Science And Modernity

De-Engineering the Imagination

Satya Sagar

Attempting a critique of science or engineering in the times we live in, of great ecological destruction and global warming, is not a very novel enterprise anymore. While we remain deeply affected in our lives by the concepts of science and even more dependent on its technological products, there is also quite widespread awareness about its various pitfalls.

The nineteenth century notion of science inherently being a force of good or of technology as always beneficial to humankind has receded considerably in the public mind. Once representing the triumph of reason over obscurantism and human mastery over nature, science and technology today are seen as flawed in many ways and even worse as an integral arm of state, military and commercial power.

A turning point in the disillusionment worldwide was perhaps the use of the atomic bomb by the US in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the fag end of the Second World War bringing to fore the devastating use science and technology could be put to. A frighteningly large number of scientific personnel today are involved in research on products that could well destroy our planet forever through nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry.

While a politician, general or businessman may order a weapon of mass destruction to be made it is only highly skilled professionals who can actually design, produce and deliver it for them. That they choose to do so all over the world, despite having other options in life, shows the complete disconnect between ethical human concerns and the scientific/engineering community in general.

There have been of course courageous members of the profession itself who, horrified by their own powers of destruction, have rallied for a safer and better world. The campaigns for nuclear disarmament, the fight against manipulation of genetic material or the search for cures to intractable diseases—all have seen concerned scientists dedicate their professional efforts, speak out or call for change. And yet the blunt fact is that these brave souls are but a minority.

At another level, the idea of a definite and definable 'scientific method', as the only valid pathway to 'truth', has also been taken a beating philosophically. Scientists do what they have to get results that corroborate their theories of the universe using observation, experiment, intuition, conjecture- whatever works best. There is no one overarching principle or set of criteria that has been followed by scientists over the centuries, which may be very worrying to those who see the scientific enterprise as a paragon of logical consistency but does not bother the best of practicing scientists themselves.

The concept of 'truth', which was once considered the highest aspiration of human endeavor, has been knocked off its lofty pedestal too. As Paul Feyerabend, the Austrian philosopher of science put it, 'Human life is guided by many ideas. Truth is one of them. Freedom and mental independence are others. If Truth, as conceived by some ideologists, conflicts with freedom, then we have a choice. We may abandon freedom. But we may also abandon Truth.'

In fact, the notion of there being any singular 'truth' itself has dissipated, even within the natural sciences. The understanding now is that, in many contexts, multiple 'truths' can coexist depending on the frame of reference adopted.

All these debates in turn, together with rising consciousness of ecological issues, have contributed to the questioning of the dominant model of 'development', which in modern times consists basically of using every insight offered by science and every ability extended by technology to turn all of Nature into cheap raw material for industry. In the process every form of life that stands in the way is bulldozed or sacrificed at the altar of an abstract and purely quantitative idea of economic 'growth'.

Surprisingly, for all this trenchant critique of nineteenth century science, technology and  industrialization that has emerged in recent decades, the language of social and political analysis still seems to be stuck in the Newtonian era. Wittingly or unwittingly there is a strong tendency among social and political activists to blindly utilize the terminology and metaphors of science and technology without questioning them closely enough. This is true unfortunately even among those who ardently believe they are fighting for an alternative, more human and eco-friendly vision of the world.

Several years ago, while attending a gathering of activist groups in Bangalore, I was asked by the organizers, at very short notice, to present the keynote address. The theme suggested for me to speak about was 'social movements', where they were headed and why they were not as effective as they should be in achieving their objectives.

Unprepared as I was for such a talk and not being the 'expert' on this subject as I was made out to be, I was at a loss as to what I was going to say. I surveyed the audience, consisting of both young and veteran activists from all around the country, all very sincere and earnest people- among the best you can find anywhere and decided to tell them what I really thought.

'Movement', I explained is essentially a term from Newtonian physics, which means 'an act of changing physical location or position'. In other words it refers to the displacement of a body from point A to point B in space.

So, the biggest mass movement in the Indian context, I said, was migration of people from rural to urban areas, followed by the movement of those from India overseas. There are thus millions of people constantly relocating themselves from one place to another all the time for various reasons and they are all participating—as far as numbers go- in a grand mass movement.

As I continued, I could see the look of bemusement on the faces of many of those in the audience- used as they were to the use of the term 'movement' exclusively to describe the activities of social and political activists. Far from trying to irritate the hell out of those before me what I was really attempting was to bring to their notice the way even those who want to imagine or create an alternative world are unconsciously prey to the language of the mainstream.

Now, why would people, deeply concerned about the fate of humanity or our planet and who want to transform society for the better want to call their own collective actions a social or political 'movement'? What is so intrinsically good or special about 'moving' or displacing oneself from one site to another?

My wild guess is that the positive connotation widely given to the term 'movement' in the English language must have come in an era when moving anywhere was a difficult process. For example, once upon a time if you managed to displace yourself out of a small island called England and reach the shores of another continent- the very act of transportation constituted 'progress' of some kind (even if you were ultimately eaten for dinner by natives in the place you landed up).

Note that the term that is considered the opposite of 'movement' is 'stagnation', a word most commonly used in a pejorative sense. In the industrial era of the last four hundred years that we are still living in, it is assumed those who 'move' are the good folks while those who 'stagnate' are dinosaurs, bound for sure extinction. The expenditure of kinetic energy it turns out has become the ultimate marker of modernity!

One more term that is repeated constantly even by many of my ardent environmentalist friends is 'concrete'. Even in the midst of fighting against deforestation or the destruction of an ecosystem many activists usually want something 'concrete' to be done. Many a time have I pointed out to them that there is enough steel and 'concrete' being dumped on our heads by the ruling classes and it is now time for us to do something that is truly 'bullshit'- the latter being after all very organic, ecofriendly and biodegradable!

Another example I can give is the way people in a crisis situation automatically assume that the direction 'forward' is necessarily the best way to go by asking the question, 'what is the way forward?' When you are standing on the edge of an abyss the best question perhaps should be 'what is the way backward?'

Well, why should social activists be really bothered about the semantics of how they describe themselves '? How does it really matter to the outcome of their actions? There are several reasons why they should pay close attention to the words they use.

Firstly, if one examines the most significant 'social movements' in recent decades in India they are all mostly about resisting displacement, whether it be due to large dams, mega projects, mining, pauperization of farmers, armed conflict or illegal grabbing of various natural resources.

So for example, if you go to a farmer in the Narmada valley, who is about to be thrown off his land and ask him to join your 'movement' there is a good chance he will politely decline, as he really does not want to 'move' and would prefer 'stagnation'! The term 'movement' is an obviously inappropriate term to use in this context as it communicates the opposite of what the activists are trying to achieve or what communities want to happen.

Secondly, consider the case of the many words in our languages that are products of racist, sexist, casteist or other prejudices. Most sensitive people today recognize that such words should not be used or should at least be deconstructed to expose the bigotry hidden behind them.

However, in the case of terms from science, technology and engineering we seem to freely use them in our social, political or economic analysis without any thought given to the hidden meanings they carry. I believe, many of these terms are as loaded with prejudice as racism or sexism and in some cases even lie at the root of much of modern violence.

At one level, the contamination of our day-to-day language with phrases, derived from the physics, mathematics and engineering discourse, is not surprising at all given the enormous prestige of these disciplines, developed in the course of the industrial revolution. However the influence they wield is the very reason to be even more skeptical and suspicious of them and how they are powerfully shaping our destinies. We should be aware of the way our social and political imagination is deeply embedded with concepts that foreclose the possibility of creating alternatives that are truly different from the dominant development paradigm all around us.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, at least those working for the betterment of living sentient human beings or other forms of life should understand clearly -that for all their prestige and power- physics, mathematics or engineering essentially involve the study of either abstract or dead objects and the techniques by which they can be manipulated towards certain ends.

These disciplines and their terminology cannot really capture the complex processes that govern human behaviour—both as individuals and as a collective. Applying such concepts to living societies can work only through the translation of the constituents into dead objects for manipulation and the establishment of the 'peace of the graveyard', something that every political ideology from capitalism to fascism with their fetish for industrialism have achieved.

The Marxists too, despite the claim to keeping human beings at the center of their emancipatory actions, have been guilty of repeatedly subordinating the needs and concerns of unpredictable and 'moody' living beings to the dead certainty of engineering schemes.

In 1920 Vladimir Lenin for example declared, "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country", giving a new (and in my view outrageous) definition to the political concept of Communism itself. I wonder what Lenin would have said if the Great October revolution were to have happened in the 21st Century? Perhaps, something like 'Communism is Soviet power plus the Internet plus Starbucks!'

Those who followed Lenin, allowed technocratic ambitions to supersede democratic and socialist ideals as well as the need to keep the Soviets vibrant and alive, thus killing the revolutionary basis of the entire upheaval of 1917. By the mid-seventies, during the Brezhnev era, those with a background in engineering totally dominated the top and middle level leadership of the Soviet Communist Party. This is true today of the Chinese Communist Party also, where the Politburo has for long been dominated by the engineering profession and both the current President Xi Jinping and the outgoing one Hu Jintao are engineers. (Doctors or lawyers sadly are not an alternative either as most of them have themselves become 'engineers' of medicine or law!)

One of the key problems of Soviet style socialism in fact was its attempt to 'engineer' changes in society at all levels and maintain these changes through application of crude physical force. The downfall of the entire Eastern Bloc in some way was not because its leaders were 'wicked' or 'stupid', but because they substituted technocracy for true political, social or cultural understanding of their societies.

In other words, they completely failed to understand that the geometrically perfect but dead plans of an industrial future they were implementing could not 'tame' the rich, diverse and alive societies they presided over. The more they tried to convert their society into one giant factory, working with 'clockwork' precision the more the revolt by living creatures refusing to be trapped by the blueprints of social engineering.

I am going to digress a bit here to point out that even the term 'revolution', which technically means going in an orbit around point A, is quite ironical in the context of what Marxists actually claim to be doing—the irrevocable transformation of societies to a higher stage of existence! Of course I know the political understanding of 'revolution' that pays homage to the radical change in perspective brought about by the Copernican theory of the earth 'revolving' around the Sun- is different from its literal meaning. And yet it completely beats me why anyone would want to use such a silly and confusing term at all?

In fact the term 'evolution', captures much better the materialist process by which Marxists believe history develops- with quantitative changes constantly leading to qualitative leaps. Darwin's theory of evolution, when it was first propounded was also as much, if not more, radical a departure from the existing worldview as the Copernican theory was. And yet, maybe since the pace of change or 'movement' involved in evolution stretches over millennia, Marxists despise its use as a metaphor for social change, ignoring the leaps in quality evolution involves compared to the mere rotation of existing material that 'revolution' does.

All of what I am saying so far should not be construed as a plea for rejecting all metaphors from science and technology in general. What I am trying to point to is the need to be critical of the language we use and also understand how the inner politics and hierarchies of the world of science and technology really work.

The metaphors of science and technology that typically occur in social and political discourse for example are mostly Newtonian in vintage and heavily oriented towards a mechanical view of the Universe. The domination by disciplines such as physics, mathematics and engineering within the sciences also comes at the cost of all other disciplines—particularly ones like biology, botany or zoology that deal with life and living processes and beings.

If one indeed wants to use metaphors from science it may be more fruitful to look for categories from the life sciences to understand human societies, which after all are closer to open and non-linear ecological systems than to the closed and highly controlled systems produced by the Newtonian or engineering approach. In the context of struggles for radical social change rarely do we hear talk of 'nurture', 'harmony', 'balance', 'fertility' or 'osmosis', which also happen to be more feminine terms.

It is high time we did, as the future of the Earth may depend on our willingness to go back to the sources of life and living processes and reject the very masculine 'worship of death' that modern industrial civilization has become today.

Frontier, Autumn Number
Vol. 46, No. 13-16, Oct 6 - Nov 2, 2013

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