Ethics of technology

by May 18, 2020 0 comments

India, which has always believed in the philosophy of Antyodaya and Sarvodaya, should look into its own schools of thought to initiate philosophy-led technological advancements

In Mahabharata, when Ashwatthama learnt that Duryodhana was stricken down against all laws of chivalry, his anger swelled like the sea. He took an oath of vengeance against the Pandavas, whom he blamed for foul conduct. He killed the sons of the Pandavas by setting their tent ablaze at night. The grieving Pandavas, along with Shri Krishna, started searching for him. Ultimately, they found him hiding in Sage Vyasa’s ashram. Cornered thus, Ashwatthama quietly took up a blade of grass to convert it into a deadly weapon. He charged it with the mantra of “destruction” and aimed the Brahmastra towards the Pandavas. In retaliation, Arjun used his Brahmastra. Meanwhile, Rishi Vyasa was asked by Shri Krishna to stop this collision as he was aware of the apocalyptic capacities of these weapons for humanity. He ordered both to bring back their armoury. Arjun obeyed. Not knowing how to “bring back” the weapon to its source, Ashwatthama expressed his inability to control it. Swayed by vengeance, he decided to destroy the race of the Pandavas by diverting his Brahmastra to the womb of Uttara, who was pregnant with the son of Abhimanyu. This later brought him the curse of Shri Krishna, who hollowed his forehead and cursed him with immortality.

Technology and its dilemmas aren’t new to India. The aforementioned instance is one such which explains the strong philosophical synergies between technology and its user. Technology in the hand of a user lacking wisdom and moral perseverance has resulted in the destruction of humanity. In India, it has always been imagined as a tool for the betterment of humankind. China’s attempt to contain the novel Coronavirus through an app was lauded whereas a group of neo-Luddites cast aspersions when India developed the Aarogya Setu app for the same purpose. Ironically, many cast aspersions on the most vulnerable platforms such as Zoom and Facebook, conveniently forgetting about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public apology and, of course, algorithm manipulations done by Cambridge Analytica.

While both China and India developed an app, the fundamental philosophy of both nations was different. One cannot, however, ignore the syncretism between technology and philosophy. Whether man or algorithm, it all condenses to the “philosophical choices,” especially in times of crisis. In a post-COVID society, we will not only witness an ever-increasing authority of algorithms but also a rising confrontation between man and machine, all based on philosophical dilemmas. Last month, The Guardian reported a report titled, “Hertfordshire hospital forced to consider who should be refused oxygen.” The decision taken by healthcare professionals must have been based on the philosophical discourse of that nation. A few years from now, with the ever-increasing scope of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, imagine a robot designed by technocrats. How will it be programmed? Who would it refuse to provide oxygen to? What will be the moral grounding of technology? Can this decision be taken without thoughtful deliberations on morals, ethics, philosophy of a nation? Consider the following cases on how the moral philosophy of a nation can have a direct bearing on technology.

When the Titanic sank, the poignant moment illustrated the “choice” made between the elite and the destitute. It was decided to save the lifeboats for the former and leave the latter to their fate. More recently, the “choice” made by Italy and Iran with regard to who should be provided with a ventilator was based on philosophical groundings of that nation. Whereas the US made the “choice” to delay the lockdown due to Coronavirus, India, despite being more vulnerable to socio-economic and political shocks, decided to make a “choice” in favour of society. The choice made by Mao’s China during the infamous experiment in social engineering, the Great Leap Forward, came at the expense of millions of lives. On the other hand, India’s “choice” to save even separatist leaders during flood relief operations in Kashmir illustrates its philosophy, which ranks all lives as equal. All “choices” are based on the strong philosophical underpinnings of the nation. While both Arjun and Ashwatthama held equally powerful technology, what made Shri Krishna curse Ashwatthama was the “choice” he made.

Nevertheless, debates around “morality” and “technology” aren’t new. There have been two schools of thought. The instrumental vision of technology resulting from the neutrality thesis focusses on the ill-effects and can be attributed to its users, not technology per se. Thinkers such as Heidegger and critical sociologist Habermas went ahead, claiming that the function of any technology to a great capacity depends on how and why it has been conceptualised. Later, this theory embraced technology from the broader construct of political, social, economic and cultural realms. In the early 1980s, American novelist Thomas Pynchon said, “It’s okay not to be a Luddite.” Today, he would have wondered, “Is it even possible to be one?” A post-pandemic society will be entering a new age of disruption. Whether in healthcare, social-cultural, academia or the economic sector, unimaginable facets of technology will have to be routinised. Such a development will pave space for nations to reconsider their technological development map.

One cannot also ignore the dominance of private corporations in the current technological race. Such domination can also be put as “lack of involvement of society or state” in the technological race. But why does it become imperative to counterbalance market monopoly over technology by augmenting technological capacities of both society and State? A simple answer to this would be the philosophy that each follows. While markets usually couch their decisions based on utilitarian benefits, not always resulting in favour of humanity, social institutions primarily focus on social cohesion and development. 

Consider the famous Grimshaw vs Ford Motor Co  case (1981). People were killed due to explosions in a Ford Pinto car, the reason for which was attributed to a defective car design. What was shocking was that Ford had prior knowledge about the defect but remained inert as the cost of recalling and repairing the car would have been much more than the amount likely to be spent by it in lawsuits and accidents. The “choice” made by Ford converted a human life as a mere statistical tool. The “choice” was based on the cost-benefit analysis grounded on the famous “utilitarian” philosophy given by Jeremy Bentham. This brings forth three questions. First, despite the altruistic use of technology by many private corporations, isn’t there a need to counter-balance institutions that use “technology for society?” Second, for how long can technology and philosophy be placed in watertight compartments? Third, if we attempt to create such synergies, will we again ape the West for insights on technological dilemmas or reflect on indigenous schools of thought to resolve conflicts?

Amid the COVID pandemic, when the entire world has embraced Indian philosophical constructs, we can lead in thoughtful technological advancements. While philosophers, sages, ascetics in our country deliberated on such dilemmas for centuries, the engineers, technocrats and tech giants are looking for immediate answers. Thus, philosophy for technology has become more important than ever. Yet, the education system today is slow to augment technical education with philosophical reflections. In fact, the easy imitation of the West has usurped the space for philosophical discussions, which once were intrinsic to the indigenous educational system in India. Post-colonial interventions, the Indian education system, which initially was run by society, was usurped by the market as an extension. The result of such annexation has defined technology as a product of markets and not society.

The world is undergoing the biggest social experiment right now. Unaware of the controlled variables, we are trying to graph patterns amid chaos. Years of technological artefacts are lying almost dormant. Only within a span of 15 days, countries, which used to take pride in cutting-edge healthcare technologies, gasped out of exasperation. It just took 15 days of a microbe-ridden pandemic to hammer our egos. Modern man may boast about his admirable success in communication technologies and brag about Tesla’s cyber trucks or the plans to colonise Mars but it will just take a radioactive leak with a subsequent power outage to make even our Neanderthal brothers laugh at us.

While primitive technologies such as wheel, needle or scissors were based on belief and philosophy of human progress, modern technological advancements lack social validation. What reasons can be contributed to such technological redundancy? Somewhere from primitive to modern man, our philosophical underpinnings have changed; the dissonance between technology, man, society and nature has become cacophonous.

Social institutions are working in vacuum and silos, leading to technological advancement without philosophical moorings. IITs, NITs and IIMs have risen to the occasion during the pandemic but these elite institutes just comprise a mere three per cent of our students. Therefore, post-COVID-19 questions, such as how the application of technology will influence social justice and equality, should come to the fore. Technical education confronts “the real acid test” of how knowledge can handle technological disruptions, social issues and other problems. Technocrats should consider asking: Can technology help achieve social justice? Can it help a tribal family get its ration? Can it help forest dwellers conserve the forests better? Can it ensure the security of a Scheduled Caste girl living at a remote location? This can be done by formalising interlinkages between technology and philosophy.

(Writer: Purva Bhatt; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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