Science & Philosophy

Guns Or Butter: Reflections On How Science And Technology Impact Us

How does one begin to understand the impact that science and technology have on our lives? Well, one can start by thinking about all that one has done during the day and imagining whether those things would have been possible had Newton not formulated the three laws, or if Galileo hadn’t been ingenious enough to think of his machines, or if Anur R Puniyani had not discovered the effect of fire on lead pencils, or if some scientific crusader or the other had not contributed in some way or the other to this continuing saga of the breathtaking power of combined human intellect. Ok I am sorry about the last one, I was just expressing a long held fantasy of mine, to be counted among the great minds of Science. And that was actually an experiment that I did as a child, sacrificing one of my dear lead pencils to Agni, the Hindu ‘God of fire’. Coming back to the point, I don’t think it should be difficult to imagine how deep our kinship with science and technology has grown to be over the past three hundred odd years or so, but just in case you have come to take science and technology so much for granted that you don’t seem to take note of its presence, the following might just make you let go off that feeling.

So, what have you done during the day? Did you travel by a vehicle to get to some place? Would that have been possible had the laws of thermodynamics not been discovered by a certain gentleman called Sadi Carnot and used to make combustion engines? Or would it have been possible had the science of geology not played a part in the unearthing of fuel reserves, fuel which must have directly or indirectly powered your vehicle? Or would it have been possible without the science of chemistry and chemical engineering playing a part in refining of the extracted fuel? Or would it have been possible had the discipline of mechanical engineering not played a part in the development of heavy machinery with which the vehicle you traveled in was manufactured? Think of any other activity that you did and see how large a role science have played in it.

That was just a small example showing the inextricable interwovenness of science with our everyday lives. We find today that science is present in every move, that we make in every breath that we take, in every rule that we break and in every cake that we bake. So it’s pertinent to stop and look back to understand the social implications of this behemoth of an institution called science, so that we are in more control of it.

Let’s look at the present state of science and technology to begin with. Today we find ourselves in the middle of a second industrial revolution of sorts, the IT revolution which is creating a paradigm shift in the way information is handled and used all over the world. I am sure our ancestors would never have imagined how highly advanced the ways of handling information would become in future.

Just to put things in perspective let me narrate a story to you that I read as a child about a king in the 16th century who was to be married to a sciprincess who lived in a far away country that was separated by an ocean. The princess fell ill and the marriage had to be postponed, so an entourage left from the princess’ country to give this message to the king and reached there after about six months. When the entourage returned to the princess’ country after another six months war had broken out there and this message had to be conveyed to the king again. The entourage left again and after six months reached the king’s country only to find the whole country immersed in celebrations of the king’s marriage. Understandably, impatient as kings are, he could not wait so long to marry and married a princess from a nearby country.

Today we are in an era where Princesses/Princes from one part of the world are finding their Queens/Kings in some other part of the world, not caring about how many oceans separate them, using that magical thing that we call the internet, sending and receiving a gazillion messages to and from them, before getting married to them in a jiffy. Now that is information technology for you.

Information Technology is also taking new strides in the field of mobile communication. There was a time in India when Indira Gandhi, former prime minister of our country based her election campaign on the idea of providing food, clothing and shelter to all in India. Let me just reiterate something that has become a cliché’ by now by saying that elections will very soon probably be fought on the slogan of food, clothing, shelter and mobiles for all. Today all you need to stay accessible and connected 24/7 is a mobile handset which may cost you as less as Rs. 2000 and a connection that costs not more than Rs. 200 per month, so the idea of a mobile for everyone is not really that far off. One more indicator of technology revolutionizing our lives.

But I think the most important way in which technology has influenced our society is in the way in which enterprises function today. Quoting from a speech by Mr. Nandan Nilekani, CEO, Infosys, one of India’s largest IT enterprises, ‘the world is becoming flatter’. This in effect means that for almost all practical purposes of any enterprise(especially west-based) the boundaries between different countries are mere lines on a piece of paper, and that’s it.

Today production and business processes are being outsourced en masse from Europe and America to countries where human resource is cheaper, the whole process being aided by IT. A company manufacturing vehicles for example is getting the engines manufactured in one part of the world, the gearbox in another and the parts of the body in yet another where the cost of labor is lesser. Similarly back office operations of many enterprises are being outsourced to third world countries where human resource is cheap; for example a credit card company in the US might have its customer care being handled from a third world country like India. This has given entrepreneurs a great amount of flexibility in planning their production and business processes so that their profits are maximized.

A concomitant development is that competition has become cut-throat between entrepreneurs of the third world to whom production or business processes are outsourced as they live in the constant feeling of insecurity that if they don’t provide better services and products at cheaper rates they will lose business to some other competitor who may be in some other part of the world. Because of this, those in production, try to cut-costs by hiring cheap labor or outsourcing production further to small units where laborers are hired at cheap rates.

Conditions are better when it comes to people working in firms in the IT and ITE (IT-Enabled) sector but this too has its own problems. As far as monetary gains to employees are concerned there is probably no other sector that even comes close to the IT and ITES sector, because they are paid by west-based enterprises or enterprises having west-based clients. So, even if a person working in IT or ITES in India gets the salary of an American blue collar laborer like a cleaner in McDonalds for example, whose salary may be something like a thousand dollars a month, s/he feels more than happy with the pay package. This is so because the thousand dollars gets converted to forty five thousand rupees when it comes to India thanks to the currency conversion rates tipped heavily in favor of the United States. This is not to denigrate anyone working in the IT and ITES sector in India or any other third world country but just to bring out the unevenness of the whole system. Also just like in the production sector, the entrepreneurs in the IT and ITES sector also face intense competition giving them a constant feeling of insecurity which they pass on to their human resource making their lives tough. The money saved on Human resources through the process of outsourcing goes directly into the pockets of the west-based entrepreneur who comes out as the biggest beneficiary in the whole process.

I would say it’s a different version of what happened three hundred odd years ago when the colonial powers conquered the rest of the world in search of markets and raw material to fill the pockets of their governments and their enterprises. The real losers as we can see in this whole era of IT and ITES are the blue collar workers who are being shoved further into the throes of poverty whereas at the very same time we see that the bigger entrepreneurs of the west are reaping in the benefits.

Another notable development in our modern times has been that when India has been milking the benefits of technology, a completely antithetical trend of obscurantism is emerging as never before in the country. Things like Rieki, Feng-shui, Vastu which are not based on logical foundations are enjoying a popularity that they never before enjoyed. The use of technology has brought more insecurity in the lives of the people especially the software engineers, the vanguard of today’s IT revolution what with hire and fire being the order of the day. The processes of privatization and opening up of Indian markets to global players has had a similar effect on other sectors like production also and people in these sectors also have to deal with a lot of stress and insecurity. In such a situation anything that gives them a sense of predictability about the future comes as a welcome relief, hence the explosion of blind faith in the country.

It may be noted here that when Science emerged first in a way as we know it today in the era called the Renaissance, it directly challenged all religious dogma and blind faith. The great minds of science like Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and later Darwin et al. challenged the way Religion tried to paint a picture of the world. Their basic foundation was a framework of observation, logic and experimentation. It is worth a mention here that it is the very same method of logic that acts as the foundation on which the entire structure of computer science and engineering stands and which is a core aspect of today’s IT industry and the driver of the new economy.

labTV channels across the country today are beaming programs about things like Reiki, Feng shui etc. and there are all sorts of people who claim to know what the future holds in store for us. Highly stressed out people go to such fortune-tellers to know their future, whether they will get a raise, whether they will get a better job, when will they fly to the US etc. These very people forget that the real problem is not about what will happen in the future but what is happening in the present. What is happening is a large group of people have to live with a feeling of insecurity which arises because of a trickle down effect of global cut-throat competition and which represents a system of unequal exchange of mainly two types one, between large and small entrepreneurs and second, the entrepreneurs and their Human resource.

But all said and done, technology has also positively changed our lives in many ways, at least the lives of all those who have crossed a certain threshold in terms of educational achievement and financial security. Today we find innumerable cases of people who had lived their entire life in poverty and material deprivation now leading very materially satisfying lives. In short, IT in India has given a lot of hope to the hopeless but also given insecurity to the carefree.

To conclude let us remind ourselves of an analogy between science and a knife. In the same way that a knife is inherently neither good nor bad, since it becomes something good when used for productive purposes and bad when used to harm someone, science is also neither good nor bad since it can become good when used to make life simpler for people and bad when used for destructive purposes like making nuclear bombs or helping in increasing inequalities by playing into the hands of the select few.
History tells us that till today the bad uses of science have probably been as much if not more than the good ones. This leaves us with the thought that science being the neutral but powerful thing that it is, we have to make a conscious decision as to how science has to be used by us as a society- for making guns or for producing butter. To that I would add the choice of whether to use it to create more value for a select few or to make life simpler and easier for all and usher in a more happy, content and also materially satisfied society.

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Anur R. Puniyani

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