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Technology and Society – is the divide artificial or unnecessary?

March 31st, 2007

Sitting at Bar Camp Bangalore3 http://barcampbangalore.org/wiki/Main_Page (where there is neither a bar nor a camp), the discussions around technology and society lead me to wonder on two counts:

1). Can technology solve problems in society – issues of corruption, inefficiency, etc. which e-governance wants to address;
2). Is this technology-society divide artificial after all?

I sat through some of the sessions today; two of them particularly struck me. The first session was where we began to discuss the impact of ICTs (information and communication technologies) on rural development. The presenter presented the case of ‘one laptop per child’ and then raised the issue of whether ICT can address some of the core issues which cause farmers’ suicides. He pointed out that farmers’ suicides are caused by farmers using genetically modified (GM) seeds because they are ‘illiterate’, farmers engaging in inefficient production methods, lack of physical infrastructure, etc. Just about two weeks ago, I was having a discussion with a person working on organic agriculture on the issue of farmers’ suicides. His point was that farmers are forced to used GMs. Once farmers plant GMs, it affects the soil resulting in poor productivity with each consecutive crop. In the past too, I have heard from farmers themselves that they are forced to used GM seeds. My first reaction to the presenter (though I did not state it in public) was that how can we assume that the farmers are illiterate and therefore they use GMs? Farmers also commit suicide because they are not allowed to fix the prices of their crops and that it is our governments which decide at what rate farmers should sell the potatoes and onions they produce. In the cities, we raise a hue and cry about the prices of commodities (and that teary bulb) going up and then governments attempt to bring down prices, but this directly affects farmers. Farmers are also not allowed to sell their produce to another state. So inter-state sale of produce is not allowed.

When listening to this presenter questioning whether ICTs can address the fundamental issues involved in farmers’ suicides, I asked myself, as technologists/engineers, how much aware are we of the ground situation before we make ‘interventions’ or design ‘ICTs’? Is technology unaware of the power hierarchies/structures/flows of the field in which it will intervene? For who is this transparency, accountability, efficiency for that e-governance is touted as the messiah of? Is it opaque transparency – transparent for some, opaque for others?

The other presentation I sat through was one where a lady was talking about an open source software designed for Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) http://www.mifos.com . The software is useful for loan officers of the MFIs who are on the field collecting loans from borrowers in the rural areas. When the lady asked whether she is aware of the problems that microfinance poses for borrowers (high interest rates, lack of control of borrowers over the amounts they borrow, etc.), she said that that apart, the software is good because it is ‘open source’ (which sounded patronizing – ‘we are doing good because we are using open source’!). On listening to her response, I asked myself again whether the producers of the technology are unaware of the field they are operating in? I was at that moment very tempted to criticize this open source software designed for loan collectors because I find aspects of microfinance very problematic – not just the point of high interest rates, but the fact that MFIs do not reveal the hidden costs that are involved in the loans that borrowers borrow, that in cities microfinance is rooted in the complexities of land and land tenures which can have consequences like evictions, etc., but my criticism of the software at that moment would have been completely misdirected.

The divide between society and technology is artificial or should I say absolutely unnecessary because the technology (and its producers) is situated in the very society in which it is located and operating. In areas like governance, technology cannot claim to operate in a completely neutral environment because there are real dynamics of power and what might appear as efficiency created by technology in governance (/administration), can very well be centralization of operations and power. At the same time, I cannot make a blanket criticism of all technology. It can be deployed for subversive purposes which challenge the very power hierarchies and structures which we find authoritarian (like maps created in New York City of areas where CCTV cameras are situated so that people looking at those maps know what areas they can avoid being stared at by the cameras!).

xanga