Sarukkai & Pai: A Debate on Technology

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As part of TechTatva ’13, the Manipal Institute of Technology hosted ‘Manipal Conclave’, a platform for the exchange of ideas by leading personalities in different fields. Sundar Sarukkai (Director of The Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities) debated against T.V. Mohandas Pai (ex-CFO of Infosys, Chairman of Manipal Global Education) on whether technology has improved our lives. This event took place on 17 October 2013, in the MIT Library Auditorium, Manipal University.

Though both sides did not bring any argument that was startlingly new to the table, this event provided students with an opportunity to watch two people equally immersed in science and technology, yet with completely different ways to talk about it. Mr Pai’s argument was double fold. On the one hand, he spoke about how technology has enabled people to live longer, how machines have made work easier, and how we can enjoy more leisure today than in the past. On the other hand, and in response to any cautionary word about technology, he defended the traditional argument that technology is just an innocent tool, which simply empowers those who choose to use it (‘guns don’t kill people’, as the argument goes, ‘but people do’). Mr Sarukkai’s counter to the proposition attacked technology from multiple directions. He suggested that although life expectancy is rising, so is obesity. And though leisure time may have increased, attention spans and the capacities for basic mathematical and language-based tasks are going down. Is our quality of life really improving, or are we being sold a dream by the same technocrats who will make billions of dollars from it? It is not very surprising that never before in human history, he argued, has so much of the wealth of the world rested in the hands of so few. The second part of Mr Sarukkai’s argument rested on the idea that technology is not as innocent a tool as we might believe it to be. Most of the technology we use today has arisen out of wars. Technology has become, either directly or indirectly, both the cause and the effect of wars.

Both speakers reached some common ground when they agreed that it is impossible to do away with technology, but that one needs critical thinking and an awareness of the repercussions of our choices in a technological world. Technology can, they both conceded, be used both for good and bad; they both limited themselves largely to providing the audience with examples of usage that supported their stance. What neither could do, however, was to show that such usage was implicit in the nature of technology itself, and so the debate remained, and must remain, unresolved.

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T.V. Mohandas Pai – In support of the proposition: ‘technology has enhanced our quality of life’

We live longer ― A human being’s most important asset is her life. Life expectancy rates have increased around the world. The reason for this increase in longevity is technology. Technology has found a solution for many diseases. People live longer, grow taller, and are bigger built than ever before in human history. Before we speak about the quality of life, we first need a long life span to appreciate it.

We produce more, we have more leisure Quality of life implies that we don’t have drudgery: we have time for the smaller pleasures of life. Previously, humans used their muscle power to earn their money. With the advent of the industrial revolution, one person can now do the work of a hundred people with the use of machines. With increased production, there has been increased wealth and an improved quality of life. We no longer have to do the same repetitive tasks. Drudgery has been done away with. One has a lot more time for leisure. Numerous home appliances have made cooking faster and have helped women (because, obviously, the electrical mixie is the face of women’s liberation).

Technology has shortened distances ― Sankara walked all the way across the country to set up the math in Kashmir. When Gandhiji went to England for the first Round Table Conference, it took him 21 days by ship. You can now fly around the world in 24 hours. You can see more things. In the future, supersonic flight will enable even quicker travel. We can now move billions of dollars across the world in a fraction of a second.

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We have democratised knowledge Technology has democratised knowledge and has made it available to everyone. Knowledge was previously available only to a select group of people: monasteries in the West, ashrams in the East. The collective memory of the country was in the hands of a few people. When the library of Nalanda burnt away ― in fifteen days! ― most of those manuscripts were lost forever. Now, in contrast, knowledge is no longer monopolised, and thus it is harder to destroy it. The invention of the printing press allowed the expansion of this knowledge. Today, knowledge is available for free in electronic form. Google has revolutionized the way we learn. All you need is a device and an internet connection. The mobile phone has also changed the way we live.

This lack of knowledge had been instrumental in the oppression and suppression of human beings throughout history. The democratisation of knowledge also means that oppressive governments can no longer stop their people from telling the world what is going on in their countries. Technology has also increased the access to education, and made it possible to access information at the click of a button without having to attend class in a particular university.

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Balance of terror Technology has brought peace to the planet. It has also brought terror, but it is a balance of terror. Because there are several countries in the world that hold nuclear power, each hesitates to make the first move. The number of deaths in war has been the least in the last fifty years.

Technology gives you more leisure and more time to engage yourself in other activities. Technology has created the largest middle class in human history today. There are negatives, Mr Pai suggested, but they exist because we use technology for the wrong reasons. Technology has put choices in the hands of individuals. Our choice leads to individual empowerment. Technology has enhanced our quality of life and will be a great tool for empowerment. It is not an end in itself.

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Sundar Sarukkai – Against the proposition: ‘technology has enhanced our quality of life’

Philosophers are scared of technology. We don’t want to deal with it the way technocrats do.

Have we reduced human effort? One of the most prevalent diseases in the world today is obesity. We might have become taller, but we have also become fatter. What are the implications of this? People have misunderstood what technology does. The longevity of life that Mr Pai talked about has little to do with technology, and more with social change: the removal of feudalism, changing ideas of justice, the establishment of more egalitarian societies… Perhaps there is more food production now, but mass food production has completely destroyed our food habits, and it is, in fact, one of the reasons for obesity. We have started feeding animals food that they didn’t – and shouldn’t – eat, leading to diseases like the mad cow crisis. As a result of this, the extent to which technology is allowed in the production of meat in the United States of America has been drastically changed. What quality of human life are we then talking about?

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What do you actually do in your leisure time? We may have more leisure time now, but what are we doing with that time? We engage, instead, in other non-productive things like watching television, surfing the internet, etc.. A large mass of people watching TV soaps can be more dangerous than the atomic bomb, as KV Akshara of Ninasam once said. One becomes more individualistic and less humanistic. We now have leisure, but we have actually lost the real idea of leisure. We are constantly driven to do something. When is the last time you’ve looked at the night sky? You haven’t, because of this thing called the cellphone. Families go on holidays together, each person looking at their mobile phone. Email has made our lives more anxious. New psychiatric diseases have emerged due to this intrusive technology. The idea of technology has made of us individualistic nomads, removing us from society.

Has knowledge been really democratised? Google has made our lives simpler, but our reading, writing and thinking abilities have declined over time. For example, the autocorrect tool makes us take spelling for granted; we never learn the right spelling of words because the machine automatically corrects us!

Though there is so much knowledge available, our literary and mathematical capacity has declined.We might have access to all the texts in the world, but we have lost the ability to understand or read those texts. Democratisation, paradoxically, has not reached a large part of the population, but the technocrats will tell us that it will eventually trickle down to them.

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Technology and war Much of the technology we use today has been catalysed and developed from the research and development efforts led during war. A part of the scientific community wants wars so that new efforts will be made to improve technology. Technology is used in the larger politics and rhetoric of war. Mobile phones were greatly developed during the first Gulf War. Much of the technology we use today is driven by conflicts, conflicts lead to the production of more technology: a vicious cycle.

Technology and wealth Technology creates wealth, but now, only a few people have access to a greater part of this wealth. Where is democracy in this situation?

Desire We are becoming used to having all our desires satisfied instantly, and there is a great danger in this instant gratification. Where does this need come from, and what will it lead to? 90% of the technology we use is redundant: by simplifying tasks, it also makes us incapable of doing the same, basic actions.

Obviously, technology is a big part of our lives. I am not talking about technology in terms of the first tool that was invented by humankind, but the recent trend in digital technology. How much of it is really necessary? We need to think more critically about technology, instead of just jumping onto the bandwagon. We are becoming ultra-individualistic. We have individual worlds. Technology has completely skewed the way we understand our social responsibilities and the way we engage with the world. The quality of human life is actually enhanced when we learn to live with our limitations. We are born with different capacities, and the question we need to ask ourselves is not how we become gods or machines, that is, how to transcend our limitations, but how we learn to live with our limitations. As Gandhi said, there is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed. The relationship between technology and greed cannot be forgotten.

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