Slaves of Technology

By Sada Reddi

We should not allow ourselves to be mesmerized by the power of technology, and it should not be viewed as a panacea to the many challenges we face whether in combating drugs, preventing crime or enhancing teaching and learning

The failure of the customs department and other authorities to detect Rs 1.4 billion of rupees of cocaine in the compartment of a loader backhoe raises a number of issues and these have been discussed in the media. They concern the security of the country and the protection of our society from illicit drugs. There is no doubt that if a scanner were properly used, the drugs would have been detected easily as in a similar case in Australia where cocaine was welded into a loader. This failure has confirmed the widely held assumption of many citizens that the amount of drugs seized by the authorities represents only a fraction of the amount flowing into the country. Rather than discuss whether the rhetoric of success in combating drugs in the country rings hollow or not, we shall consider how a blind faith in technology can affect thinking and behaviour at home and at work.

Historians and social scientists have identified a number of consequences that resulted from slavery in the past – such as social death and a number of losses: loss of identity, human relationships, connectedness and personal agency. The same consequences will also follow if we become the slaves of technology. In the absence of detailed information, it is reasonable to assume that the customs officers might have laboured under the illusion that one or several scanners at the customs were enough to detect the entry of illicit drugs. And if the scanner had not been used in that particular case for some reason or other, it also suggests that technology has never been a deterrent to drug smugglers. Holding a belief to the contrary coupled with the loss of personal agency as a result of over reliance on technology, can result in customs officers being caught off guard.

Another issue that is going to nag the Customs Department and the authorities is to what extent is technology being effectively used to combat drugs at both the airport and the port. While a number of reasons can be put forward to explain this major flaw in our maritime security, one cannot escape the fact that this major loophole has put the country and its population at considerable risk. One can legitimately ask if the country is able to master the technology that is regularly being employed and whether sufficient resources have been invested in staff recruitment, training and providing the adequate infrastructure to deal with a scourge which is slowly killing our young people. If we cannot master technology, we shall end up being the passive recipients, with disastrous consequences for the country.

There is every reason to believe that technology can often lull people into complacency. Some may have believed that the presence of a scanner was enough to deter illegal activities, forgetting that the criminals are always finding means to get around obstacles put in their way. While there is no denying the fact that technology has very important uses in any society, and far from being luddites combating its introduction and use, we should always pause and reflect on its appropriate use in our society. Just like a scanner is not a magic wand to stop illegal introduction of drugs, technology should be supported and complemented by other methods. That this is being done is not in doubt, but it is not always so.

When it comes to controlling the illegal importation of drugs, even the best of technologies will be a losing battle if a series of other measures is not also taken to reduce supply. The relationship between demand and supply is a tricky one. But very little has been done to reduce demand, and the little done so far remains amateurish. A few speeches and workshops will not provide the kind of training necessary to empower educators and other professionals to tackle drugs in our schools. Without such professionals, the fight against drugs will only be rhetoric to mask our failure.

The dogmatic belief that technology will solve our problems can also be seen in the way that billions of rupees have been borrowed and spent to install cameras throughout the island under the Safe City Project. While CCTV cameras can be of some help in detecting violation of traffic regulations or to arrest criminals, they cannot by themselves prevent crime. We had an example, some years back, when a crime was committed in the Legends Hotel despite camera surveillance.

There are other measures to be taken to reduce crime and violence in our society, and these are more effective, and money would have been better spent than wasting it on surveillance technology. After all, many crimes like murder, rape, robbery and other forms of criminal activities have some underlying causes such as poverty, unemployment, relative deprivation, homelessness, corruption and growing inequality in our society. Investing in human resources to tackle these problems will certainly improve the quality of life in our society but neither CCTV-monitored nor gated housing projects will protect society from the growing insecurity.

Blind faith in technology has led parents to provide their kids with smartphones and other devices in the hope that these will increase learning. Tablets too have also been introduced in schools for young children. Both at home and in our primary schools, we should do some rethinking about the use of technology. By making all these gadgets accessible to very young children, we may find an easy way out to appease our children or to help us cope with them at home. We may derive consolation from our self-image as modern parents or even think that we are modernizing education for the 21st century. A little pause and some hard thinking may help us to reflect on the effects of technology on our children. Already, we can detect some of the bad consequences in the behaviour of millennials that can be traced to the abuse of computer use in their childhood.

The analogy with slavery helps us to identify losses, but also other concepts such as resistance and resilience. This is what IT experts in Silicon Valley and many employees in many of the great IT firms are doing when they send their children to schools where use of technology is completely prohibited. These parents are building resistance to technology that they had developed for others. They want to build resilience in their own children. They argue that their children can wait for technology, and childhood education does not need these gadgets. Instead of computers and other technology devices, pupils at schools are provided with pens, pencils, paper and balls of wool and needles with which they can knit to discover patterns and acquire other skills. At home they limit screen time for their children or delay the use of electronic devices until they are 9 or 10. The IT experts know that such gadgets are made to create addiction from which they want to spare their own children.

To conclude, technology is a valuable tool in modern society and a great facilitator in our daily lives, but we should not allow ourselves to be mesmerized by its power and it should not be viewed as a panacea to the many challenges we face whether in combating drugs, preventing crime or enhancing teaching and learning. When technology forces us to give more than we can, we become less reflective, less imaginative, less creative and lose our personal agency. A judicious use of technology can help to preserve our humanity and sanity.

* Published in print edition on 26 July 2019

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