They built Sri Lanka’s bridges, roads, power grid, dams and other infrastructure we take for granted. You may have heard a few names – Wimalasurendra, Kularathne – in passing. The rest never got the recognition required to be forgotten. Yet their work still stands. Despite a decaying state bureaucracy poisoned by Sri Lanka’s feudal politics.
This miracle is possible because of two things:
- a secret army of undocumented mission critical people who keep things running
- an engineering ethos that survives mediocrity’s attempts to crush it
Both are possible because of the unspoken Sri Lankan hacker sprit. Which marries a curiosity about technology with a drive to get things done. This combination creates a view of technology as a part of daily life. It is a shared broad view with a spectrum of personal variation. Overall it powers an attention to detail, an organisational instinct, a savvy for handling social obstacles, and a quiet defiance at the boxed mindsets of this tradition strangled island.
The public culture does not celebrate such a spirit. At best treats it with awe. The eduction system is designed to stifle if not restrain it. The politics of the bureaucracy tolerates it because someone with enough technical expertise has to do the work at some point.
I discovered a place where the Sri Lankan hacker spirit is celebrated; in the recollections of engineering relatives and their collegues. Now semi retired after a life time in the sun, dust, mosquitos and bureaucracy of too many outstation engineering projects. A time of getting things despite the madness history has inflicted on us. Rye anecdotes of near disasters reveal feats of ingenious on the fly problem solving. But only if you get past the self deprecating humour. There’s a stubborn refusal to trumpet one’s accomplishments. The usual method is to celebrate the skill, genius and achievements of colleagues.
They all took considerable risks. It was a time when safety was treated as an after thought if not a luxury by “head office”. That meant climbing to dizzying heights without harnesses or helmets. Years in outstation construction site “bungalows” surrounded by malaria. Driving lorries of dynamite through jungle roads away from JVP insurgents. Getting roughed up by political goons for not bending technical standards to allow corrupt deals.
If you dig deeper into the understatements and the self deprecation you can glimpse something else. A history of bravery, determination, integrity, spirited rivalry bound by a sense of camaraderie, and incredible engineering ability.
It is the only thing I see in modern Sri Lanka that links to the achievements of the ancients. The humans who designed and built the feats of hydro engineering around the Anuradhapura and Poḷonnaruwa eras. Some of which are still in use after almost two thousand years.
How such a hacker spirit survives in the catastrophe we let politicians create is a mystery. Some might call it a miracle. I fear the culture that allowed things like the Meethotamulla disaster will not allow miracles to last much longer. Do you?
Yes, I’m using the “standard” software/computer related term for hacking/hacker. Ask me and I’ll explain why.