Friday, January 16, 2009

Shock to the System

An Essay on Scientific Progress & its Social Costs

Just 50 years ago, there were no PCs, Mobile Phones or Credit Cards. The Web was unheard of, so was Satellite Television or the omni present ATM booth. Our daily lives are now dominated by the fruits of scientific triumphs, from super vaccines and genetically manipulated food to GPS devices and automatons. Our century has seen knowledge breed at an unparalleled rate. It has sent man to the moon, conquered hunger, disease and pain and allowed people to reach out to each other over colossal distances.

Of all the revolutions that have shaped our evolution, the technological revolution stands out for one simple reason - speed. The Internet revolution in particular, has been like the last industrial revolution compressed in time by 90%. If air travel, rail and roads altered the way we travelled, email and the internet besides the vast array of other communication devices have fundamentally transformed our way of communicating, faster, cheaper and in a variety of ways.

To see the difference, compare a person transported from 1800 to 1900 to a person from 1900 transported to today. The former would be completed disoriented by the present cities of millions where only towns of a few thousands once stood or short air trips of days that had once been months or years. In contrast, the latter would find some analogy between airports, train stations and ship ports, and between shopping online and buying goods from distant factories.

Even if traditional scientists believe that there will soon be nothing left for them to discover, the applications of what we already know are sure to occupy us well into the next millennium. The impact of Knowledge and Technology on our every day lives has become so intertwined that separation of its power is just impractical. At the end of the 20th century, the visionary words of Francis Bacon that “Knowledge is Power” have indeed come very true.

The Change For Change
The technological revolution is now part of our everyday existence, rapidly transforming both our society and our expectations for the future. This impact of knowledge is emphasized by powerful global dynamics around us: flourishing populations and elevated life expectancies, free trade, privatization and de-regulation, unparalleled money movements and ever bigger transnational corporations, all of which serve to sharpen the need for quick communication. The ‘Go to Market’ between discovery/invention, production and marketing is closing very fast as both trade and the end user demand innovative and better services.

In the last century, our usual work day was twelve hours of manual labour – in the field or the factory - a mechanized industrial society so to speak. Communication was limited to the friendly neighbourhood postman. Even the massive growth of transport after the Second World War failed to end the vast logistics of distance. Our present work day in contrast is shaped by varying sway of electricity, computerization, communication and minimal physical labour. Technology is rapidly eroding the previously unchallenged significance of geographical location. Communication innovation is starting to free men and women from their desks and creating more options over how, where and when, we choose to work.

Telecommuting is now an every day reality for millions of people worldwide. Employers are welcoming the trend; after all, providing office space for every worker is an immensely pricey overhead. And, as an important bonus, the web, video-conferencing and online chats have radically reduced the need for business travel, so reducing the financial costs and to a certain extent, the road congestion, pollution and the stress of commuting.

Nevertheless, these changes conceal veiled hazards. Since technological advance is relentless, social change is unavoidable and these major shifts in the social order are already upsetting our work lives and personal lives more than all those tech gadgets combined. Experts are already calling this a new “society of Knowledge”, a society in which information and technology, as the fourth means of production, will become more important than the long-established three - Assets, Wealth, and Labor. Single parents and high rates of divorce worldwide are a case in point of this pattern. It's something that society as a whole has been struggling to fix for the last generation.

We are used to businesses having to adjust to change. Now folks must learn to do the same if they are to remain employable. The work world has now become more Darwinistic. Incredible prospects exist for the strong and bitter failure awaits the feeble. Careers have become more intricate and less secure. These days’ even trade unions talk of a worker’s “employability” – meaning that each individual is responsible for making him- or herself fit for the job market.

In the same time, it is a myth that technology means fewer jobs; as new developments renders certain skills obsolete it also creates new disciplines. The real challenge therefore, is to equip both the growing generation and today’s workers to take personal advantage of the new revolution. Specifically for this reason, occupational researchers and employers strongly advocate job seekers and workers to continue their scholastic and technical education on an ongoing basis and obtain so-called ‘soft skills’ – on their own initiative.

Despite much cynicism and vacillation, business on the Web has taken off. Far from experimenting with a toy, companies are reaping rich monetary rewards from the Internet. The subject of total number of web users and the tempo of growth is no longer pertinent. The Net is here to stay and will keep growing in size, ultimately encompassing the entire population of the world. After all, the Internet is creating a unique shared global knowledge and communication space, the likes of which has never existed before.

The technological riot has also completely altered our roles as a shopper. From a role of an inert buyer, we are moving into the driving seat. We are entering an age where as customers; we are enabled to uncover new possibilities – that can produce the most value for ourselves, by exploring, redefining and choosing what makes best sense for ourselves. We will determine the what, why, how and when for products and services and this is great news for companies too. No more do they have to invest in making intelligent guesses about what consumers want. They can let the consumer co-create the products with them.

New Age Culture
One of the other big changes that technology has brought about in the last half century is that no nation can afford any longer to seal itself off hermetically from outside influences and pretend it is an island.

Certain ideas and structures of modern life are being spread throughout the world by globalization and differing traditions and values are disappearing into a giant global melting pot. Consider the case of McDonald’s. Every day some 40 million people in over 100 countries go to a McDonald’s food joint. At first look, this would seem to confirm the global influence of the American way of life but dig deeper and you will find that its menu range is adjusted to local traditions. In India, for example, you can treat yourself to vegetable desi style nuggets and in Israel, you can buy kosher burgers .

At the same time, cultural fads are taking on sharper shapes in the face of global structures or are, in some cases, becoming well-defined. The sms savvy youth of most developing countries are living examples of this expression – their allure to Hollywood, penchant for Western brands, KFC and Coke are perfect examples of this influence. No wonder, one can very well understand why MTV is the worlds most successful television channel and David Beckham is an international superstar.

Culture is not seen anymore as a stationary arrangement but as a porous river of various meanings which makes new relations, new links and new communities. The term "Community" may sound outdated but ironically in our high-tech age of instant information, that is, the kinds of communication we seem to love, This has resulted in an incredible diversity of subcultures, both mainstream and underground, small clusters of people that have arisen and are distributed across intercontinental boundaries. Immigrants, students, artists, academics, activists and scientists are all forming transnational virtual communities on the web which are connected through some sort of social, professional, personal and spiritual commonalities.

Progress or Prudence
The amount of knowledge at our disposal is currently doubling-up every five years. What effect this is having on our society? We don’t know? 50 years ago, there were no PCs and no kids surfing the web. 50 years from now, what new things will surface? What amazing discoveries will we see? These questions throw us a remarkable argument. In their ruthless quest for new knowledge, science and research represent a two sided coin: they can lead to both improvements in the quality of life and also threats to nature, and therefore to humankind. We couldn’t predict the past 50 years. Can we do better with the next 50?

Atomic energy, particularly, raises questions about the penalty of scientific progress. Atomic power plants, once renowned as the new age solution to all the world’s energy problems, have and continue to leave us with huge amounts of highly radioactive and dangerous waste, the removal of which remains a key dilemma. Equally, automobile emissions are making a generous contribution to our climate’s destruction and the greenhouse effect is forcing scientists to develop innovative technologies designed at reducing the ecological injury.

This negation in our conviction in new technology is this more obvious than in bio-technology and genetics. The credence that every human is a unique individual is one of the elementary canons of our society but yet it is now becoming clear, that in principle we can reproduce human beings and consciously make and alter genes in the process.

If the use of modern genetics were aimed at solely treating and preventing genetically related illnesses, they would probably gain broad social acceptance. But is this where we will stop? How will we one day respond to parents’ wish for a perfect intelligent child? How will we respond to programs to “improve” humankind, something which the Nazis actually tried during the World War II? Moreover, will we be able to prevent the commercialization of this genetic know how? Life insurance companies and health insurance companies could demand information on the genetic characteristics of their customers. People who have a disposition towards a particular illness would then have to pay higher premiums or be denied insurance. And what are we to do when it comes to the patient’s right to ignorance? Will we be obliged to inform the patient that specific “genetic defects” in him/her will eventually lead to fatal infirmity?

Questions of this kind inexorably lead to a dispute on social values and ethical boundaries. These discussions no longer only involve those parties solely engaged in the growth of technology but also ethical experts, lawyers, theologists, sociologists, economists and historians. More than ever before, changes in the ecology and culture on the doorsill of the new century raise important questions about the possible and suitable future of knowledge and technology.

Stop and Go
Progress in science and technology is supposed to shrink distances but they don’t necessarily bring people together or make them safer. Superior communications may give people a wider array of programming choice to choose from but it does not warranty that they will be more tolerant of diversity. And whether its history of previous purchases, medical records or simply individual tastes, personal privacy – a vital ingredient of social fabric is threatened with disappearance as technology and the Web impose new norms everywhere. Knowledge may be a tool, but it is dangerous and dodgy.

The delivery mechanisms for knowledge are today in the hands of fewer and fewer people who propagate a singular monoculture suited to their own vested economic, religious or political slants. It is when this culture is advocated as the only one to aspire for that it causes social disparities and unstable societies, eventually, inciting a radical backlash against an indifferent elite and an apathetic global culture.

Today’s Knowledge may offer a chance to jumpstart technology but ironically science by itself is never the answer. The commercial values that drive the Internet Age today are the same corporate goals that drove the Industrial Age an era ago. Unfortunately, it still boils down to the money bottomline arithmetic with no room for ethics or civility. Consider the case of Indian Media during the recent 26/11 Mumbai attacks where one could witness the blatant corporatisation and editorial slaughter in full glory. On the spot delivery, exaggerated dramatization and irresponsible sensationalism are increasingly becoming the trademarks of modern day journalism - events are shown but real and neutral explanations hardly ever given. So much for New age free journalism!

Because expanding the spheres of understanding is an intrinsic part of our human behaviour, turning back the clock is not a rational substitute. Nonetheless, it is imperative that scientific progress is scrutinized seriously and that its results are vigilantly investigated. For that reason alone, we must step up a meaningful dialogue between scientific progress and modern society. Without this realistic outlook, we would soon be lost in a quagmire of a world that is socially evolving at an incredible rate, a lot faster than what we had anticipated. After all, we do not wish to end up like those wishful tourists in 1950 who acquired tickets for the first space package tour to the moon. Yes, tickets to the Moon! Jack Gavoy, the American businessman, had promised March 15, 1975 as the date for the moon voyage. The tickets have now been invalid for 34 years!


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