Connecting Technology and Society – Hinduism

What students looking to pursue technical careers with social impact should know

What students looking to pursue technical careers with social impact should know

TonThe Oxford Dictionary defines technology as “the branch of knowledge that deals with engineering or applied science”, but makes no reference to society. So why bother to build a career in a technological field that impacts society? To get the answer, it’s worth recalling the late historian Marvin Kranzberg’s laws of technology.

One saying is that “all histories are relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant”. The other is “Technology is a very human activity – and so is the history of technology.” It is clear between them that human history can be understood by studying technological change, and that technology is at the heart of our activities as human beings. To try to distinguish between technology and society, therefore, is to seek a distinction that does not exist.

If there is no distinction between technology and society, i.e. if technology is not “external” to society, what is the point of referring to impact? Here, two other laws provide insight. One saying goes: “Technology is neither good or bad; nor is it neutral”. Another is “While technology may be a major factor in many public issues, non-technical factors take precedence in technology policy decisions.” These suggest that even when technological discoveries and inventions are conceived from engineering or applied scientific knowledge, technological trajectories and results are also affected in other ways. In other words, a good grasp of engineering and applied sciences is just a sine qua non to build a socially impactful technical career. It is also important to understand the other three aspects.

Who is affected?

First, when seeking social impact, it is crucial to ask “who is in society?”. There are a variety of social groups, characterized by affluence, age, gender, education, and physical disability, with nearly identical expectations for technology. Everyone’s influence over technology and its impact is also far from equal. For example, companies with deep pockets often decide which technologies to invest in and adopt. Likewise, governments use regulations to determine the ease of access to technology and its use. The development of the software industry in India is a good example. Despite being the world’s largest exporter of software services, it has little expertise targeting less profitable local markets. It wasn’t until government policy expanded incentives that businesses began to consider “inclusive innovation” and “bottom of the pyramid” technologies.

Second, a technology is rarely effective on its own; instead, its impact depends on complementary technological and social conditions. Therefore, technologists seeking social impact must understand the performance of complements. For example, although the research of artificial intelligence (AI) originated in the 1950s, it has only become popular in the past decade as increasingly powerful and affordable hardware became available. Furthermore, if artificial intelligence now powers digital platforms like Uber or Swiggy, it’s only because smartphones are ubiquitous among last-mile “gig” workers providing services. But unfortunately, combining the two technologies to provide low-cost services is possible only because high levels of (un)employment in a legal vacuum with no regulatory protections force workers to accept poor wages.

Third, any assumption that pursuing new technologies or improving them to meet contemporary societal challenges will not create unforeseen challenges is wrong. Lord, it is important to gain a historical perspective. Learn how the past is littered with technological trajectories that spark new challenges or cause old ones to resurface. For example, the anxieties about cybercrime, privacy risks, and fake news that accompanied the communications revolution brought about by the Internet are strikingly similar to the anxieties that accompanied the spread of the telegraph in the 19th century. Not surprisingly, the telegraph has been dubbed the “Victorian Internet”. Kranzberg is likely to say: “The more technologies change, the more their effects remain the same.”

The author is a professor at the Centre for Information Technology and Public Policy (CITAPP) at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore.

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