/linus.html.
For another perspective, see the interview with Linus Torvalds in the March 1998 issue of First Monday at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_3/torvalds/index.html.

The clearest danger resulting from these oppositional constructions is the shoring up of racist, sexist, and Orientalist positions among American IT workers and policy–makers. The diaspora space representing the American IT worker is not a simple one. White, male American IT workers have been problematically naturalized as the "true" or "original" IT workers, the "rightful" IT "natives." Some of these problematic assumptions about the historical origins of IT work are simply false (Boyer, 2004). Others are explicitly racist. While many white Americans forget that racism still pervades the post–Civil Rights era, members of minority groups remain distinctly aware of just how alive and well racism is in the United States (Feagin and Sikes, 1994; Winant, 1994). U.S. racism has been assumed to be about black and white, obscuring the extent to which racist claims about brown skinned people partake of the same racist/orientalist tropes of the past. For this reason we must be acutely aware and cautious of how we frame arguments about off/inshoring.

Additionally, it is important that issues related to class are not instead portrayed as issues of race (Winant, 1994). This is of the utmost importance in the current debate. If our discussions related to global capitalism and class structures in the U.S. continue to be reframed as racial issues, it is possible for them to be co–opted by fascist ideologies. My fear is that the current framing of the (off/in)shoring debate lends itself to fascist and jingoistic conclusions. Thus I seek more effective arguments and analyses that American IT workers might use to make sense of their situation. The diaspora space in which American IT workers are competing was never a native space. To ask other countries to sit idly by, passively consuming the goods produced by the U.S., gives little credit to the agency that actors in these other countries bring with them. One particular organization has found a means by which to frame the struggles of the working class in a more unifying manner, focusing on "world–wide working–class solidarity" rather than on any one single country’s interests (Industrial Workers of the World, 2004). This approach does demand that American IT workers accept the role of working–class, which may prove be a difficult pill to swallow for some.

The potential benefits that improved third world involvement could bring to the Open Source Software (OSS) or Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) movement are dramatic. The assumption that third world countries can benefit from the reduced cost of FLOSS is clear. What is problematic is the assumption of active participation in the FLOSS movement without any underlying economic support. The remainder of this paper focuses on the possible effects of FLOSS involvement from third–world and post–colonial countries, as well as a critique of the assumption that FLOSS development can take place in absence of an existing IT economy. The role of (off/in)shoring in this discussion as a point of entry for third–world and post–colonial countries into the IT economy is potentially vital for thinking about the future of a global scope FLOSS movement.

 

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A third world FLOSS boom

IT worker growth

In the last year 152,000 IT jobs were reportedly created in India (Adhikari, 2004), with speculation that by 2008, India will employ almost two million IT workers (NewsNetwork, 2004). These figures do not reflect the number of individuals that may have entered higher education systems in the hopes of taking part in the booming IT economy. Sustainability arguments aside, the prospect of two million educated IT workers living in India could have a dramatic affect on India’s involvement in the FLOSS movement. Simple numbers are not enough to ensure an impact on the FLOSS movement. While throwing more software engineers at any one problem may tend to make software projects later than they already are (Brooks, 1995), on the other hand, software engineers throwing themselves at projects they care about could make more projects matter. The rapid growth of IT jobs in India has provided a new range of workers with increased financial security and an ability to engage with FLOSS projects on a technical level.

Though some studies suggest that greater demand for IT personnel in commercial software development may reduce the number of workers able to become involved with FLOSS projects, it would be imprudent to assume that none of these newly trained workers will participate. As educational institutions train increasing numbers of young people in the skills necessary for fulfilling the demand for IT workers, presumably the supply and demand differential will begin to even out, possibly freeing more developers to take part in FLOSS activities.

By 2008, India will employ almost two million IT workers.

Several quantitative studies have shown that there is dwindling developer activity in FLOSS projects in the U.S. However, the number of developers in western European countries becoming involved in the FLOSS movement has continued to increase. Economic theory has shown that perhaps this dwindling support by American developers is due to increased opportunity cost of spending personal time developing software (Lancashire, 2001). The same may be true in India for the foreseeable future. As globalization trends continue, however, Indian developers may very well face the same employment problems that software developers in other countries have already experienced. It is quite possible that in both cases, the reduced internal demand for software developers will prompt increasing numbers to take part in FLOSS activities.

Government interest in FLOSS

Though U.S. government support for FLOSS activities has originated from numerous government agencies, ranging from the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Energy to the National Science Foundation, there has yet to be a cohesive government–wide approach to IT funding, and in particular towards FLOSS as a possibly more useful IT strategy. Government agency adoption of FLOSS based solutions does continue to grow (LinuxInsider, 2004), however this again makes the implicit assumption that use implies involvement. Though significant amounts of scientific research money from the U.S. and Western Europe have contributed to the pool of FLOSS resources, direct government funding of FLOSS projects could readily outpace this.

India and China in particular have been quick to embrace the FLOSS movement as a potentially influential and important activity (Becker, 2003; Economist, 2003; Ribeiro, 2003). China has made the importance of reducing dependency upon foreign IT suppliers a national security concern, and based upon this decision has begun work on a localized version of Linux (Economist, 2003). Both countries have seized upon the ideologies accompanying FLOSS, as well as pledging to contribute back to the community through government sponsored development activities. Such a resource (human and monetary) boon may very well change the shape of the FLOSS landscape.

 

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FLOSS–ing without participating

Logical equivalence to proprietary software

Software piracy tends to be more pronounced in developing countries, primarily due to the relatively high licensing fees associated with commercial software (Business Software Alliance (BSA), 2003). In many cases, the potential utility of a given software package is less than the costs associated with the software, encouraging users to seek other means to acquire a given software package. Although the BSA literature assumes that all pirated copies of software translate directly to lost sales, this seems overly simplistic, as they do not investigate the extent to which pirated software is actually utilized; to what extent would alternative and perhaps less well–known software packages fulfill the needs of those users?

The potential benefits of reduced license fees seem to dominate a good deal of the current discourse (Ghosh, 2003), while little attention is paid to what skills are necessary to fully engage with the FLOSS movement. Educational and professional development associated with the use of FLOSS resources makes the implicit assumption that users will automatically want to engage the product at a lower level [4]. If the cost of software were indeed a major barrier to entry, it would be possible for pirated software to be distributed in place of Open Source software. Perhaps instead pirated copies of Microsoft Windows could be distributed (despite the obvious ethical and moral issues associated with such an action), although it would be rather crude to make the assumption that users would become actively involved in software development for such a platform? This approach would also alleviate the additional costs associated with proprietary software, and users could conceivably learn just as much in this setting.

The assumption that users of a Linux system are more likely to participate in the FLOSS movement because they are using a computer based upon the work of that movement seems questionable.

Though no developing country would probably desire such a solution, it is a useful demonstration of a single point. What makes FLOSS software so powerful and influential is the ability for technically educated and adept users to participate in the future direction of the software that is being put into place. The assumption that users of a Linux system are more likely to participate in the FLOSS movement because they are using a computer based upon the work of that movement seems questionable. Something must usually prompt users to become interested on a technical level, and seek the knowledge necessary to actively participate. This seems more complicated in post–colonial and third world settings, as the foundational human resources may not already be in place.

What barriers are there to participation? This point will be elaborated upon further later, but any assumption that average users will participate in the FLOSS movement simply because they are using a system developed by that community seems problematic. There must be several other factors that influence people to become active in the movement.

Cultural aspects of design (How to sum up a culture through language)

FLOSS development has been significantly impacted by a small number of developers in post–colonial and third world countries, as well as developers who have moved from their homes to Europe and the U.S., but have chosen to focus their attention on making FLOSS accessible to their previous homes. These localization efforts have been extremely influential in making FLOSS comprehensible to new audiences (Ghosh, 2003), but it leaves intact certain problematic assumptions about the universality of U.S. and Western European software design ideologies and practices.

Little else has changed in the design, interface, or functionality of FLOSS based software systems. Without wide technical support from other countries, the cultural aspects of design will be limited to language translation. However, other scholars have shown that there are dramatically different aspects of a successful design in one context that may be very ineffective in another (Schuler and Namioka, 1993). Designing software to meet the needs of users in these situations requires significant developer input and on the ground involvement. What would particularly Indian or Chinese software packages look like? How will the FLOSS community react to development groups that choose to keep as much of their source code as possible in their native language, making them less accessible to American and European developers? What changes will other countries make to the licensing schemes associated with FLOSS development? There is no guarantee that FLOSS newcomers will have the same underlying philosophies that currently dominate FLOSS discourse. This diversity may very well be difficult to deal with, but could potentially make the diaspora space of FLOSS development much more vibrant.

FLOSS tools may very well be "appropriated" (Eglash, et al., 2004) and adapted to be more culturally specific, though this too demands a level of familiarity and education that tends to be lacking in the countries that could most benefit from FLOSS software.

 

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Economic and structural demands of FLOSS involvement

U.S. and European dominance in FLOSS

With the exception of Australia, current survey data indicates that the locus for FLOSS development is in the U.S. and Western Europe. France and Germany top the list of countries active in FLOSS development, with the U.S. coming in third. However, when taken in combination, Western Europe dominates; their total participation comes to almost 65 percent of the total developers. This number is more than six times the number of developers originating from the U.S. and more than twice the number of all countries not in the top ten (Ghosh, et al., 2002). This dominance must be supported by something other than altruism or an interest in the liberatory promises of FLOSS (Stallman, 2002). The following sections draw almost exclusively on the quantitative data gathered by Rishab Ghosh and his associates at the International Institute of Infonomics in The Netherlands (2002).

Educated/well–paid/professional FLOSS developers

Predominantly missing from the discussion of FLOSS development has been a discussion about what sort of barriers to participation exist. The average individual cannot simply put together a computer running FLOSS based software, and begin development on the Linux kernel in several days. There are numerous barriers to entry to individual projects, and language barriers make it difficult for non–English speaking individuals to take part in FLOSS development that spans outside of their native country (Lancashire, 2001). There are more barriers however, and these barriers are the impetus for this paper. What structural and economic barriers are there to entry into the FLOSS movement? Though the software is indeed free, and the intentions of the movement quite noble, it seems problematic to assume that use and participation are one in the same, or that one necessarily leads to the other. Though this may be true to a lesser degree, such variability could not support the kind of development currently being deployed in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Though the software is indeed free, and the intentions of the movement quite noble, it seems problematic to assume that use and participation are one in the same, or that one necessarily leads to the other.

There are several elements that seem necessary for active participation in the FLOSS movement:

  • College educated (Preferably in IT) individuals
  • Significant IT employment opportunities
  • Significant well–paying employment

There seems to be minimal work on these demands as any sort of barrier to entry. Though quantitative data seems to suggest that this is the case, there has only been focus on license fees as a reasonable reason for countries to make use of FLOSS technologies. This alternative focus seems to require greater concentration on issues external to simply choosing software solutions. I suspect that one reason for this lack of attention is in part because of the close link between proprietary (or previously proprietary) software companies, and their employment of a significant number of IT professionals now working as part of the FLOSS movement.

Recent survey data suggests that these are important issues. I believe these elements need to be considered some of the most important aspects facing the long term viability of the FLOSS movement. More importantly, they are vital for FLOSS to be a truly global activity. Without addressing these matters, FLOSS will continue to be a movement dominated by the U.S. and Western Europe.

College educated (IT) individuals

Seventy percent of individuals participating in the FLOSS movement have at least a university degree, and more than half of those numbers (37 percent of the whole) have a degree beyond a bachelors. Though individuals may have degrees outside of IT, the rather large number of students of IT taking part in the FLOSS movement (16 percent) make it clear that IT degrees influence individuals to participate in FLOSS activities. Higher education seems to both encourage FLOSS activities, and serve as a time when aspiring IT professionals attempt to assert themselves as technically competent.

Significant IT employment opportunities

Eighty–three percent of participants in the FLOSS movement are employed in one way or another in an IT–related field. Even more interesting is that more than half of FLOSS developers receive some kind of monetary compensation for their work. Other work makes it seem advantageous for countries interested in FLOSS development to not have too high an internal demand for developers, because developers may be less likely to work in FLOSS (with the exception for employment in which FLOSS software is being produced). In the U.S. far fewer developers take part in FLOSS activities. In countries were commercial IT employment is more difficult to find, more young people, educated in IT, use FLOSS activities as a means by which to gain experience and show competency (Ghosh, et al., 2002). Nearly all respondents in the current surveys cited additional skill development and improved job opportunities as a significant aspect to why they participate in FLOSS activities. Without IT employment opportunities, these motivators will be significantly reduced.

Significant well–paying employment

Forty–eight percent of FLOSS developers make 2000 EUROs or more per month, and 70 percent make 1,000 EUROs or more per month. Though these figures appear low, the large number of students involved in FLOSS activities must be taken into account. More than seven percent of FLOSS developers make no income, and as such, they must be funding their education, housing, and technology costs by other means.

 

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Economic exploitation

The missing U.S. masses

A large number of U.S. corporations appear to be taking more from FLOSS activities than they are giving back to the process. Given the potential number of IT professionals, and how many actually participate, the U.S. lags far behind other countries (Lancashire, 2001). Though the links between outsourcing and increased U.S. dependence on FLOSS is tenuous, there is an undeniable and uncomfortable similarity between dependence upon transnational development communities producing generic free software, and foreign countries producing specific software packages for minimal cost to companies based in the U.S. The goal of reducing costs is at the core of the U.S. narrative in approaches to the IT industry, and "free" seems quite similar to "low cost" (Schwartz, 2004). Perhaps more emphasis should be put on asking for contributions back from those U.S.–based companies able to do so.

 

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Conclusions

For India to really take part in the FLOSS movement, it first must be able to participate, and this demands an economy that can employ a reasonable number of IT students and professionals. Regardless of how India does this, it seems a necessity to take an active role in the FLOSS movement. If this means becoming competition for other countries’ IT employees, it may be a risk that is necessary for the global development of the FLOSS movement. Large numbers of women IT professionals in India could also mean an emergent female role in the FLOSS movement, where it is currently almost completely absent.

Though the financial aspects may influence some countries to make use of FLOSS resources, there will be little long–term difference from this and pirating commercial software.

Participation in the production of software seems to be the real defining factor of FLOSS activities, not the reduced financial requirements of licensing fees. Though the financial aspects may influence some countries to make use of FLOSS resources, there will be little long–term difference from this and pirating commercial software. To realize the full potential of FLOSS promises, countries will need to either internally fund FLOSS development at a government level, or have the economic stability to provide enough resources and demand for IT workers to take part in the activities of FLOSS development.

The current narrative surrounding (in/off)shoring in the U.S. shuts down many discussions regarding the roles that other countries can take in producing their own IT–based economies. The racist/sexist/orientalist tint of these arguments makes it difficult for post–colonial and third world countries to reasonably establish themselves as software producers. Embracing FLOSS in these countries may provide minimal returns until they are capable of establishing their own IT–based cash flows. This may require them to compete with U.S.–based companies, or indeed act as subcontractors for U.S. companies. It cannot be assumed that this has been done out of malice, and indeed may only be an action taken in the hopes of improving their own conditions. More importantly, it becomes necessary to examine what other barriers may exist to participating in the FLOSS movement. End of article

 

About the author

Casey O’Donnell is a MS/PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His principal research interest is in software design and development work and cultural aspects of the post–industrial workplace. His interest in FLOSS centers on the place of human activity in the movement. He has been conducting fieldwork and interviewing software developers in and out of the workplace in the United States.
E–mail: odonnc [at] rpi [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

My thanks to everyone involved in the 4S/EASST conference and faculty/graduate students of the RPI STS department. Extra special thanks go to my fiancé Andrea, who graciously takes both the job of continuous copy editor and loving supporter.

 

Notes

1. Brah, 2003, p. 631.

2. Said, 1978, pp. 284–328.

3. Said, 1978, p. 158.

4. Ghosh, 2003, p. 3.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 22 September 2004; accepted 19 October 2004.


Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, by Casey O’Donnell

A case for Indian insourcing: Open Source interest in IT job expansion by Casey O’Donnell
First Monday, Volume 9, Number 11 - 1 November 2004
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1188/1108





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