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Technology: options for S.Asia

Technology is popularly believed as an ‘inseparable pair’ of science. However, social theorists have demarcated a line between the science and technology. Though, the dividing line is very thin and sometimes does not make a visible distinction, however, there lies a need to understand that.

Science is an attempt to conceptually understand the physical aspects of the universe and it usually makes value-free statements about the processes and consequences of the processes. While, technology deals with design and control-based technological processes, and it largely involves value-laden and sometimes ‘biased’ activities. Science discovers, while technology invents.

Distinct civilizational contexts have distinct technologies. Particular historical processes invent particular technology: technology shapes a society as society shapes technology.

Various societies have different pace of historical development and technologies were also the reflection of societal rhythm of realities and needs. The agrarian societies of South Asia, for instance, have a distinct record of local technologies which reflect an artistic and harmonious interplay with natural climate of the region.

Yet for all its importance, technology and its mutual interactions with the society and culture are rarely addressed in the mainstream discourse. The commonplace perception considers that the technology advances according to its own internal logic. Yet there is a need to now recognize the importance of social construction-technologies succeed or fail (or emerge at all) partly because of the political strategies employed by the individual, group, and organizational actors who have conflicting or complementary interests in particular outcomes.

There are oft-repeated questions related to modern technology both at highly academic and at purely at common-sense level; these include: Is modern technology morally, culturally and politically neutral? Does this provide independent tools? Does it exist independent of local value systems? Can it be used impartially to support different things?

In this view it is to be recognized that modern technology is directly linked with the modern economic system which is based on laissez faire system of production and consumption. Adam Smith, one of the pioneers of modern economic reasoning maintains that unless individuals are selfishly motivated, the very process of economic development would come to an end. This argument provides conceptual basis for modern economic rationality, on which the foundations of modern technology are laid down.

Technologies are deployed as a tool for accelerating growth in modern economic planning. Economists normally discuss the macro-economic impacts of technological change in terms of productivity growth. This approach is not concerned with the specific technologies and their characteristics. How far productivity growth benefits the poor? This question remains intentionally unheard by the techno-centric technologists.

Some economists have divided technological progress into three basic classifications:

1. Neutral technological progress: It occurs when higher output level are achieved with the same quantity and combination of factor inputs. Simple innovations like those that arise from the division of labour can result in higher total output levels and greater consumption for all individuals.

2. Labour-saving technological progress: Electronic computers, automated looms, high-speed electric drills, tractors and mechanical ploughs and many other kinds of modern machinery and equipment can be classified as the labour-saving technologies. Technological progress in the 20th century has consisted largely of rapid advances in labour-saving technologies for producing everything from beans to bicycle to bridge.

3. Capital-saving technological progress: Economic development historians note that this is a much rarer phenomenon. But this is simply because, as they maintain, that almost all of the world’s technological and scientific research is conducted in developed countries, where the mandate is to save labour, not capital.

Poverty of technology: Exiting mega technology has the productive capacity to meet the basic needs of the resource poor of the world. It is fast in production and quick in manufacturing, yet, with all its vigour, grandeur and mightiness it has failed to maximize its affiliated benefits at large. Past 300 years’ experience has revealed that it has widened the gulf between the rich and the poor of the world. It has empowered the powerful and dis-empowered further, the powerless. People who can not stay in market through their purchasing power can not have the privilege to experience the utility of modern commodified technologies. It does not reach to each doorstep despite the fact that it has the capacity to do that. This handicap amounts to be the poverty of modern technology.

Nonetheless, it is to be clarified that this poverty emanates not from technology itself instead it is largely attributed to the structures of the control and ownership. Technology seems to be acting as the subservient of the existing production, control and distribution regime which is based on profitability and self-centred interests of the financial dictatorship of market forces.

Market forces operate commercially and these run in industrial ethics. As in industrial production, producer is alienated from its product through the deal of wages, likely the inventors of technology alienate from their laborious inventions and the product is finally taken over by corporate giants. The modern technology has virtually become the keep of effluents, whether they are global, national or local. The issue of political control of modern technology takes the centre of the stage in modern socio-technological context.

In certain cases it has been substantiated with empirical evidence that modern technology and modern economic system reproduces poverty. South Asia is the best example to understand this assumption. There are writers who attribute growing poverty in the Third World in part to rapid growth in the modern sector that is sustained with the most advanced imported technology. This growth in Third World metropolitan areas is often accompanied with little or no spread effect to the sectors in the periphery.

Commenting on this issue, Robinson observed, “a growth strategy that takes the form of industry-led development, using the technologies that are appropriate for Western societies, leaves almost untouched in the rural areas increasing absolute numbers of impoverished and underemployed workers”. It is because this growth has failed to create sufficient employment opportunities and the growing disparity in progress between regions that concerns have been raised about the conventional development strategy.

Technology of poverty: Recognizing the poverty of technology — particularly of mega and capital intensive technology — there emerges a realization to look at some other ways which may not popularly exist at the moment but can have practical bearing for the future.

Apparently in labour-abundant societies the incorporation of capital-intensive technology has adverse results. Capital-intensive technologies squeeze the opportunities to have an access to livelihood for the poor and resourceless and in certain cases it has displaced people by providing no alternatives for the bare minimum survival.

In this context ‘appropriate technologies’ come out as a pro-poor technological choice which is believed to be affordable, appropriate and accessible. The argument for appropriate technology is not that jobs should be put before output, but that techniques can be developed which promote both. Appropriate technology is intended to raise productivity and incomes outside the advanced technology sector and so extend the benefits of development throughout the population.

Below are some propositions put forth by the notions of appropriate technology:

* Workplaces have to be created in the areas where the people are living now, and not primarily in metropolitan areas into which they tend to migrate;

* These workplaces must be, on average, cheap enough so that they can be created in large numbers without this calling for an unattainable level of capital formation and imports;

* The production methods employed must be relatively simple, so that the demands for high skills are minimized, not only in the production process itself but also in the matters of organization, raw material supply, financing, marketing, and so forth;

* Production should be mainly from local materials and mainly for local use.

Gandhi said: If I can convert the country to my point of view, the social order of the future will be based predominantly on the Charkha and all it implies. It will include everything that promotes the well-being of the villagers. I do visualize electricity, ship-building, ironworks, machine-making and the like existing side by side with village handicrafts. But the order of dependence will be reversed. Hitherto, the industrialization has been so planned as to destroy the villages and the village crafts. In the State of the future it will subserve the villages and their crafts.

I wonder how many appropriate technologists know that Friedrich Fritz Schumacher, a student of Keynesian economics, who is known as the father of concepts of intermediate and appropriate technologies, was principally guided by the Gandhian philosophy of technology. However, he ‘patented’ these technological notions through an immaculate articulation. Undoubtedly, his name has become synonymous with ‘appropriate technology: this is how sometimes technology of knowledge works!

Conclusion: South Asia which was endowed with diverse resources of local technology has forgotten to capitalize on its wealth of appropriateness. In a rat-race of rapid development we forgot that merely growth in production is not the issue but the distribution of growth is the problem.

In the choices of technological options, also, South Asian countries seem to have failed to understand the ‘context’ of technology. The heavy reliance on the borrowed technology of alien context created new contradictions thus by serving the most resourceful. Modern technology was seen to be used as a tool of exploitation in favour of richer nations, richer countries, richer communities and richer individuals.

South Asia is a labour-abundant region with scare capital. The import of capital-intensive and labour-saving technologies has intensified the social stress, affected negatively the balance of payments and has re-produced poverty. It has resulted into a widespread social exclusion as poor can not have the access to these technologies. Besides, these technologies bring adverse effects for the livelihood-based economies by taking over the existing opportunities without offering for the alternative.

In this backdrop two suggestive questions emerge as a food for thought:

1. There is need to re-examine the viability of mega technology in solving the social problems like poverty, unemployment and social vulnerability in the South Asian context. This is rather a political question, not merely a technical question to be left only for the engineers and corporate sector to attend to. The issue of control, consumption and procurement of technology is linked with the general structure and patterns of ownership. There is this option to contest the political control of technology by market forces. Existing technological progress needs to be bringing down to serve humanity instead of humanity being subserviently serving technology.

2. There is need to look for appropriate technological back-up aimed to cater the informal and rural sectors, which usually remain out of the mainstream technological ambit. ‘Appropriate technology’ is one alternative framework which needs to be brought into political discourse and an equal focus has to be given to the development of smaller and indigenous technologies. Brooks (1980) suggested along the same lines that “appropriate technology and current technology are complementary rather than mutually exclusive, and that the potential benefits of both will be enhanced when they coexist”. However there is certainly an urgent need to expand the scope of technology and to integrate appropriate technology in the development of the people of South Asia.

Technological change must be viewed as a political process, reinforcing the interests of a dominant class. It also implies that the development of non-alienating, non-exploitative technology requires more than just a nominal change in the ownership of the machines we now have. It includes a complete reshaping of our attitudes towards the function of technology in society — a simultaneous change, in other words, of both the political and the technological consciousness.

Source: Dawn

Byline: Amjad Bhatti

December 22, 2003

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