Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001

Paradox of modern technology

Visa Ravindran

Freelance writer based in Chennai.

"The quick harvest of applied science is the usable process, the medicine, the machine. The shy fruit of pure science is Understanding."

Lincoln Barnett, Life, January 9, 1950.

"Science is built of facts as a house is built of bricks; but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house."

Henri Poincare, La Science et L'hypothese.

The technological trajectory traversed in communications and transport from pigeonmail and pony express to e-mail and videoconferencing is almost as great as the intellectual space between Noah's Ark and the biotechnological revolution in the preservation and improvement of the species. Dreams are multi-hued today and soar beyond the hitherto accepted bounds of human endeavour. The first biomolecular motors with tiny metal propellers to reach inside our cells and probe their secrets have been built and pilot-tested and scalpels fitted with probes that can instantly reveal whether cells are cancerous may soon help surgeons operating on tumours to detect cancer at the earliest stages, perhaps even replacing biopsies. That Einstein ousted Gandhi as Time's Man of the Century clearly reflects the Zeitgeist. As Stephen Hawking writes, "The world has changed far more in the last 100 years than in any other century in history. The reason is not political or economic, but technological - technologies that flowed directly from advances in basic science."

Aditya Dhawan

The reflection of the Zeitgeist, even as it stands witness to the enormity of man's reach, is also a warning: that when man's reach exceeds his grasp, it is time to pause and ponder over priorities. From time to time, a natural disaster might push us back to oil lamps and cooking by woodfire but a baby born a whole hundred hours after the mother was trapped under heavy rubble will also establish the sovereignty of Other Forces. Baby buying on the Internet illustrates the lowest human motivations at work, but harnessing its reach to attract global aid for earthquake victims reflects higher human impulsions. The new eclat with which the Kumbh Mela has been seen in the media points to its transformation, by technology, into an exotic expression of the East as much as the symbol of the attraction of a durable religion being projected into a Happening of cult proportions spiced up by the tangy exhibitions of the flesh, the slavering greed of photographers rushing to capture them on film, the conflict between commercial exploitation of the Kumbh as business opportunity versus the might of the culture police guarding the sacred from the profane. Yet information overload tends to choke or obfuscate clarity in thinking, and consequently in application, leading to man ceding sovereignty in intellectual supremacy.

"This is the Information Age, which does not always mean information in our brains," says John Gleick in Faster: the Acceleration of Just About Everything, "We sometimes feel that it is information whistling by our ears at light speed, too fast to be absorbed." The paradox of the very act of reaching out sealing us in - in our inability to absorb what we ourselves have enabled and also in the sociological context of the virtual world superceding the real in ways isolating the individual, robbing him of the skills of easy social interaction - is a defining metaphor of the Information Age.

G. Ramamurthy/Wilderfile
The magic of technology: the far is brought near; the near is taken far.

Men are defined by their work and women by their social relationships. Now, since the two areas of work and society are the most deeply affected by rapid technological change and the entry of women into the public sphere in large numbers has blurred the dividing line between these gender-based readings, there is a great need for men and women to think and act differently to adapt positively to these mutations. Gender sensitisation will become a necessity just as in the preceding years employment for women began to be first accepted, and then demanded by men for economic rather than humanitarian reasons when ambition and consumerism overrode patriarchal attitudes to women's employment even though not necessarily to the rewards of work and the control of money. Finding an adequate response to the challenge of change in a burgeoning Third World economy must rest on the twin pivots of balanced ambition and tempered desire for the good things of life. It must also carry with it the social responsibility of an inclusive democratic perspective if disadvantaged sections are not to be left out of this glittering dream. Alvin Toffler has pointed out how the poor are no longer the majority and "not only is majority rule, therefore, no longer necessarily humanising or democratic in societies moving into the Third Wave (the electronic Age)." As a HR expert remarked in a different context, we must move from "maintenance mode" in our thinking to "breakthrough mode" to adapt successfully to the sweeping change that seems to be happening at planetary velocities.

A Business Today cover story on the "Future of Work" (the 9th Anniversary issue) speaks of financial services malls with electronic computer interfaces like ATMs and call centres and of how the Net will change the way we bank and invest and how for banks themselves, expansion has become easier as they do not have the hassle of setting up branches (Brian Carvalho). In the knowledge economy, employees will own the tools of production - ideas - and hence the work itself. The work of tomorrow will demand formal education, cutting-edge knowledge accumulation, strategic acumen, cross-functional expertise, flexible and project-based engagement, "a milestone-led workflow" and facilitation-led management workstyles, which means the hierarchical leader cannot be successful in the new work environment (Paroma Roy Chowdury).

Aditya Dhawan

Chowdury, describing "the highly competitive, fluid corporation of tomorrow", also makes an important point when she says in the New Economy, the organisations' need for workers will be greater than the workers' need for employers. This will change attitudes, roles and treatment. She quotes Gupta of Kom/Ferry. "Leaders will have to be entrepreneurs and encourage their managers to act as microentrepreneurs". And Seema Shukla, in the same story, describes the future workplace as "Networked, friendly and egalitarian" and quotes Sujit Bakshi of HCL Tech as saying "People working for a project can be drawn from different competency centres." Fat paychecks are encouraging sybaritic lifestyles. Globalisation and exposure through frequent travel fuel cultural remixes, sometimes good, sometimes rather bewildering. Increased choice, flexibility in hours of work, the electronic cottage where it is possible for one spouse to take up where the other leaves off and above all, the intrusive nature of instant communication are wafting us on the wings of a consumerist dream into a world that never sleeps. The real and the virtual trade places effortlessly, alarmingly, and one is reminded of a BBC Question Time discussion, where to Prannoy Roy's question about how one would distinguish one from the other, one of the panelists shot back, "Your psychiatrist will tell you." Black comedy or the shape of things to come?

Some more paradoxes: In this age of fast food and instant gratification, of an obsession with time and addiction to fast-placed activity, there is also a growing interest in holistic living, good eating habits and a questioning attitude to the allopathic way of managing disease moving towards healing programmes, often at fancy prices, that require more time and a relaxing atmosphere reducing the speed of all activity. Even our language has acquired additions minted from the world of technology like core competencies, entry-level, mode, window - as in window of opportunity - outsourcing, multi-tasking etc. and some words have acquired new shades of meaning like virtual and hollow.

New avenues of learning and coping have opened up. Assistive technology for learning disabilities, changes in the way we teach and learn ("It's unbelievable. Children who used to struggle to pay attention in class are so excited about learning; they come in early and stay after school to work on their projects. Children of every ability get equally excited too. There is no competition, only individual enthusiasm and accomplishment," says a teacher in an article on the Internet. In education and healthcare, this is also opening up debate on the central issue of access for population subgroups defined by disease, disability, age and poverty. The expanded role of computer-assisted surveys is another emerging line in the larger picture. Articles point out that more volatile marketplaces, global competition, shortened product lifecycles, built-in obsoloscence, customer demands for specially-tailored offerings and pressure to work with ever higher-rising performance standards are creating new ambiguities.

R. Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile

Technostress is a new word coined in 1984 by clinical psychologist, Craig Brod. It is defined by Jane Rothstein, psychotherapist and stress management expert at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, "as personal stress generated by a reliance on technological devices, a panicky feeling when they fail and a state of near-constant stimulation or being perpetually plugged in." And Larry Rosen who co-authored a book on Technostress with Craig Brod, warns, "Because technology allows us to do so much today we are taking on too much and end up feeling overwhelmed and never "finished". As against this is the Leftist fear that out of information exclusion arises the inability to make use of not just an attractive technology contributing to an enhanced lifestyle but one that is becoming essential gradually even to basic acts of citizenship seen in the recent American elections.

Graham Molitor, Vice-President of the World Future Society, predicts that the current Information Age will be overtaken within the next 20 years or so by a "Leisure Time Era". New technologies, he says will result in shorter work weeks, longer holidays, and earlier retirement. Thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin believed that we are evolving mentally and socially towards a spiritual unity. But as we travel that road, it is important to shape technology by constant introspection and channel its direction towards the gold of human thought rather than the tinsel of the machine's promise.

A raft of tied-together snakes
in the world-ocean.
Let go, and you'll drown.
Grasp, and they'll bite your arm.

From The Bijak of Kabir, translated from the original Hindi and ed. Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, New Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1986.

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