By Farooq Sulehria
09 October 2014
First things first. The New York Times’ cartoon ridiculing Indian trip to Mars is an expression of outright racism. Viewpoint condemns it in no uncertain terms. Meantime, many in Pakistan seized the opportunity for some self-retrospection. A Facebook friend quipped, ‘India Mars Par Pohanch Gaya Hay, Hum Fata Nahi Ja Saktay’ [India is on the Mars, we cannot go to FATA].
In India itself, a sense of eureka swept at least the urban India. According to a press report:
Excited schoolchildren visiting the regional science centre and planetarium in Kozhikode, Kerala, celebrated the success with sweets. At the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, students formed themselves into ISRO’s logo. In Chennai, schoolchildren held aloft a poster that read: “MAR(VELLOU)S, Salute Our Scientists.” In New Delhi, the Indian staff of the United States Consulate proudly displayed a banner, “Congratulations, India.” (1)
That a right-wing Hindu fundamentalist party is at the helm of New Delhi, it seems the dissenting voices were self-censored amidst the Mars Mission-euphoria, hysterically depicted by a highly charged media. It is possible, conscientious Indians raised questions regarding the flawed priorities. However, the mainstream discourse had no space for such considerations as clean water for poor before Mars Mission. In fact, it is a question every Pakistani should also raise every time the ‘nuclear-power status’ is flaunted by the ruling elite. In both these countries, the ruling elites have politicized high-budget technological adventures and exploit them to foment jingoistic patriotism. Anybody questioning the wisdom behind Mars Mission or nuclear programme is considered a fifth columnist from across Wahga.
Is nuclear bomb or a mission to Mars indeed such scientific achievements that the working classes in India and Pakistan should celebrate? Is the new technology always a welcome development? Most importantly: why India and Pakistan have been able to reach the nuclear status but cannot generate enough electricity to electrify large swathes of their territories out of darkness? The answer to these questions lies in understanding the essence of technology.
What Really Is Technology?
Technology is a performance, a performance one is capable to perform when one has the scientific competence. Brian Winston, a historian of communication technologies, compares technology with an utterance when one has the knowledge of a language (Winston 1998: 3). The Dutch scholar, Cees Hamelink, views ‘technology as an instrumentality that a social structure generates in order to meet its basic interests’ (Hamelink 1986: 17).
According to Winston, the technological ‘performance’ is staged, phase-wise, by an entire society. It is not an individual act. The first phase is, what Winston calls, ideation. At this stage, scientific competence translates into technological performance: ‘technologist envisages the idea, formulates the problems involved and hypothises a solution’. The ideation leads to building of ‘prototype’: a device based on ideation. However, a prototype does not achieve the status of an ‘invention’ unless social forces ‘coalesce to function as a transforming agency’ which Winston calls ‘supervening social necessities’ (Winston 4-6). The idea of ‘supervening social forces’ should not be reduced to the notion of ‘need’. Hamelink chooses interest as ‘primary knowledge guiding force’ because: ‘Needs, however basic may be, do not necessarily imply that human beings set out to do something about them. Interests imply active processes towards their realization (Hamelink 1986: 17-18).
It is not a coincidence that modern invention, at least in the field of communication, has many fathers. Graham Bell, the famous father of telephone, spent his life time in the court defending his fatherhood (patent) of the device called telephone. According to one count, Bell and his partners fought 600 legal actions to defend their patent (Winston 1998: 39). In fact, a Frenchman hypothised the telephone in 1854, 20 years before our dear Uncle Bell while idea of television dates back to 1877 (Ibid: 4).
Fact of the matter is, many scientists have been working on a similar idea simultaneously, unaware of each other’s efforts. In some cases, a prototype performing better than the other was rejected while a less perfect prototype got diffused as an ‘invention’. History of telegraph, to some extent, explains this process.
Railways and Press Fathered Telegraph:
While an initial experimentation in telegraphic signalling can be traced to 1665, Francis Ronalds in 1816 was able to demonstrate an electrical telegraph system in London. He wanted to sell it to Admirality. But he was politely told, ‘the telegraphs of any kind are now wholly unnecessary, and that no other than the one now in use will be adopted’. Winston thinks: ‘Ronalds experience does not so much reveal official blindness as a lack of supervening social necessity, the reason for such blindness. Ships had flags and armies (and governments) semaphores…They provided as much communication capacity as was required’.
It was the early railways that required a telegraphic signal because the early railways were single-track affair. Hence, railway safety intervened as a supervening necessity that contributed to the growth of telegraph. Another point to be noted: one technology (engine) led to another (telegraph). In other words, an industrializing society was generating the need for technological innovations.
However, a costly telegraph service had to compete with postal services. Economic compulsions might have consigned the telegraph technology to dustbin of history. The press came to its rescue. Engaged in competition, the newspapers started subscribing to telegraphic services (2).
The role of supervening forces in diffusion or suppression of technology can also be understood from the Russian experience with regard to the telegraph. In 1825, the same year the railway run between Stockton and Darlington necessitated the use of the telegraph, a Russian diplomat in Germany, Baron Pawel Schilling, inspired by a German attempt at the telegraph machine, improved the technique. ‘However, Schilling was working in a repressive society’, Winston points out. The Emperor Nicholas viewed it as an instrument of subversion and during his reign it was prohibited to give the public any information about electric telegraph apparatus (Winston 1998: 24).
In other words, necessity (social forces) is not merely he mother of invention (as was the case of railways and telegraph), it may also dig the grave of an invention (Czar Nicholas and telegraph). However, our Orya Maqbil Jans do not buy any such rational explanation. They believe science is a revelation.
Science Is Not Revelation:
In his column, Harf-e-Raz, for daily Express (28-07-2010), Orya Maqbol Jan claimed that when Newton saw the apple fall and discovered the gravitational force of the earth, or Stephenson saw steam coming out of kettle and invented the steam engine, it was only possible because god somehow revealed truth to these scientists. Below is an excerpt from a rebuttal this author wrote at the time:
Oraya does not answer why a scientific truth was revealed only to a scientist like Newton or Stephenson and not to a poet or a priest or a peasant. Since the invention of the steam engine, human beings have become able to manufacture super-sonic jets. Revelations dear Oraya? This evolution from the steam engine to supersonic jet has been only possible as a result of mind-boggling advancements in various fields of engineering. Incidentally, this evolution took place in the West. Will Oraya explain why since the invention of steam engine, not a single scientific truth has been revealed to a Pakistani?
Regardless of Orya Maqbol Jans, inventions will not ‘reveal’ themselves in a decaying and impoverished society no matter how many prayers are offered. It is not a coincidence that scientific ideas most of the times reveal upon a Newton rather than an Orya Maqbol Jan. The scientific advancement occurred in the West because rapid industrialization (with capitalistic, consequently imperialistic logic) was providing the spur.
Technological Determinism and Social Change:
To justify budgets for Mars Missions and nuclear madness, one may point out the technological edge the West has enjoyed over the Rest. One may argue that by harnessing technology, developing countries may achieve social progress and catch up with the imperial West. How valid is this assertion?
According to Raymond Williams (2005), two opinions mark the debate on technology. He calls the first class of opinion as technological determinism. Those holding this view, they consider technology as the engine of social change. To quote Williams, the technological determinism implies: “New technologies are discovered, by an essentially internal process of research and development, which then sets the conditions for social change and progress. Progress, in particular, is the history of these inventions, which ‘created the modern world.’ The effects of the technologies, whether direct or indirect, foreseen or unforeseen, are as it were the rest of history. The steam engine, the automobile, television, the atomic bomb, has made modern man and the modern condition”. In technological determinism, research and development have been assumed as self-generating. The new technologies are invented as it were in an independent sphere, and then create new societies or new human condition. It is either a self-acting force which creates new way of life, or it is a self-acting force which provides materials for new ways of life. The technology is seen as being looked for and developed with certain purposes and practices already in mind.
The second class of opinion appears less determinist. According to the latter notion, a technology becomes available as an element or as a medium in a process of change that is in any case occurring or about to occur.
Consider ’the more general issue of the overall relationship between technology and late nineteenth century imperialism’ (Cook 1996: 65). For instance, not merely biologically defined racism, ‘verified by “objective” and “infallible” science, edged out far older forms of prejudice based on physical appearance and cultural attributes’ (Ibid: 5), certain medicines and sanitation engineering were responses to infectious diseases claiming the lives of Europeans arriving ‘to pierce the interior of West and Central Africa in search of gold, slaves, and religious converts’ (3). Most importantly, according to Cook, telegraph lines and submarine cables ‘connected the continents and laced the oceans enabling nearly instantaneous communications that lessened isolation, permitted the timely deployment of troops to quell colonial uprisings, and increased interaction between colonies and metropolitan states’ (Ibid: 69).
However, Cook views the relationship between technology and imperialism as complex one whereby the technology was not a cause but a facilitator of imperialism. ’If technological developments and scientific progress were not a motivation for imperialism, neither were they prompted by imperialism (with a few notable exceptions, including tropical medicine),’ he claims. In his view, various technological innovations were ’response to challenges within a Western industrializing culture’ and regardless of the motives behind particular inventions, ’their applications were often extended to the arena of empire building’ (Cook 1996: 65-66). Others (Schiller 1976, Barker 1997, Comolli 1986) also subscribe to this opinion.
Even if a revelation occurs to an Orya Maqbool Jan, it cannot translate into a technology in the absence of concrete social and material conditions enabling technological development. Take for instance the case of TV. Raymond Williams points out, ’The invention of television was no single event or series of events. It depended on a complex of inventions and developments in electricity, telegraphy, photography and motion pictures, and radio’ (Williams 2005).
Likewise, the Mars Mission or Indian and Pakistani nuclear ‘inventions’ are neither accidental nor organic developments. The political establishments in both countries decided to waste precious resources on technological adventures instead of human development. A ruling elite with a different ideology and social status could have tread another path while prioritizing the scarce resources.
For the first, the Mars Missions and Nuclear Bombs in the Indian subcontinent are mere performances, not competence. Reinventing a wheel is not even a performance. What India, Pakistan and other countries in the global South require is competence (science), not an expensive performance (technology) if it is not contributing to human development. We as citizens must ask for the social and environmental costs of all such ‘techno-spectacles’.
Secondly, technologies are not neutral. They have a social origin. Society determines their fate. A prototype attains the status of an invention, and gets diffused, when economic and political decision makers enable it for various reasons. In a class- and caste-ridden society, ruling elite will not spend on a technology that will empower the oppressed and subaltern classes.
Finally, agenda-setting regarding the research on science and technological development should be democratized. Not merely in South, but even in the countries of North.
2. Telegraph was saved but news was commodified in this process. Winston writes: ‘No longer, as in the eighteenth century, was it possible to scoop a rival with ‘late intelligence’; now, the telegraph rendered news, like soft fruit, perishable – useless if delayed’ (Winston 1998: 28).
3. According to Cook (1996: 66): “Even as late as 1840s European treks into West Africa were costly affairs. In the 1770s as much as 70 percent of British troops posted in West Africa died within their first year. The famous 1805 Niger river expedition by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park ended in total catastrophe: every white man died. In a repeat performance nearly 30 years later, 40 out of 49 white ventureres succumbed to disease. For those lacking immunities to yellow fever, dysentery, and, above all, malaria, Sub-Saharan Africa was indeed a “White Man’s Grave.”
Barker, Chris (1997) Global Television Oxford: Blackwell
Cook, Scott B (1996) Colonial Encounters in the Age of High Imperilaism. New York: Longman
Hamelink, Cees J (1986) Is Information Technology Neutral? In Becker, J, Hedebro, G and Paldan, L (eds) Communication and Domination: Essays to Honour Herbert I. Schiller. New Jersey: ABLEX
Schiller, H I (1976) Communication and Cultural Domination. New York: IASP
Williams, Raymond (2005) Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Routledge
Winston, Brian (1998) Media, Technology and Society. London: Routledge