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Technology : Master or Servant?

Dr. S. V. Prabhath, Chairman, NCRI

“We shape our tools,” McLuhan said, “and then our tools shape us.” The quote raises the question: Do we create our own destinies or become subordinate and play into the hands of forces beyond us? Technology, according to McLuhan, is an extension of our own natural faculties. Every technology is, likewise, an extension of our own natural powers, born out of some natural need or the other. “This is to say that technology can be understood in terms of final cause, or purpose, and that purpose is a purpose of the living human being.” Technology, therefore, has a relation to the need and purpose and cannot be otherwise. As such, technology has an important role in linking people at the grass-roots level to the outside world. There are many examples in rural areas of how technology is helping people to take informed decisions. Technology will continue to play a decisive role in ushering change in the rural areas.

Though technology has become an important part of human life, it is also leading us into situations which are having an unsettling effect on us. It has brought us many benefits and comforts, but things are changing at such an alarming pace that unexpected problems have also been generated in an equal measure. McLuhan’s warning that “we become what we behold,” conveys that when you take into account, and are guided by the ultimate values of life, the relationship between the assumptions preceding the acquisition and development of such technology and its application becomes crucial in all our endeavours.

Therefore, we should not be surprised that there is much misunderstanding of, and debate about, the benign as well as the pernicious effects of technology. While we accept technology as an inescapable part of human life, its advantages dwarf as we notice what they are doing to our relationships, as noted by MIT Professor Turkle. She argues that people are increasingly functioning without face-to-face contact, while despite all the talk of convenience derived from texting, mailing and social networking – what humans still instinctively need is each other. She draws our attention to a sobering and paradoxical portrait of human disconnectedness in the face of expanding virtual connections. This is only one of the few instances of how we unwittingly become regressive.

Discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of technology range from utter pessimism – the opinion that eventually the human race will be destroyed – to heightened optimism – that technology will unfold a utopian existence for everyone. Technology, though, will continue its march unhindered, as humans will persistently explore and innovate in the quest for progress, as has been their wont through ages.

Technology will always have to contend with three factors: social, economic and regulatory. Further, the merits and demerits of various technologies are also determined, invariably, by the people at the helm. For example, there are people (some leaders, decision-makers, lobbyists etc.) who advocate application of nuclear technology to the extent possible and consider genetically modified food products to meet the energy and food requirements of the ever-growing world population. On the other hand, there is another school of thought which considers these technologies, and some others, to be harmful and, therefore, need to be considered with due circumspection. Social aspects take a back-seat even as the economic and regulatory factors start taking different turns with changing regimes and oppositions. This is cyclic; view points about their benefits or harmful consequences are promoted, patronized and propagated incessantly, depending upon the conditions prevailing.

Admittedly, technology has become an integral part of our lives. There have been innovations that have brought in newer perspectives on how we address the challenges of day-to-day life. On the other hand, technological advances in a few spheres have proved to be detrimental and are in fact, assuming dangerous proportions. We must not allow technology to become the master. It must be used judiciously and with sufficient caution, as excesses lead to problems, often irreversible. Therefore, advances in technology have to happen in moderation, because then we will be able to undo some wrongs based on our assessments and, perhaps, introduce modifications or shun them altogether. Our curiosity should not drive us to uncontrolled mania for novelty; instead, it should lead us to newer, safer and more useful application.

While it’s not all gloom-and-doom, the idea that technology will eventually lead us to a utopian existence is also ill-founded. The perception that technology has the solution to all our problems, and will, eventually, usher in perfect living, is not prudent. Technology has, and will always, come with a rider – direct or otherwise.

We have to be alert to spot the risk and avert disasters, while always trying to promote the better aspects of technology.

There are enough areas, especially in the rural context, where technology, if applied discreetly, can become a boom. Technology interventions in the areas of agriculture and allied fields, energy (solar, wind, bio-fuels etc.), weather forecasting, disaster preparedness, including advance warning and disaster management, as well as management of natural resources (fresh-water preservation and making potable water out of salt water) would stand us in good stead. Other areas of technology intervention could be health services, internal security and pollution control.

Whenever new technology is in the offing-though material benefits will try to influence and drive our thinking and hence, the decision-making vis-à-vis technology – it must be evaluated from a long-term perspective. Only then will we be able to say that technology is a boon to mankind.

 

Source: Ailaan, NCRI Newsletter, Vol. II, Issue V