I am visiting a senior citizen couple who live in a small town. Their son works in a different country. During a recent visit, he gifted a phablet (tablet and phone combination) to his parents. Their son had downloaded several apps for them and demonstrated how they could use them to run their lives. It was a well-meaning attempt by a concerned son to make life simpler by using technology.
I was compelled to ask him the obvious question, “Has it made your life simpler?”
The couple looked at each other and said in unison, “Not really. We just wanted to use WhatsApp to speak to our son but we are getting a message that we have to upgrade our software. Neither of us knows how to do that. If there could be someone who could take care of keeping all these digital devices updated, I would be happy to pay a monthly subscription for this.”
That may be the golden opportunity for an entrepreneur. During a recent conversation on The Future of Jobs, Nandan Nilekani talked about India being an “assisted economy”. We have grown up in an ecosystem of support. The West is a do-it-yourself economy.
In the city where I live, the toll booth has one person who takes money from me and hands it over to the person manning the booth. He smiles as he hands over the toll receipt to me. I ask the self-designated helper if he is an employee. “I am helping my friend”, he says with a smile.
When our family doctor made the house calls, the children were sent to fetch his bag of medicines. The children fought among themselves to take turns at carrying the doctor’s bag. Whoever won the battle walked along with the doctor while the rest of the kids envied the victor. Basking in reflected glory is attractive even for a kid.
Our cultural traditions have always had a place for a sidekick. Our folk theater has had a jamura who acts as a sidekick to the main performer or madaari. Without the jamura, the madaari’s show is incomplete.
Even our musical performances are “assisted” performances. During a musical concert, the maestro is supported by the tanpura player and the tabla player. Neither will ever get the limelight, unless the tabla player happens to be Zakir Hussain. The glory and limelight squarely belongs to the performer. For a few brief moments the maestro throws a few milliseconds of opportunity to the tabla player or the accompanying sarangi and harmonium player. This is when they do their darndest best to catch the eye of the audience.
When the hero serenades the heroine in a Bollywood movie, the sidekicks are jumping through the hoops in the background trying to catch your eye. Even our lovers believe in the assisted economy.
As robots take away some jobs, new ones will be created where some enterprising ones will be offering a helping hand to those overwhelmed by the constant changes that technology pushes. Technology will be the holy trinity of employment in the digital world. It will create jobs like Brahma, nurture some others like Vishnu even as the robots destroy jobs like Shiva. The opportunities all lie in the assisted economy.