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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Technology in a demented age

What I think about technology and its current state and effects on the world is to some extent outlined in the chapter titled On Nature in my book To My Daughter, as well as in the blogpost titled How My World Has Changed. But I keep thinking about it, and meanwhile new children are growing up into thinking beings (!), and not all of them have read the above (or can), so I think it’s time to write on the subject again – for all who are interested in the way I think, and want to understand why.

First, science and technology are not synonymous. Far too many people are forgetting this most vital point, and a lot of them these days never learnt the difference at all (I can’t blame the young, when they hear of institutions with names like Jai Hanuman College of Science and Technology Management). About this, I have written elsewhere – if you don’t want to read that, a little research on your own will do you a world of good.

Second, technology has been with us for thousands of years: it isn’t something that was born a few decades or even a couple of centuries ago. Indeed, any true scholar of the history of science will concur that the most epoch-making technologies evolved long before proper history began to be recorded: little that has been developed in the last fifty years has had the civilization-changing effects of the wheel, fire, the knife, writing, gunpowder, the compass, spectacles, surgery under anesthesia and the sanitary water closet. Anyone who gushes too much about the ‘revolutionary’ apps available on his mobile phone today is merely betraying the fact that a college education does not these days guarantee that you have greater practical wisdom and sense of discrimination than the average rickshawallah.

Thirdly, technology and computer science/IT are neither synonymous nor coterminous, for god’s sake – as an increasing number of even ‘educated’ (heaven help us!) folks seem to imagine. The prosthetics inserted in people’s eyes, hearts and bones involve technology. Shipbuilding and bridge building and aircraft designing call for technology, as much as cooking and scientific irrigation techniques do (and they all developed long before computers came to the aid of engineers). What an age we are living in when people have to be reminded of such things!... and as I have written elsewhere, the fact that technology is stagnating in so many fields, such as agriculture and power generation and automobile engines and pollution control and water recycling and disaster prediction, so that journalists and pop-science writers have to harp ad nauseam on ‘exciting’ developments in IT says nothing either flattering or encouraging about the state of technology today. As I say when I am in a mood for black comedy, we are heading for a dystopian world where we shall have to see if we can live on a diet of phones and TVs, they having become so cheap and simultaneously so ‘advanced’, seeing that normal food, air and water are becoming increasingly unavailable and unaffordable!

Which brings me to another, vital and connected issue. As a very observant man (incidentally both an engineer and a poet) told me back in the 1980s, jugta bigyaner noy, bigyaponer – it’s an age of advertizing, not science. It is in the mass media’s commercial interest to keep gushing about the alleged constant advancement of technology, and manned by millions of hacks and ad copywriters who never qualified for more worthwhile jobs, it bombards the public night and day with either trivial or pseudo-scientific rubbish (just check out the kind of jargon they use for ads of water purifiers and health drinks on TV, and I learnt not long ago that these days news like Kindle is about to introduce a backlit reader qualifies as a ‘scoop’. In my day a leak about Kissinger’s secret visit to China or about the first planned moon mission would have qualified as such. Judge for yourself). Bernard Shaw wrote a century ago about a time ‘when people had minds to think with, rather than a collection of newspapers’. What would he have said if he were alive today?

Net result – the public has become obsessed with junking their perfectly usable and useful possessions, be they phones or cars or hearing aids, to buy the ‘latest’ gizmos on the market, no matter how silly the little ‘improvements’ are, how useless, and how grossly, needlessly expensive (automatic rain sensors in cars that can turn on the windscreen wipers, you know, probably designed on the assumption that the average driver these days is both blind and deaf). Unless you decide never to grow up – in a most unedifying sense – you can get very tired of it. I don’t want to keep ‘updating’ the operating system on my computer every few years: why must I be forced? I don’t want to be told that the very costly camera I bought eight years ago should be trashed in favour of the newest toy – I had meant to leave it for my granddaughter, as grandfathers did with heirlooms in the good old days. It irritates me when gmail changes its layout and I have to re-learn something so trivial all over again, just because they want to stay cool with tweens all over the world. And I hate it when I am told, after I have used Picasa for three or four years, that the service is being closed down and I must switch to Google Photos now – and evidently hold my breath for the next such ‘exciting’ news a couple of years down the line again (in my case, the consequence is that I shall probably stop uploading photos on the net, and go back to a film camera, and I am not the only one thinking that way). Oh, I know, I know there are many hundred million people in the world today with too much money, too much time hanging heavy, too little responsibility, too empty brains and no real passions of any kind, who need to be kept constantly engaged and entertained this way, but what about the rest of us? Or, when is it going to be officially declared that henceforth technology shall progress not for the welfare of humankind as it was understood for thousands of years (as, say, happened when penicillin was discovered and the Pill invented), but only to keep lazy nitwits happy?

One last issue. I read a conversation among morons where someone particularly demented gushed ‘Technology does not discriminate!’ (having apparently read an ad copy to that effect somewhere – where else can such gifted people find their inputs?) Really? Read the whole history of warfare – war has always cruelly, devastatingly discriminated against the side which lacked superior technology, from the days of the chariot and ballista, and then the longbow and then the cannon and rifle and today the robots and drones. In the field of medicine, every time a new technology is born, whole generations suffer and die watching only the rich being able to afford the new procedures, drugs and gadgets, only praying that their children will be more fortunate (I read somewhere that eighty years ago doctors used to impress their dirty-rich patients by carrying around then-exotic ECG machines, and the eye doctor in my neighbourhood who charged Rs. 13,000 for a cataract operation alongwith lens transplant twenty years ago – that would be the equivalent of at least Rs. 35,000 now – does it for Rs. 3,000 today). India cannot go in wholesale for online examinations yet simply because of the fact that several hundred million students are still computer illiterate for no fault of their own, and the system will leave them out in the cold.  A stage actor works a thousand times harder and earns a thousand times less than a movie star for purely technological reasons. And every time a new technology replaces a vast number of specialized workers – be they calligraphists or painters, bank tellers or manual labourers – just where do those people go? Who takes responsibility for feeding them: especially those among them who are elderly, and ill, have families to support, in no condition to learn new skills, and have no savings worth the name to fall back upon? Need still more examples? Technology does not discriminate, indeed. There should be a law against rich, ignorant imbeciles puking all over the net… 


Shameek M said...

Dear Sir,

This post rightly points out the grave situation that we face today, that is probably only going to get worse, and it is indeed frightening to even think about, of what awaits us some years down the line! As I was reading the post, the words almost echoed of similar things you used to tell us back in class, so many years ago.

It is indeed tiring and irritating to keep 'updating' the computer or any other gadget even when one does not want to, and even if the device is working without any glitches. And I completely agree with what you said in the last part of your post, technology does discriminate! Thank you for providing that link about the photographs, the post is surely a must-read.

With regards,

Arpan Biswas said...

I respect and agree with your views about today's Technological advancements. Yesterday I was wondering about which application to use for taking down notes?'Microsoft OneNote' or 'Evernote'? After reading this post on your blog, I understand how idiot I am. So I bought a small notebook instead to take handwritten notes. Evernote and OneNote are just cooler ways for doing the same thing. Today we are wasting a lot of time on new technologies that are almost completely useless only because they are cool.