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Impact of technology on society (2007)

Public lecture at Panjab University, Chandigarh, 2007


Impact of technology on society


Rajesh Kochhar

Professor NIPER, Mohali

Former Director NISTADS, New Delhi



“Impact of technology on society” is a rather one-sided term. It implies that technology exists independently of the society and exerts an influence on the latter from the outside. This is not true. Technology is a creation of the society, and therefore it is meaningful to talk of the interplay between the two. The rationale for still using the term is that it has already been given currency by many agencies such as University Grants Commission. We can deepen its meaning by a nuanced analysis.


Right from the taming of fire and chipping of stone tools to the Internet and genomics, human cultures at all times  have been fashioned by the nature and level  of technology accessible to them. The topic is so vast that one  can plan a one-semester course on its various aspects. We will  first make some general remarks , mostly of a  conceptual nature. We will then focus on some topics that admit of action-oriented inter-disciplinary research. Thus we will examine  the  over-use and abuse of technology in Punjab. Ongoing rapid developments in information and communication technology (ICT) have raised  fundamental questions about world order, economy, employment patterns,  global and intra-nation social inequity, privacy, legal frameworks and psychological effects. It is noteworthy that ICT has been particularly useful to  the terrorists, underworld, child-abusers, etc.  Similarly biotechnological developments are raising questions about bio-ethics ( source of funding in bio-research, falsification of data, “playing the god”) as also about intellectual property rights associated with molecularizaion of traditional health care. We would briefly touch on some of these aspects.


Thirty years ago, today’s topic would have failed to make any impact on the society. It was then naively believed that all peace-time manifestations of f science and technology must necessarily be benign. Alas, the age of innocence is lost for ever. Up to the second world war, modern technology was a preserve of the West. In the years immediately after the war , there were some attempts to harness technology in the larger interests of humankind, but in the globalization era  even the pretense to inclusive growth has been given up.


Modern technology   is based on the formalized principles of science and  is thus amenable to improvement/ modification. Technology invariably  bestows advantage on its developers .If this advantage is to be maintained, technology  must continually evolve. Over time the timescales associated with technological change have   become shorter and shorter, to the extent that today the tool has overwhelmed the workman.


 We often praise our ancestors living in harmony with nature. This is a trait worthy of emulation today. Yet the fact remains that they had no other option. The only source of energy available to them was the one provided by nature itself, namely, their own muscle power and that of their animals. Modern technology represents man’s quest-turned-fetish for power over nature. Of all the species, man is the only one which has the power to make itself extinct. Species like dinosaur or dodo that have vanished from the surface of the earth were victims of external agencies. But man has the technological wherewithal to destroy himself, other life forms and the environment. The scenario is theoretical but not far-fetched. Global warming due to  man-made activities is already  causing  serious concern.


World attitude towards modern technology has been fashioned by the circumstances of its  birth in  and use by Europe. Modern science and technology have grown hand in hand with  maritime trade, geographical exploration and colonial expansion, with dominance over other human beings and nature built in into the enterprise. In the early days of maritime activity when scurvy and longitude took their toll, nature was viewed as an enemy to be subdued. In the 15th century , when Portuguese ships sailed southwards to explore the Atlantic coast of Africa,  natives of the newly “discovered” lands were brought back as a trophy to be displayed and a commodity to be marketed. The spirit of the times is well captured in the writings of the English nobleman Francis Bacon (1561–1626) whose long-lasting influence as a philosopher of science has overshadowed the memories of his career as a disgraced politician and judge. As a prophet of science Bacon held that nature should be made “to serve the business and conveniences of man”. More brazenly he declared: “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave”. The imagery employed here is significant. May be, by talking of nature and her children, Bacon was trying to keep the European explorers physically away from the native women they would encounter when they ventured out. But, clearly, when Bacon mentions the enslavement of nature and of human beings in the same breadth, he is using one to justify and support the other, in the name of advancement of science. Ironically when the intellectual and quality of life aspects of modern technology were being developed in the West, rest of the world was not aware of the exercise. But when the dominational aspects were being developed, the third world knew.   In fact it participated in the process by becoming its victim. Consequently it is this aspect of modern technology that holds the highest  global appeal.


Earlier, the whole world’s resources were at the disposal of a geographically restricted small   population, which thus could be maintained at very high standards of living. But the world has now  become more equal , at least politically, with greater control over its own resources. Also the upper classes in India and elsewhere  have denationalized themselves under globalization, demanding consumption levels prevalent in advanced economies. The strain has become too much. “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” The quotation as it stands is due to Dr Frank Buchman , the founder of Moral Re-Armament. But it deserves a better author. The idea had been repeatedly emphasized by Mahatma Gandhi, and is more relevant today than it was in his own lifetime.


Recently a Dutch professor told me about a project report by a student on extracting usable  energy from  the temperature differential  between different layers of water in an  ocean! This  student like many others  is missing the point that  the key issue is not the availability of energy but the consequences of using it .In which areas technology should advance and where it should retreat is a decision not easy to take. But the future of humankind may well depend on it.


A measure of the level of man-made activity can be obtained from the following sidelight. If an astronomer in a far-off planetary system were to turn their telescope in our direction, they would spot the sun as a rather dull star. From a minute study of its motion , they would be able to infer the existence of Jupiter. Otherwise, the planets would go undetected. Except that they may locate the earth by virtue of its excessive man-made emission of radio waves.)



Technology: Over-use, misuse and abuse


From among the third world countries, India had a head start in modern science and education. Faced with a humiliating shortage of food in the 1960s, India, led by Punjab,  turned to modern science and technology for solution. The hybrid  Manila rice and Mexican wheat developed under UN auspices were adapted for Indian conditions, pesticides and fertilizers made available and tube wells dug. Indeed , tube well and tractor became new symbols of power in rural Punjab, overtaking the old reliable, the  gun. The optimism of the heyday of the green revolution is enshrined in the large number of new folk songs composed in celebration of the tube well. Water logging, lowered ground-water table, diminishing  fertility of soil , and pollution due to agrochemicals have  since spoilt the party.  I hope Punjab  would not have  to take  to  composing sad songs lamenting the presence of pesticides in mother’s milk.


There is a very perceptive observation by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) :“A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only and ignorant with its ignorance”. Over-use of technology in the cause of food production was driven by need and was  consistent with the wisdom of the times. New wisdom is needed now.



I would like to recommend the concept of sick leave for agricultural land. A piece of land would require about 3-4 years of organic farming to  detoxify the soil and restore its fertility. During this period, the earning would be halved, say from Rs 20000 per acre to Rs 10000. A farmer should be compensated for loss of earning. Advanced countries  earn money from industry to subsidize agriculture. India’s economy, still largely dependent  on agriculture as it is, cannot possibly afford to do this. A couple of years ago , in my previous institute, we examined the possibility of taking up a pilot project on this , which would require participation of  about 6000 acres at one go , with European Union’s help. Incidentally , an influential member of EU’s Delegation for Relations with India, is the British MEP, Neena Gill , born in Ludhiana.

Water is a more important issue than soil. Reckless drawal of ground water that nature took ages to store is causing severe environmental problems. Ideally , we should use only that much of ground water which the yearly rains can replenish. But, we are indulging in greed-driven activities that cannot be justified. An example is the growing of  water-guzzling summer rice , Sathi ( sixty-dayer) ,so-called because it ripens in sixty days.


There is then the additional problem of pollution of surface and ground water  by industrial activity. Ironically , in India employment  opportunities and environmental degradation go together. The biggest pollutants are the unorganized small and medium industries (SMEs), which are also large employers.


 Cancer in Punjab cotton belt is an issue that needs closer scrutiny because it raises many questions on how we deal with important environmental health issues. The cotton-growing Malwa region of Punjab, comprising the southwestern districts of Bathinda, Muktsar, Faridkot and Mansa, has been reported to show a high incidence of various cancers. Since the region consumes three-fourths of all pesticides used by Punjab, cancer has been assumed to be caused by pesticides.


Significantly, if you go strictly by official figures, you would conclude that cancer is not a problem in  Malwa. In the last Assembly , the Giddarbaha MLA , Mr Manpreet  Singh Badal quoted a  death figure ,based on actual body count, which was way above the official estimates. There is obviously a grave mismatch between public perception of cancer incidence and deaths on the one hand and  the extant official records on the other. Furthermore , there is no systematic  study of effect of pesticides on human beings  in different crop-growing regions. Geologists tell us that Malwa   is geologically distinct from the  doabs of the Punjab. There are thus a large number of complex issues that need to be tackled.


It has become very important to objectively and quickly evaluate new technologies ( BT cotton). Who will do this?The government science machinery  is always on the  defensive, while NGOs often tend to overstate their case. The middle ground must be occupied by the  university ,  which though supported by the state, has the detachment, independence , inter-disciplinary expertise and credibility to take up projects dealing with the effects of technology on the  eco-system. More generally, a university should be able to build expertise to assess and evaluate new and expensive technologies that become commercially available .


Enthusiasm for technological solutions can make the problem worse, as is illustrated by the arsenic problem in Bangla Desh and northern parts of West Bengal. As is well known , Bangla Desh is literally overflowing with surface water which is often polluted , causing many diseases. UN experts who descended on Bangla Desh decided in their infinite wisdom that Bangla Deshis should not die of cholera or dysentery; they should instead die of cancer. Bangla Desh was advised to dig tube wells. As it turned out, for geological reasons the Bengal basin has arsenic in deep layers of ground water, with the result that cancer has become very common in  both the Bengals.


Just because a technological solution exists does not necessarily mean that it is the right solution. A government lab very cleverly came up with a ceramic filter that can separate arsenic from water. Common sense tells you that the problem  would remain. Nature has created arsenic which needs a repository. That repository is the bottom layers of a well. Once you pull that contaminated  water  up to the surface of the earth, you have created a problem. Even if arsenic is separated , it would remain on the ground. The best solution is the simplest. Leave arsenic at the bottom of the well. Recharge the well and drink upper layers.


In the years after independence , blame for all social ills was placed at the door of poverty and illiteracy. It has now turned out that technology can not only be an agent of social and economic transformation  for good or bad, but  can also be pressed into service for strengthening and legitimizing old prejudices and social evils. Modern technology  has permitted Punjab and others to graduate from female infanticide to female foeticide. Earlier, female infanticide was restricted to certain caste groups in some parts of India, but ultrasound-facilitated abortion of female foetus is now cutting across caste and geographical boundaries. In the past, there might have been some remorse or sense of guilt in murdering a baby after birth , but  technology-assisted murder before birth is seen as no more than a procedure  .  Technology can be as effective in killing conscience as in killing human beings.


So far attempts at curbing female foeticide revolve around legal and administrative measures. There is need to closely examine the option of regulating the technology itself. In 1990 the American General Electric  Medical Systems (GEMS) set up an ultrasound machine  production unit in Bangalore in collaboration with vegetable oil maker turned software giant WIPRO. A comment on the corporate strategy of GEMS may not be out of place here. Its units in US are meant to produce “leadership products” for advanced university hospitals, while Japan provides machines  for big and small hospitals  in Europe and Japan.  India  and China are  the hub for “low-cost segment, mainly aimed at the mega-markets in Asia.”


There can be no doubt that the ultrasound industry in India ( and China) is being driven by abortion economy. A high-powered commission comprising medical scientists and other experts should ascertain India’s need of ultrasound machinery for genuine purposes and suggest steps for regulating and even controlling   machinery’s technical specifications, manufacture and installation.  Sufficiently high minimum  academic and professional qualifications should be laid down for opening an ultrasound clinic. It can even be mandated that stand-alone clinics will not be permitted and that they must necessarily be part of a hospital  or  a poly-clinic. There is need to continually  assess the genuine need for and the economics of  ultrasound  and other medical technologies, especially because rapid technological developments can  quickly overtake even the best drafted  legal and administrative measures. [ See commentary by Rajesh Kochhat at the following URL.]



ICT- driven globalization


It is a rather disconcerting feature of history of science and technology that in their development  war and baser instincts of man have been a major driving force. A child of fear that has stunningly outgrown circumstance of its birth is the Internet. Originating in 1969  in the heyday of cold war as a result of US defence efforts, Internet was fortified with World Wide Web in   1989 and commercialized in 1995.Globalization as we know it today has been made possible by advances in information and communication technology , permitting , processing , storage and transfer of information at high speed and low cost. A peculiar feature of globalization needs to be noted. Human being is an extremely inefficient machine. A globally competitive economy does not require very many persons.  Throughout the world, fewer and fewer people are using more and more of their intellect so that the remaining do not have to use theirs at all.


Globalization as practised by India  is distorting its economy and more importantly the mindset of its upper classes. In 1999, during the height of Y2K fever, I had written a paper pointing out that  IT is acting as a brain sink. There is a greater appreciation of the phenomenon than before. Recently the US-based magazine , Science, quoted me as saying this and pointing out that  highly qualified Indian engineers were doing stupid repetitive work. Some people have used the term techno-coolie, but my own preference is for techno-baboo. Coolie is a degrading term; the coolie may retaliate. The British in South Africa  called Mahatma Gandhi a coolie , and see what happened to the empire. A baboo on the other hand can revel in his baboodom and remain one for ever. If an engineer starts doing a diploma-holder’s work , there will not be any job left for a diploma holder. Underemployment in IT-driven services is a serious problem which unfortunately has not received much attention.[ See Rajesh Kochhar (1999) “The rise of the techno-baboo: IT is a brain sink”. Current Science, vol.76, no.12, 25 June 1999, pp.1531-1533]


Although India has been maintaining a high growth rate , of about 8%, ,its benefits are unevenly distributed. According to recent Reserve Bank figures, services sector now  accounts for 60% of India GDP. But it generates  only 25% of the employment. Agriculture’s share has come down to  20% but still 60% of employment depends on it. Manufacturing sector has been stagnating at about 15% (In China today  manufacturing accounts for 46% of the GDP , and services 41%) .


Service sector jobs require higher social and communication skills than manufacturing and agriculture. They are biased against first-generation learners. Many of my former school and college mates who are now well-respected engineers and researchers would not have been hired in their youth  as a receptionist even  by a two-star hotel. 


Service economy is servile economy. It dispenses with the very notion of nation building. Since service sector is essentially  science-less, there is an all-round decline of interest in science , and scholarship in general. If we continue the way we are going my worry is that leave aside researchers we will not even have qualified people to teach science at high school and plus two levels. It is ironical that while S&T issues  are becoming increasingly more important in world economy, politics and diplomacy (e.g. bird flu, GM crops, tsunami), our economy and education are becoming  more and more  science-less. Science as a  pure cultural activity cannot be sustained for long. If science is to  flourish in India, it must play a leading role in economy.


My own assessment is that globalization as it obtains today is not sustainable in the long run. Sooner than later, some form of economic nationalism will be introduced. Short-time economic growth and environmental protection are not natural allies . Nor are economic growth and employment. If the society is to find its way to high economic growth through social equity and environmental protection, it must closely  monitor and regulate the way technology impacts it. //





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