The article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Vedanta Kesari, an 105 year old magazine on Vedanta established by Swami Vivekananda and published by the Ramakrishna Math, Chennai
The advent and domination of modern technology today extends from our daily domestic use to national defence and international communications.
However, whenever questions are being posed by modern technology such as the Nuclear Power Plant in Koodankulam or the introduction of Genetically Modified Crops, we find that even the best among us don’t have a framework or approach that is clear and easy to understand. Questions such as ‘What is the limit to the usage of modern technology?’, ‘How do we measure its benefits as against its harms?’ and more importantly, ‘When to reject modern technology?’ are not always eliciting a clear response from intellectuals, leaders and even scientists and technocrats. We find that they are unable to balance their professional interest with the common interest of humanity.
If there was a question as to ‘Whether the healthy and peaceful life of our people is important or having an advanced technology based Nuclear power plant is important?’, most of us will find it easy to choose the former. Similarly, if the question was ‘Do we, for short term gains, need a technology such as Genetically Modified crops which cannot guarantee its long term health or environmental impact?’, we would obviously choose to reject the technology.
Such simple posing of questions on issues of public welfare seems to elude the ‘experts’ whom the government often listens to in taking important technology issue based decision. ‘Public Ignorance’, ‘Un-Scientific Approach’, ‘Fear Mind-set’, and ‘Unnecessary Fear’ are the kind of terms often adopted by the ‘experts’—those who know the technology— to refer to people like us who are unaware of these technologies. Then, do we submit the genuine concerns of the 99% of people like us to the ‘expert’ knowledge of the 1% of them? Most people within our societies and communities are often happy to do just this, even against their own common sense, with statements like — ‘After all they are so well-educated’, ‘They should know better than us’, ‘Isn’t it scientifically valid?’ How do we as a society decide on issues that may have long-term disastrous impact?
What is our responsibility towards the future generations? Should we be even concerned about the future welfare of our society or should we limit our concern to our current challenges? Can we limit our responsibility to just our own personal life without a thought for the good of the greater world? Is that all of life?
As we are not the first generation to face the challenges of technology, some of us may be inclined to peep into the past, and see how our ancestors made their decisions on the common welfare of humanity beyond their times. We can then understand their approach towards such human conflicts.
In our culture, every vocation has been guided by the ‘dharma’ of that particular vocation in its social engagement. To feed everyone and ensure no one goes without food was the dharma of the farmer; to ensure no one falls sick in society was the dharma of the traditional doctor; to elevate human mind through aesthetics was the dharma of the artist; to not merely produce clothing, but in the process also determine some social customs was the dharma of the weaver; to create wealth for the entire community was the dharma of the trader; to sustain the beauty of the language was the dharma of the poet; to maintain peace, order and sense of security was the dharma of the king; and to maintain an higher aspiration and bearing in society was the dharma of the religious leaders. Thus practitioners of every vocation had a dharma or a social contract that guided their engagement with the larger society. It was an amazing society that could draw a code of conduct and behaviour to so many vocations and sustain the society for a long period of time.
What would be the dharma for the ‘experts’ of modern technology today? What are the guidelines by which they determine whether to recommend a nuclear power plant or a genetically modified crop? ‘That which is felt, by an uncluttered mind, as being truth and for the befit of all is called dharma’ defines an old scripture.
So, ‘Can we see the truth of the claims behind the nuclear technology? Is it really the only solution that can provide the required electricity that is for the benefit of humanity? Can the technology and its consequent electricity provide human beings true happiness and contentment?’ – these can be some of the questions on nuclear energy.
Similarly, ‘Is the pest management best solved through such an expensive technology?’ ‘Don’t we have cheaper and simpler ways of controlling the same pests?’ ‘Whom does the real benefits of the GM technology serve?’—may be some of the questions on the genetically modified crops.
When an expert says that the radioactivity from a nuclear power plant is within the permissible limits for human beings, the question arises as to what are the other radio waves that are impacting our lives in the daily basis. What if some of us are less healthy than others and fall ill even for lesser doses of the waves? Similarly, when experts state that the GM crops are ‘substantially equivalent’ to that of naturally grown crops and they are more or less similar, we see that the experts are resorting to a newer language to explain away the inadequacies of the technology which cannot state the truth in simple language because the truth maybe contrary to the sense of security they want to communicate.
We know from history that experts denied that smoking causes cancer for several decades before conceding that it does. What was immediate public knowledge and concern took several decades of studies for the experts to arrive at and state a simple truth. The Bhopal emission victims even today have not found justice, but, importantly, the experts who pronounced the factory safe have had it easy while the victims and their families have suffered beyond a generation.
In an era where our lives are often dictated and dominated by so many products of technology that we use, and we are driven by these expert opinions, it is important that the Dharma of the Expert is defined, articulated and practiced. One does not find any such practice among experts; there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the ‘experts’ to adhere to any code or dharma today. Unfortunately, our society has elevated such ‘experts’ and ‘scientists / technocrats’ into a demi-god status.
Many of us take pride in our children being educated in higher levels of technical or scientific education; but we do not provide them the required ethical code of conduct that will eventually make the difference between their becoming dharmic or harmful practitioners of a vocation. We have to stop the culture that celebrates, ‘My son/daughter will be a good engineer or doctor’ and start to celebrate ‘My son / daughter will be good ethical practitioner of his / her vocation’; unless we do this, in the coming times we will be left to bemoan the decay of ethics and at worse even become its victims.
It is time that instead of being passive consumers of the ‘expert’ knowledge pervading our lives in a million ways each day, we understand the dharma of the expert and demand its practice.
The author is a social entrepreneur based in Chennai, & is the Managing Director for Samanvaya Social Ventures.