Understanding the coupling between technology, business
The Jakarta Post, 7 October 2002 – OPINION & EDITORIAL
Let us consider these three facts. First, Nokia has just released its newest type of mobile: The 7650. It is not only a mobile phone, but also has a built-in camera, an internet interface and a personal digital assistant. Amazing and sophisticated. Some (if not many) people will fall over heels to get their hands on this latest product.
The International Data Corporation estimates that shipments of image-enabled handheld devices will jump from 610,000 units in 2002 to 11 million in 2006 (IDC, August 2002).
The second fact: James Morris, head of the United Nations Food Agency says that if Zambia wants the UN’s help to feed its starving population, it would have to accept donations of genetically modified food. It is impossible, he adds, to expect that the World Food Program can provide the resources to feed these starving people without using food that has some biotech content.
In the face of resistance against genetically modified food, another fact is presented: 280 million Americans eat GM food everyday and it has been certified as safe, and has become inevitable for millions of people (The Jakarta Post, Aug. 26).
Lastly, from 1975 to 1996, 1,223 new kinds of medicines were developed, but only 13 genres were designed to cure deprived people of major tropical diseases. The biggest portion of production costs was allocated for research into cosmetics, obesity and other beauty-related medicines (The Economist, Nov. 10, 2001).
These three facts tell us that the power of money, and a vast amount of it, makes everything possible — apart from the technological progress that makes life easier, or makes us wealthier or healthier.
In the case of Nokia (or Siemens or Ericsson, etc), consumers are “victimized” in a manner that is concealed by the orthodoxy of the “market”. Such technologies, which have a short life cycle, are made psychologically obsolete long before they actually wear out.
Examine the psychological life cycle of a Nokia 6210 for instance. Once the 8210 or newer series like the 7650 is released on the market, the 6210 becomes obsolete shortly after. But who cares? That is how the market works, isn’t it?
As for GM food, hiding behind the sacred mission to bridge the gap between the linear availability of food and the exponential growth of population, business worth millions of dollars is being generated.
Since the Flavr Savr, the first ever GM food released in 1994, our world has been flooded by biotech foods. Some have started to raise concerns about the inherent, long-term consequences of those genetically modified organisms for our health and environment.
Others worry that genetic modification technology will be used irresponsibly, leading to the marginalization of many people. But such concern are swept away by business interests, which hide everything behind the screen filming of GM food or organisms, arguing that the “market” needs them.
The story of the medical discoveries is ironic when it merges with money in the third case. In 1998, out of the total budget of US$70 billion allocated for research conducted by the giant pharmaceutical corporations, only $300 million (0.43 percent) went on AIDS vaccine research and $100 million (0.14 percent) for malaria medicine research. Of course, this is because the “market” for beauty clinics is significantly higher, which affects the rate of capital accumulation of the producers.
Is this how technology works nowadays within the “market system”? Not really, but some explanations can be proposed. First, there are always tensions in technological advancement. One source of tension is “Luddism”, the attempt to hold back the advance of technology itself. Meanwhile the “technophile” worships technology, seen as the only way of improving human prosperity. On both sides of this contradiction, the workings of capital seems entirely forgotten.
Thus comes the second issue, that of accountability when technology becomes married to business interests (or vice versa), resulting in technological and business power practices. Why? It concerns the ethical implications of both the exercise of “knowledge” and “the market”. However, often the power lies in technological knowledge. Power in itself is neutral, though it is often abused.
Third, the question of whether the technology of genetic modification (or mobile phones, etc) must be accountable to the public is rather misleading, for certainly it must be. Science and technology must be subjected to the criteria of democratic accountability — or we may expect an environmental disaster.
Science and technology are both a locus and a form of power. The “neutrality” of science and technology is only true insofar as both are separated from their exercising agents — which is impossible.
Thus, understanding the coupling between technology and business is extremely important to know what is really going on in our society. Two points might come to mind here.
First, we must no longer take the view that all types of power are evil. There remains a type, or some types, of power that are legitimate: Those which are accountable to the public purpose.
And who is the public? Here the problem of agency in the exercise of technology arises. Since technology is the domain of “experts”, the public are all laypersons, non-experts. So how can the ignorant demand accountability in respect of processes about which they are ignorant?
The answer lies not in science and technology — but rather in the scientific and technological experts, and in the way science and technology have been exploited, or “utilized”, by business power.
Second, now we can see one of the most intractable problems surrounding the marriage between the powers of finance and technology. Science and technology, which can be neutral, are being used and exploited through incorporation into the logic of pure profit-seeking (i.e., business).
If business power in this storm of neo-liberalism is beset by democratic unaccountability, then it’s clear why public accountability in respect of technological practices is more urgent than admitted by most the false prophets of technology.
This may involve a psychological issue first before an economic one. The ingenious advance of the market within the neo-liberal system means that it infiltrates the way people value things by embedding the criteria of “pleasure-prestige-status-luxury”. And technology just makes it more deeply implanted. In a way, technology just serves the market, doesn’t it?
It is not that this principle is wrong, but that its pursuit is most often being carried out to the detriment of others. “Individualism is perfectly human,” says one of the mobile phone commercials. Here we might question the values that technology brings in its wake when it becomes married to business.