By Makarand Paranjape February 1998 It is necessary to formulate an ethical code for science and technology and synthesize it with traditional crafts in order to preserve nature and stop technology from playing havoc with the destiny of mankind It is necessary to formulate an ethical code for science and technology and synthesize it with traditional crafts in order to preserve nature and stop technology from playing havoc with the destiny of mankind If you look at the cover of the paperback edition of Robert Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you see a spanner growing out of a corn bush. It is a striking image of the union between the natural world and the man-made world of modern technology. Indeed, throughout this contemporary classic, Pirsig tries to overcome the alienation that most of us feel when we deal with technology, Pirsig’s rhapsody over the ‘classical’ beauty and ‘quality’ of his Harley Davidson, the precision and artistry of its engine, does not, however, take into account the untold destruction that the internal combustion engine has wrought upon the world. Lead poisoning, automobile deaths, depletion of fossil fuels, oil price wars, crowded and polluted cities, clogged highways, ceaseless roar of traffic, disrupted lifestyles, extravagance—these and many other ill-effects may be traced to this technology. Now that we seem to have come to the end of the tether, another technological solution is proposed—solar or electricity powered transportation. But, of course, that is not likely to happen until we run out of oil. In this whole process of catastrophic cause and effect, not only does technology remain dominant, but, unfortunately, it remains largely unchanged. The problem that Pirsig does not address adequately is not merely ecological or environmental, but really ethical and moral. It is, in fact, a problem of dharma. Modern technology seems to have given rise to a demonic civilization wherein, for the first time in human history, we have the capacity of destroying ourselves totally. Even if we don’t do so in one big nuclear explosion, the process of slow death is definitely underway. Our beautiful planet earth, the mother of all life systems, seems to be asphyxiating because of our callousness, greed, and recklessness. And modern technology seems to be primary agent of this destruction. That is why the crucial question: does technology have a dharma? If not, should it have one? If so, what might its dharma be? STRANGE BEDFELLOWS? First of all, it is obvious that dharma and technology seem to sit uneasily together. Those who talk about dharma don’t talk about technology. They bracket it off, consigning it to another realm, and go about teaching yoga , meditation , or some other method of self-realization. On the other hand, those who talk about technology seldom talk about dharma at all. In fact, the divorce between the two appears so irrevocable that we may even conclude that the dharma of technology is the lack of dharma. A more flattering way of phrasing this proposition is that technology is value-neutral. Its proponents claim that it is the users, not the technology itself, which should be blamed for the ill effects of technology. But to say that something is value-neutral is itself value-loaded, because it implies a certain kind of value. Science claims that its concern is with truth, not with ethics. But can the two be separated? When you devise a nuclear bomb, can you get away by saying that it is value-neutral? Or by invoking it’s many useful fringe benefits? Much of the present-day scientific research is funded by the arms industry. Modern scientists and technologists spend most of their energies in destructive pursuits and very little of it for constructive purposes. At the heart of the problem lies the fact that technology has been the handmaiden of those who seek power or exercise it. Today, the index of a country’s greatness is not necessarily its moral strengths or cultural traditions, but the degree of its technological advancement. Technology, in turn, confers wealth and power. To use the ancient Upanishadic distinction, today’s world seems to be seeking preyas (that which is pleasant), as opposed to shreyas (that which is good). This neglect of virtue means that dharmic considerations are left aside when it comes to technological planning and development. THE TECHNOLOGY OF DHARMAIn India, we have an immemorial tradition of the theory and practice of dharma. So instead of ‘dharma of technology‘ if you say ‘technology of dharma‘, it is clear that Indians have been trying to practice it for thousands of years. Dharma belongs to a world of ideas that has to do with the cardinal ends of human life, which are called the purusharthas: dharma, artha (social security), kama (fulfillment of desire) and moksha (liberation). These keep reappearing in all classical traditions of India. But what is dharma? Dharma comes from the root ‘dhri‘ and has the sense of upholding, putting together, giving support, pointing a way. So, there is nothing sectarian about dharma; it is universal, like the laws of nature, though it might have individual interpretations. Dharma implies some kind of cosmic law, what ‘rta‘ was in the Vedic period. The fight between dharma and adharma (opposite of everything that dharma stands for) is therefore a perennial struggle: it takes on different forms and shapes, and its constituents may vary. And technology, right now, seems to be on the side of adharma, of falsehood and evil. If dharma belongs to a very old universe of discourse, the term ‘technology‘, in comparison, arises from a much newer world of ideas. In fact, the first uses of the word are quite recent, going back to the 17th century. Its modern use, of course, becomes prevalent only in this century. Similarly, the word ‘science‘ was used for the first time in 1840 in a book called The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences by William Whewell. Their earlier word for science was ‘natural philosophy’. Even the ideas that went into the making of modern science are comparatively recent. You may start off with Descartes or Francis Bacon or a little earlier with Copernicus. When we talk about technology, we mean the application of scientific ideas to practical ends. So there is always a deep connection between the two. But technology in its wider meaning also denotes the totality of the ways in which a society tries to govern its material conditions. Hence it ought to include the works of local artisans and craftsmen, people who run karkhanas (old-style factories), the potters, farmers, weavers, and so on. Unfortunately, all these traditional occupations are never included in the fabric of modern technology. THE TECHNOLOGY OF EMPIRE The error that follows from this view is that we have never had any science and technology (S&T) to speak of in the past. India, it is well known, had very strong traditions not only in mathematics and pure sciences, but also in areas like metallurgy, ship building, and agriculture. Now, we know that much of this traditional technology was not only eco-friendly, but labor intensive, rather than, capital intensive, and also socially harmonious. There is a duality not only between dharma and technology but also between traditional technology and modern technology. This is best seen in a traditional society such as ours, which is going through a process of modernization. To these two dichotomies, we may add a third: the duality between the metropolis and the countryside, between the developed and the developing nations, between the rich nations and the poor nations, between the north-west and the south-east in short, between the colonizers and the colonized. In India, modern technology comes to us via colonialism. The Roorkee University in India was started in 1846 as a civil engineering college, to meet the engineering needs of the empire, and hence was intimately connected to the task of empire building. Similarly, our modern universities are also a product of imperial educational policies. Science had a dual, contradictory mandate in the empire: to introduce progress but only such progress as would secure British rule. The railways, for example, were used to access the hinterlands and their raw materials for the purpose of export; and the telegraph to improve communications for better control of the native population. But no investments were made to help develop any original science in the colonies. Usually, ‘pure’ sciences were discouraged, while practical—and in that sense technological—projects like improving irrigation and dams were permitted. The colony became a vast laboratory, a field for experimentation and data collection. Basic or theoretical science was ‘reserved’ for London or Paris. This kind of dualism, in a way, has persisted even today. Significantly, much of the original impetus for science in India came from the army. Even now, Indian anthropologists working on the Genome project to map the genetic pool of the different ethnic groups of India, have discovered that the army has much more ethnographic information that anybody else—most of it classified. While European S&T developed through constant interaction with artisans and craftsmen, in India it was imposed from the outside, as a by-product of the colonial policies. There, it emerged from social forces, here, it intervened to suppress social forces. So two different cultures of science were created. Consequently, in India, one of the first things that the ideology of science did was to devalue the work of traditional craftsmen. Such a devaluation is still prevalent. A Xerox operator is an unskilled person—all he has to do is push a set of button
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