Both science and technology are neutral, the perverse effect is of our making
As lay consumers of the products of technology we can only marvel at the tremendous and rapid change that has been taking place in the quality and range of these products in our lifetime – with, undoubtedly, more to come.
One must be very bold to make projections of what the future is likely to be as regards the technological scene and the societal impacts that will follow, but of only one thing we can be sure: there is no stopping the march of developments on this front. They keep taking place under our very eyes as it were, and we have witnessed for ourselves the reality of technological change — based on both better and more technology – as being ‘the invention of a technology (or a process), the continuous process of improving a technology (in which it often becomes cheaper) and its diffusion throughout industry or society.’
In the field of electronics, we learn that the boost to improvement began with the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958, and there has been non-stop progress since, what with the multiplier effects of discoveries in the physical sciences and inventions/applications based thereon. These are what probably led to the formulation of the so-called Moore’s law, which the capacity of transistors doubles approximately every two years. However, experts say that even that has been superceded, meaning that the change has been even faster. Whatever be, as far as we laymen are concerned there can be no doubt that we are overwhelmed with all that is happening in gadgetry. At an individual level, the changes that we have witnessed in our lifetime are testimony enough, and when we take a look at the years we have lived through we cannot but be in awe.
I remember the day that the telephone was installed in our ‘colonial’ house at Curepipe-Road. It was the classic black one with a numbered circular dial, and a special small shelf was constructed on the wooden wall on which the telephone was placed. That day in the evening we all gathered in the glass-fronted la varangue where the telephone was located, and watched my chacha dial his friend who lived but a few houses away. He only spoke a few sentences, and when we heard the friend’s voice coming through the receiver, we all felt as if it was some magic! That was in 1952. There have been many more ‘magics’ after that day, each one more wondrous than the one that has gone before it.
From the telephone dial to the circular knobs on the front panel of the box-like Morphy-Richards or Phillips radios of those days, we have now come to the tik-tik and click-click on the smartphone, the iPad, the laptop or – less frequently now for the newer generations – the desktop computer. As far as I can make out, I would think that the pattern of change has been roughly like this: circular knob (on radios, transistors, tape-recorders TVs and other household appliances) – press buttons – touch buttons (e.g. remote control devices and earlier mobile phones) – touch screens with or without voice-commands. What next – ‘thought screens’?: executing an order on the smartphone screen just by thinking about it, akin to the new technology that “has given a paralysed man an ability to move his hand using only his thoughts for the first time in four years”, which I wrote about in my article titled ‘Thought Power’ in this paper on 26 June 2014?
If we don’t keep up, some of us can still be caught unawares in this modern day and age! Just a few months ago I was so naïve as to ask, at a relative’s house, why was this young fellow screaming about wanting his ‘eyepad’, – for that was what I thought he meant, the type distributed in airplanes to help passengers sleep. No, I was told, it’s the gadget! – the iPad that his father had recently brought for him when he came back from a trip overseas. We all had a good laugh at my misunderstanding not to say ignorance of these new things, which was forgiven in view of my age.
There can be no gainsaying the alacrity with which the young ones learn the tricks about using these devices and become so rapidly familiar with the various applications. It’s from them that I have by the by got to know how, for example, to upload a picture. Even learning how to shoot one took me quite some time, but I am still lagging behind on the refinements e.g. taking panoramic shots. I’ll reach there in due course as there is no urgency.
Each little thing mastered represents a big step, which indeed it is because it opens up so many possibilities. Others may already be very competent and smart users, but for every individual the excitement of coming by something which for him is new gives a tremendous sense of accomplishment. And after a while, one is keen and ready to pick up yet another trick! Of which there are many, and new ones keep being invented and added to the repertoire.
Take Facebook for example. About two years ago the Facebook programme was installed on my iPhone, which started by being a hassle for me – for a start, my familiar, conventional mobile phone was replaced by a new, unfamiliar device. I had to relearn everything all over again, and some effort that was! Anyway, to come back to Facebook: after a couple of attempts, I gave up. But about six weeks ago I seemed to be able to use it better. You can guess the result: it has become a daily affair, tik-tik, click-click! But I have been careful to dose my time with that mistress, lest it consumes me! So I use it mostly for a quick check of the news, and I respond selectively so as not to be overwhelmed or waste precious time. For example, I was recently able to connect with one of my medical school classmates in America where she had settled. This kind of positive fallout is assuredly most welcome, but we are all aware that the same Facebook can be misused, and has been.
That is what makes technology a double-edged weapon, the fact that it can be harnessed for good as well as for wrong things. Famous late French geneticist Albert Jacquard once warned about les effets pervers de la technologie. But come to think of it, it is man’s decision about what use to make of whatever science and technology make available to us. After all, we are the ones who make the scientific discoveries, and then invent devices based on the pure and applied knowledge that underlie and come with these scientific advances. It would be fair to say, I think, that both science and technology are neutral, and the perverse effect is of our making.
Like abusing of the latest fad – unless I am again lagging behind! – the ‘selfie’ to spread porno and such things. A recent tragedy occurred in Portugal when a couple who were trying to take a selfie did not realise that they had reached near the edge of a cliff as they were walking backwards, and fell to their death even as their two young kids watched helplessly.
All such unintended consequences are the result of our own human failings. While there can be no return to the olden days, it goes without saying that we have to be vigilant about the where, when and how much of making use of the more and more sophisticated applications that are coming with the increasingly refined gadgets that become available. So as we tik-tik and click-click away, let us not forget our environment and context so as not to put ourselves and others at discomfort or peril.
* Published in print edition on 29 August 2014