Irrespective of the particular religious affiliation we profess, all of us are in reality worshippers at the temple of technology. From the Osama bin Ladens in the Tora Bora caves to the Christian fundamentalist Bushies ensconced in arrogant Washington, from the smug liberal to the all-sacrificing communist, there is hardly a person in our world who does not bow down in reverence to the all powerful deity of technology and its omniscient promise of providing a solution to all our troubles in this problem-ridden world.
Let us look at the post-World War II history for some examples. When food production was unable to keep pace with growing populations, especially in newly independent countries of the South, it was technology that helped us ‘solve’ the problem with hydro-carbon infused, water-intensive, chemicalised agriculture. In the countries of the North, it was technology again that delivered the creature comforts for their consumerist society, which claims, again, to have ‘solved’ all the problems of human want.
The pollution and ecological degradations caused by the technological solution to food scarcity are again sought to be further ‘solved’ by new doses of technology, just like global climate change – caused by the depredations of the consumerist society – is to be solved by 21st century technology.
It is not merely for these large issues where we seek solutions from technology. We have the technology of flyovers and larger, better roads to solve the problems of growing traffic. We have the technology of washing machines, vacuum cleaners and dishwashers to solve the problems of bored, over-worked housewives, just like we have the technology of electronic surveillance and improved locks to solve the problems of crime.
Let us look at each of these examples to see what ‘solution’ does technology provide.
Crime, specially urban and industrial, is a direct consequence of extreme inequality. Our cities are now composed of an ever-increasing urban slum with its millions of people forced to eke out a bare existence on stale crumbs thrown from the high table urban rich with their vulgar displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption. Rather than addressing this issue of inequality, we turn to technology to provide security and safety.
No amount of washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, cooking ranges or home-entertainment systems can solve the drudgery of domestic chores for the bored housewife. If at all, this can happen by destroying our present patriarchal families and building new forms of emotional nurturing units.
Similar to the bored, yet over-worked housewife is the fast, yet furiously log-jammed traffic of our cities and highways. And just like household gadgets are no solution, similarly flyovers, restricted access roads and sexier cars are no solution. It is like loosening one’s belt to deal with an expanding waistline! The solution lies in moving away from personal transport towards public transport, in addressing the issues of residence and work areas and in building democratic urban communities.
While the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s did increase food productivity, it was at a huge cost of irretrievably chemicalising the entire eco-system, it requires ever-increasing doses of hydro-carbon derived fertilisers and huge government subsidies to sustain itself. In India itself, the province of West Bengal showed an alternate path to increasing food productivity through re-distributing zamindar’s land to the peasants and politically empowering them. The really unfortunate aspect of this is that even those who pioneered this technology-bereft rise of food productivity – the communists who run the Government of West Bengal – have not built a critique of the ‘green revolution’ and often buy into the story of its supposed success.
These are but a few, random examples of the preponderance of technology as a universal solvent. I am sure you will be able to find examples of your own in every aspect of life if you so apply your mind to it. But will you? The ideological hold of technology is so strong that we are, more often than not, rendered incapable of identifying the technological fix for what it is – a denial of human agency. Let me explain.
Technology is the practical application of our knowledge of the natural world. In other words, technology is the practical side of science. In that sense, technology is not only inevitable, but desirable. It has been the companion of human beings from pre-history. Successful technology itself creates the material conditions for the furtherance of science. But there is a crucial difference between science and technology. Science, as a method of understanding the world and our reality, is based largely on the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Technology is, by definition, utilitarian and practical. It is the application of the knowledge we gain through science.
In the examples we used above, it is true that technological advances are useful, desirable and often urgently needed. Even with high levels of income distribution and equity, it is quite conceivable that crime would remain. Similarly, some of the gadgets of domestic use have the potential to free people from domestic chores and spend their time on more creative and productive activities. Also, better roads are surely needed and flyovers too may be required at places. Fertilisers, too, are not to be denied a priori.
The trouble with our present technology regime is that technology is accepted as a solution a priori. Technology plays two crucial roles in our present industrial society based on private property, which has transformed its very nature and its relation with human beings.
First, continuous expansion of technology, both in terms of physical spread and improvement, is crucial for the success of extended reproduction, which this column had discussed last week. Extended reproduction refers to the continuous need to expand the scale and size of production in the capitalist system. This is necessary since the rate of profit has a tendency to fall and if the industrialist wants to sustain or increase his levels of profit, he will perforce need to continually increase productivity and expand the scale of production. This continual increase in productivity is possible only with a parallel continual improvement of technology. This gives technology primacy and puts a heavy discount on science, which has no use. The disinterested pursuit of knowledge is seen as a mere waste!
Second, technology has a political function in capitalist society. It removes problems from the arena of public action and participatory political decision-making. In each of the examples given above, the alternative to technology is radical political action. Political action, which is deeply democratic as it has to involve maximum people in its ambit for its success and which requires the rich and the powerful to forego their privileges and perks. Therefore, the use of technology is, more often than not, an anti-democratic measure. It is a happy co-incidence that technological solutions to problems of life also contribute to the profits of the capitalist, thus feeding into point one above.
Unless the primacy of the political is asserted each and every time there is a problem we are faced with, it would be difficult to break out of the trap of technology. By providing a-political solutions to problems that are essentially the result of how we structure our society, technology dissolves the political community so essential for democracy to function. In that sense, technology is the universal solvent of our times.
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This article was published in my column in The Post on 10 October, 2007.