The Tyranny of Technology


Known as the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski was an American mathematical prodigy but now a prisoner. He was involved in a series of bombings across the United States for almost two decades (1978–1995), which he claimed was a part of his crusade against modern technology. In his much publicised manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future, he wrote in the first line: ‘The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race’. (Read the 35,000-word manifesto on this page)

Kaczynski’s wild speculation resulted in the formation of a new school of thought: anarcho-primitivism, which primarily criticises the origins and progress of civilisation. The Unabomber had also redefined the concept of neo-luddism, which is an anarchist philosophy that opposes modern technologies and advocates rewilding, which again implies going back to the wild or natural state in a sort of Alexander-Supertramp way.

In a perfectly ideal world, there would have been no conflict to begin with, leave alone the spat about whether technology is advancing or ailing us; and perhaps Kaczynski would have been still teaching at UC Berkeley or working on some mathematical problems rather than spending time in a prison or making his signature mail bombs. But the truth is that we live in a world where priests can become paedophiles and utopia is merely for daydreamers. Even Thoreau—who said he ‘went to the woods because’ he ‘wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life’—was not spared. RL Stevenson called him a ‘skulker’ while JG Whittier compared him to a despicable rodent.

However, does it mean technology is free of flaws?

‘Oh!’ say the technophiles, ‘Science is going to fix all that! We will conquer famine, eliminate psychological suffering, make everybody healthy and happy!’ Yeah, sure. That’s what they said 200 years ago. The Industrial Revolution was supposed to eliminate poverty, make everybody happy, etc. The actual result has been quite different. The technophiles are hopelessly naïve (or self-deceiving) in their understanding of social problems. (Paragraph 170, Industrial Society and its Future)

In Our Backyard

What do you imagine when you hear the term ‘technology’? Usually, people picture the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, Internet-connected eyeglasses, how smartphones have changed our life and what lies in the future for social media, so on and so forth. For us, the term means the same thing but mostly we use it with suffixes like ‘they’, ‘their’, ‘them’— as in ‘they are developing ideas on the Internet of Things; artificial intelligence is their obsession; self-driving cars have gone really real from virtual for them’ and so on. Now when we consider using technology as appropriate in our surroundings, say, for social change, it appears already they are on a newer plane that we have zero idea; talking on matters in an alien language, once which sounded something like this:
The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete and would be superseded.
— Stephen Hawking (Source: BBC)

To put the things into context, let me illustrate with an example. Mobile phone technology arrived, comparatively later than in other parts of India, in my town. Apart from backwardness as the reason for delay, the authority feared abuse by non-state actors. Don’t confuse them with hackers or anonymous protesters but they are armed rebels fighting for power. Once it took root, like anywhere else in the world, there was an exponential rise in the number of mobile phone users and equally in the numbers of service providers and handset brands. However it appears the quantitative change has brought about just a small alteration in our lives, despite the endless qualitative possibilities that technological growth offers generally.

All along this landlocked province has been bogged down with the issues of transport and communication. For emphasis we, can refer to the second matter regarding communication. We are living in the world of 4G or fourth generation, which is known for its ‘spectral’ sophistication, yet for the natives nothing has changed except in just consuming the latest products and services by a section of the society. This consumerism—or the process of adaptation but not innovation—is one of the reasons why technology can be a curse than a blessing. It shows overtly a kind of development, a progress from those not-so-good old days when it used to take five horses and double the number of days to reach Burma, when in reality it still takes a day to travel a 200-km highway in this corner of the world.

It will not be an exaggeration to state that mobile phone has redefined the system of communication, well complemented by the rise of the World Wide Web. Again, the arguable quantitative growth is best described by the lack of understanding amongst the groups of people. As an example, mobile revolution is like the email of the Nineties, new, special and a sort of extravagance. What else would explain the necessity to go physically and talk to people in different towns and neighbourhoods, for instance, to clear the doubts about and argue for the Inner Line Permit System? But our civil society leaders do and it is out of necessity that they have done it.

In this regard, the tyranny of technology is not much about technophobia but rather an observation of misguiding social views that we ‘live’ in a contemporary world. It is due to the same technology that we are getting access to a variety of news and information, benefitting with privileges ranging from the Wideband Code-Division Multiple Access to the daily scatological exclusive news of celebrities, from all the corners of the globe in real time. But this is quite ironical considering we can talk to anyone, anywhere but our lives are still stuck in a ghetto like it has been for decades and it takes a day to travel on the Jiri highway.  
This issue is similar to the education system, in which people have experienced the insight of pedagogical revolution yet are stuck in primitive problems of having no teachers and pathetic school buildings. I have made this note on the basis of the government’s well-structured education ministry at both the provincial and national level plus the host of projects and schemes that are announced recurrently. It is no wonder then that such a system only produces more and more graduates each year while there is abject lack of job opportunities.

The Big Picture

With mobile phones, the best we can become is a supporter of foreign technological innovators. In the same breath the rise of mobile phones is just a boost for capitalism, and the credit should exclusively go to the brand-conscious people or perhaps early adopters as commended in the theory of diffusion of innovations in communication studies. This has been just a tiny part of communication and computing in my town. We can see technology in a larger context.

In a meet on global poverty, the Brookings Institution noted:

A priority for poor countries is to invest in the right kinds of knowledge so that imported technologies can be more effectively harnessed and adapted for productive use. But it is fiendishly hard to identify these kinds of knowledge. (Source: Brookings Blum Roundtable)

We have a very close relationship with technology and it only keeps getting stronger as much as our dependence. However, all of these come with a price and that’s the problem. So, we have two issues right in front of us: how we can take the most out of technology and how it will affect us in the future. It is the contest between the manual and the mechanical, between biological evolution and technological evolution.

Life in my town had always been traditional until a century and half ago. From hearsay, life was idyllic and there were almost no stress and distraction except the change of season and occasional festivals. You can easily imagine that there must be no heart ailment or any modern lifestyle diseases. Then howsoever it was little, life expectancy increased rapidly, there was a boost in modern transport modes; and with the early/blind adoption of technology, life has become mechanical gradually and people have started getting used to goods and services.

However, that is just one side of the coin. Till today, there is not even one NABH accredited hospital in the region. We also have the highest number of HIV-infected people in terms of prevalence ratio in India. The concept of historical relativism, particularly in the future, will magnify the smallness of this supposedly progress that we have made in the last 100 years. Indirectly, technology has only made the atrocities in our political and personal lives more visible and seemingly widespread.

Three decades we would not have been blissfully ignorant of the Onaeme Massacre perpetrated by the hooligans of the Assam Rifles but now we know every arrest of the pettiest pickpockets in real time—none of which, albeit, helps us move forward. From the past idyllic we have merely transformed with the present plain idleness. In this sense, technology is just a medium of expressing our solidarity on altruistic terms with the world that solely runs on machines and money. 

On personal level, there is a belief about information; create it, spread it and make it as accessible as possible. There is also a confidence on creative utilisation to bring about a positive change. For example, see the origin of the Internet. It is a product of an arrangement developed by the US Defense Department to provide for governmental activities in a hypothetical condition of a nuclear warfare. The possibilities to move forward apart, considering our collective life today, it will take far more than a la Kaczynski campaign but a social revolution—perhaps with a little help from technology—to transform the existing chaotic system.



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