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Techno-ethics: Dealing with ambivalence of advancements

Monday, 30 December 2002 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Jakarta Post, Year-end Edition, 30 December 2002

by Yanuar Nugroho

In the field of science and technology, globalization will contribute significantly to mark 2003 as the year when technological advancements would explicitly bring about ethical problems regarding most aspects of humanity. The whole history of human beings might be rerouted to new paths that we never would have imagined before.

At least three aspects would be affected extensively, thus raising new challenges for this globalized world.
First, the ability to change the molecular cell structures of individual human beings to alter who we are, will raise the knottiest questions of 2003, as Alun Anderson from New Scientist has predicted. The Human Proteomics Organization (HUPO), previously known as the Human Genome Organization (HUGO), was reported to have nearly completed mapping the human genome.

In related news, Reuters ran an article (Nov. 28, 2002) on Dr. Severino Antinori, an Italian fertility expert, who spoke at a press conference in Rome on Nov. 26 and revealed that one of his patients would give birth to a cloned baby in January 2003. He said that the cloned fetus was healthy and weighed roughly six pounds, and two others would soon follow. Many are skeptical of this news, however, as Antinori has not produced any evidence so that the case of these cloned babies remain entirely speculative.

Yet, let us assume that he is telling the truth and the cloned baby would be born in January. What, then, will this bring to our history as mankind? One of the problems starts here and obviously, will not stop here.

Second, Bill Gates has indicated 2003 as the starting point for the advancement of the so-called “ubiquitous computing era”, when humans will be surrounded by computers essential to almost every part of our daily lives.

Gartner Dataquest has provided information that the world computer industry shipped one billion PCs in 2002, and that another billion are expected to be built in Indonesia over the next six years starting next year. According to the World Bank, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) expenditures reached more than US$3.54 billion in 2002. Regarding the Internet, more than two million of the Indonesian population are Internet users, and this number will increase in 2003.

ICT is not just about PCs, though, and in 2003, the number of mobile phones worldwide (1.47 billion) will outstrip the landline (1.14 billion) for the first time. In Indonesia, the increase of mobile phone usage over the past seven years was also dramatic, with statistics rising from one mobile phone per 1,000 people in 1995, to more than 17 mobile phones per 1,000 people this year. Clearly, developments in ICT will keep changing the way people communicate and live.

However, the main ICT issue will stay the same: is it computation or communication? It is the long-standing issue of “privacy vs. piracy” — something difficult to assess.

mainlines-mobiles-per-1000-people.jpg pcs-per-1000-people.jpg

Source : ICT at a glance – Indonesia, The World Bank Report, 2002

Third, The Economist reports that the world’s first crop of genetically modified (GM) rice will be planted in paddy fields across China in 2003. In addition, over 150 million acres of transgenic crops will be grown worldwide in 2003 — most comprising soya beans, corn and cotton.

The beginning of genetically modified crops for general consumption can be trace to May 19, 1994, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) gave its final approval to Calgene, Inc. to put its genetically engineered tomato, the Flavr Savr, on the market. Flavr Savr had a gene added from a foreign source, a bacterium (or other), which is used to keep track of the genetic changes. Organisms of this sort are classified as transgenic, an organisms that contains gene(s) “transplanted” across biological boundaries between species or even biological kingdoms, such as the plant and the animal kingdoms.

Of course, as it can be foreseen even now, the progress in transgenic crop-farming in 2003 would raise more controversy not only among environmentalists and NGO activists, but also for bio-ethicists, regarding the “natural” or “non-natural” characteristics of such crops, especially when they are our source of food.

In the arena of GM food, the transgenic crop is merely the beginning: In 2003, milk from cloned cows will arrive on supermarket shelves once it passes USFDA testing, and cloned pigs will trot out in 2004, The Economist adds. This will escalate the debate, for sure.


Source: Freedonia, as quoted in The Economist, “The World in 2003 Edition”, December 2002

What do these advancements mean? What do they imply? What are the consequences?

First of all, we have reached the boundary at which we can no longer believe that science is a neutral, value-free quest for “Truth”. In 1962, Thomas Kuhn opened science to scrutiny as a social activity, but now the advancement of technology has become ambivalent and caused controversies.

In modern biology, it has opened the Pandora’s box of bioethics as to whether or not humans are “playing God”. Yet, the implications might differ from one to another.

On the one hand, as MSNBC News put it, the confusion about human cloning and its complicated ethical issues prompted the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to organize an international panel of scientists to discuss the technology and its possible direction. The panel was aimed at helping to decide whether the U.S. should impose a moratorium on human cloning, which the House of Representatives had voted to outlaw. Under the House bill, violations would be punishable by fines of $1 million or more and up to 10 years in prison.

On the other hand, the U.S. and a few other governments support the production of transgenic seeds, which can be argued as being basically no different from cloning humans, since in both cases, humans intervene in a natural process.

The market for GM crops will grow worldwide: $2.9 billion-worth of the seed will be sold in 2003 and is projected to rise to $3.8 billion by 2006. Once the USFDA gives its go-ahead for cloned animals to be served as food, the combined market of transgenic crops and cloned animals will grow even bigger — and the resistance to such foods would be seen instead as self-indulgence.

The tension between the U.S. policy and European labeling requirements for GM foods will clash when produce from GM crops will have already entered the European food chain in 2003.

Here we come to question: How are we to understand these contradictory stances to the same issues? Are the new genetic objects (cloned organisms and GM crops) a fatal invasion or a benign enrichment? Are they created for ill, or for good? They are, of course, scientific inventions which are aimed at improving our lives — but let’s not forget that they are also gems of profit.

A similar juxtaposition exists in issues of communication technology. With advancements in processor and computer manufacturing technology, the problems of ICT in the next year will, nonetheless, remain the broad arena of the “privacy vs. piracy” issue, inclusive of derivative issues such as software piracy, hacking, alternative operating systems (OS), wireless networks and computer viruses.

The area of ICT is a veritable battlefield, which does not look likely to clear any time soon: The fight between licensed OS (e.g. Microsoft Windows) and free open-sourced OS (e.g. GNU Linux) has become more salient; emulators (e.g. YahooPOPs) emulates, or hacks, the webmail of Yahoo! so that users can download e-mail free-of-charge; and peer-to-peer (P2P) technology over the Internet (e.g. Kazaa, IMesh, Grokster and WinMX) have replaced the well-known Napster. It is through such battles that ICT will play a more and more important role in raising the awareness and consciousness of society, particularly in terms of a global culture, global identity and global lifestyle.

Yet, it is not a one-way process. As long as Linux is still considered an enemy of Microsoft Windows, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) a competitor to Intel Corp, YahooPOPs a hacker of Internet applications for Yahoo!Mail, and IMesh a thief of online entertainment, there still exists another battle: It is the battle between the mainstream and the alternative, and while the latter is unlikely to be known to as broad an audience as the former, it still provides more choices for us, the users.

Now we might confront one of the most intractable problems since science & technology are being utilized, used and exploited as it is incorporated into the pure logic of profit-seekers, that is, business. If the power of business in this storm of neo-liberalism is beset by the problem of democratic unaccountability, then we can figure out why the issue on the public accountability of science is more urgent than is admitted by most false prophets of science. This is the center of techno-ethics — ethics for technological advancement.

Technological advancements must be subject to the criteria of democratic accountability. Otherwise, what happens is precisely disaster since technology is both a locus and an extension of power. The issue of accountability concerns the ethical implications of the exercise of knowledge, i.e., technological knowledge as power. Thus, techno-ethics is not simply about putting users before the experts, but rather in either the experts or in the way technology has been exploited by business power.

The notion of the “neutrality” of science and technology is only true insofar as both are separated from their exercising agents — which is impossible. Science is neither about demonstrations by experts nor is it for the sake of market expansion for pure profit accumulation, but about dialogue among stakeholders.

Welcome to the ambivalent advancement of technologies in 2003. Don’t be confused.

The writer is the Executive Director of the Business Watch Indonesia, lecturer at Sahid University, Surakarta and researcher at Uni Sosial Demokrat Jakarta

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