Serving the people or producers?

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 20 Jun 2004


Much is usually expected, and assumed, of science, technology and the people who use their results. But who is being servedby whom, how well and to what purpose? 

SCIENCE and technology often come in the same phrase, whether in casual conversation, in notional concepts or in policy departments. What links them is vital, but what distinguishes them is critical. 

Science is essentially a method of inquiry and investigation to arrive at universal and empirical truths. Technology is scientific discovery applied in specific ways to achieve certain desired ends. 

The scientific quest is often a wondrous journey of uncovering as much as discovering, relying on logic and reason in its universality to establish what is possible. But where the link with technology is corrupted by vanity or greed, the resulting technology can be dangerous and anti-social. 

Technology can produce nuclear weapons that no virtuous person wants but many cynical countries desire, or it can produce medical advances to benefit all of humanity. The technology that nations conscientiously aspire to attain is meant to improve people’s lives, but there is no guarantee that it would be free of technical ills. 

The celebrated physicist Albert Einstein is known to have lamented that nuclear weapons changed everything except people’s attitude, which remains backward and un-enlightened. He said that if he had known, he would have been a watchmaker instead. 

One facet of the link between science and technology is economic: how to assess multiple technological ends with limited technical resources. Given a lump sum of scientific knowledge, this “economic” attitude determines the kind of technology that results. 

Innovative thinkers who have incorporated economic and technological streams in their humanistic work include the late E.F. (“Fritz”) Schumacher, Prof Leopold Kohr and Sir Herbert Read.  

Their surviving contemporaries include the pioneering agriculturalist John Seymour and the economist John Papworth. 

Enduring themes centre on sustainable development as opposed to mindless waste, and renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuel combustion. Far from being armchair critics or academic pontificators, these individuals have practised what they preached. 

Schumacher is not only the best-known humanist among economists but was also head of Britain’s National Coal Board. The Schumacher Society was founded in Bristol in 1978, after the economist had founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group charity, which later launched its Schumacher Centre for Technology and Development. 

Seymour has lived and worked on his own smallholding for decades, besides conducting classes and writing numerous books. Papworth, a veteran journalist and author, has worked for years on agriculture in Zambia where he also served as personal assistant to then-president Dr Kenneth Kaunda, his friend and fellow alumnus at the London School of Economics. 

Central to their concerns is monstrous waste that proceeds at all levels, especially among those least able to afford it. Developing countries in particular are often seduced by the prestige value of unnecessary, costly or dangerous technology they do not need. 

Amory Lovins, a younger kindred spirit and doyen of the 1970s environmental movement, once related the story of how authorities in India purchased expensive technology that remained idle, because there were not enough technicians trained to operate it. 

But developed countries are no better either. Lovins remembered how a US government agency had designed a door consisting of more than 1,000 parts, but the bureaucracy eventually managed to whittle it down to something more manageable. 

A major inspiration for Schumacher, Kohr and their contemporaries was the Indian leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose campaign for village empowerment in India through swadeshi (self-sufficiency) was an integral part of national self-determination. 

Few at the time realised that Gandhi’s theme of khaddar (homespun) cloth as rallying motif would make such a dent in British colonialism in India. Today, few still understand how a similar campaign for local empowerment can restrain a rapacious globalisation and its neo-colonial character. 

Patents on food crops by corporations in the developed world, often of strains originating in the developing world, are a factor in trans-national poverty. Although the European Union has signed the International Seed Treaty that comes into force in nine days, affording some protection for the poor, countries like Britain still have some distance to go. 

But these big issues notwithstanding, many items that affect millions of people every day carry the same implications. Broadly similar principles apply to items that are often taken for granted, whatever the level of technological sophistication. 

The shoelace is a common example of how some things hardly ever change, design fads and the (unpopular) velcro alternative aside. Invented in England in March 1790, aglet-tipped cords passed through eyelets or hooks have now stayed on shoes for hundreds of years. 

A better alternative to shoelaces may yet emerge one day, but not yet. If and when it comes, it should be better by being economical and user-friendly, not because it is more prestigious, marketed by glib-tongued salespersons, or patented and licensed exclusively by corporations in the developed world. 

Meanwhile, some common attempts at improving things have fallen flat in being counter-productive, such as landline telephone sets. Over the years the tabletop phone unit has been lightened, presumably to make handling easier, but they have been made too light relative to the cord and receiver so that dialling becomes more difficult instead. 

These are not technological innovations at work, but quite the reverse. Cordless phones avoid the problem without necessarily solving it. 

Another instance of thoughtless technology is electronic passports that require a fingerprint or thumbprint for recognition. A common problem is cracked skin on the thumb or finger, rendering readings difficult or impossible, thus multiplying the inconvenience to users. 

Biometric data can include palm recognition, and because the palm is a larger area that is also not prone to cracked skin, this should work better. But this does not seem to be considered before the prospect of retinal recognition, as with new European passports, which may further inconvenience people with sore eyes and contact lens users. 

My new passport was an object lesson in what not to do with new technology – obtaining a specimen thumbprint at the Immigration Department recently was difficult enough with some cracked dry skin, but it was virtually useless to the electronic readers at KLIA. The air-conditioned aeroplane and airport did not help with the skin condition, nor did the absence of skin lotion at the immigration counters. 

When technology works, society is elated and often takes the triumphs for granted. When it does not, it should be regarded as a problem to be solved to motivate improvements. 

It is not necessary to resort to Luddism or some other form of vandalism to make a point about anti-social technology, so long as technologists and technocrats are responsible enough to be responsive. If technology is to thrive in an ever-competitive world, there is no alternative to being more user-friendly. 

Ultimately, the larger questions hinge on ends and means: has scientific research produced the kind of technology to serve people, or are people expected to serve it and its providers? 

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