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Why technological temper is crucial to mankind's survival

Sunday, 27 July 2014 - 5:44pm IST | Agency: DNA
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We live in a society… dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology 
– Carl Sagan

Any science, sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from Magic
– Arthur C Clarke

Technology is no longer direct or easy to decipher. Indeed, if a person who lived in the mid-19th century was to enter the common household of today, they’d think magic had pervaded the Earth. One can light up rooms or make a room hot or cold just by touching panels on a wall.

Indeed in many cases the technology is so complex that most people assume only a few can understand it. They would not be averse to referring to some of the technology as magic. Science fiction is replete with human technology and inventions taking a life of their own and proving a threat to humans themselves. Fear of technology is more prevalent that we care to admit. 

Yet technology is crucial to our lives. Centrally generated electric power was a luxury 150 years ago, but is now a commonplace occurrence. The internet will soon become as commonplace as well within a couple of decades. The sense of distance and time has become completely warped. Seeing events occurring several thousand of kilometres away as they happen, talking to people halfway across the earth or manmade machines several million kilometres apart are experiences will within our reach. We are going to become more rather than less dependent on complex technologies in future. This is an essential need of life, not luxury.

The rising multitude of populations with increasing demands for comfort and entertainment means that only technology and automation can provide for our future needs. Human ingenuity will continue to discover increasingly ingenious ways of manipulating nature to do his biddings – noble or otherwise. 

At the same time, the people who will invent technology will not be the same as the ones who will implement it for common good. And the users of these technologies will not be as comfortable with its subtleties as those who invent them. 

Technological literacy and technological temper across professions, therefore, are as crucial to our survival as scientific literacy is to emotional wellbeing. The recent unsatisfactory debate on genetically modified (GM) foods clearly shows such literacy does not exist. This will have severe consequences for the future of India, such as:

* Application of wrong technology
Failure to apply appropriate technology
Over expectations from a given technology
Underutilisation of some technologies
Lack of vision in optimising human life based on the pool of technologies available to a nation
Exploitation of the technologically illiterate by the rogues of all kinds
Arrogant application of technological conveniences and failure to understand the effects and collateral effects of any technology can produce unanticipated side effect
Lack of environmental sensitivity in particular can make environment react in unpredictable and destructive manner
If a proper balance between human needs and protection of nature can leave large stretches of land unliveable and produce unrealistic stresses on human life and environment
Excessive reliance on technology that is intrinsically limited can lead to manmade disasters 
Over reliance on technology can lead to runaway failure to control its side effects
Over confidence in technology can also lead to other kinds of disasters
Untested technology can produce catastrophic disasters 
Technology in the hands of persons with anti-social intent can provide them with unprecedented powers

Technology is not know-all and arrogance about access to technology can have severe consequences on human existence. A good rule with new technology is “always praise technology but never be the first one to use it”!

To make matters worse, the accelerated pace of development today has significantly reduced the incubation time for any invention where scientists and engineers can brood over and argue about its appropriateness. With exponentially increasing technological complexity, beyond the teenage years, to be old is to be obsolete. At the same time, in order to make people use technology, it is being ‘dumbed down’ way below its logical simplicity giving rise to a whole host of clandestine technologies that exploit the poorly understood aspects of technology for malicious purposes. 

This increases the risks of uncontrolled, technology driven disaster. Everything from nuclear energy to weapons of mass destruction and poisons introduced in our food by artificially fed plants and animals to internet viruses all testify to these side effects. 

Then there are unintended social costs. India is a civilisation built on respect for the elders and personal sacrifice for the stability of society. These ancient values that have given us an unbroken history of some 3,000 years is under threat. Technological incompetence of the elder is one obvious fact. More serious is the fact that India is witnessing an inversion of financial structure of a family. In most families today, the wiser elder with experience to guide the family into future is the one with lowest salary and equally low self-esteem. This is further compounded by poor comprehension of their technology controlled environment. The result is that to be old is also to be out of touch and hence irrelevant to today’s debates. Within families, with increasing financial clout, power is now asserted by the young and inexperienced who are more likely to take hazardous decisions due to lack of foresight. 

Another aspect is that in the glitter of new technologies, old one are fast forgotten and scorned upon. The old ways that gave support and strength to life – from healthy eating to a life resonant with human biology and environment – are being sacrificed for physical comforts. 

The problem of technology is therefore as much material as it is intellectual. And to make matters worse, we are sleep walking into this environment – completely illiterate and incapable of ensuring our own safety. Someone has said that we are like a baby in a bath tub who has switched on the tap and whether the child survives or dies will depend on whether the tub is deep or shallow – the child is now at the mercy of the forces unwittingly released that are gushing upon the child. We urgently need to teach the child to control the tap, grow taller and ensure that the tub is shallow enough not to drown out the child! Technological temper is as crucial as scientific temper and more urgently needed since our survival depends on it. 

The most prolific species on earth and the most advanced organized life-form on the planet is also the one that threatens the existence of all with a large arsenal reckless implementation of poorly understood technologies and compete ignorance. As Hobbs of Calvin and Hobbs would say ‘I am not sure people have the brains to manage the technology they already have”.

If not, the impact on our future will be devastating. So what is the solution?

Firstly we need to increase the gestation period of technologies – we need to slow down and take a breath. We need to do this without the distracting from the dynamism necessary for the survival of the ever expanding population. For this we must bring both, population and expectations down. The mad rush of self-gratification dependant on the amount of technology one can call in servitude is producing unacceptable demands for newer and cheaper technologies.  It is taxing our environment beyond its ability to adjust.

It is also important to keep an eye on what we are losing and giving up – a lot of that may be much better than the modern alternatives. We need to think before we discard. 

But the most important factor is to create a technologically literate community that can actively participate in the debate on which technologies to implement and which to discard in any given situation. It is therefore increasingly important that we ensure that even science dropouts are not dropped out of scientific and technological literacy since many of them will control the human destiny and their ignorance can cost us dearly. 

It is also important that we understand and appreciate both, the powers and limitations of technology in which all thinking people participate as a hedging against ill-conceived use of technology. We need to educate our baby on switching off the water coming into the tub before the child drowns.

 

Dr Mayank Vahia is a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research since 1979. His main fields of interest are high-energy astrophysics, mainly Cosmic Rays, X-rays and Gamma Rays. He is currently looking at the area of archeo-astronomy and learning about the way our ancestors saw the stars, and thereby developed intellectually. He has, in particular, been working on the Indus Valley Civilisation and taking a deeper look at their script.




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