Category Archives: alternate development

TGC: Reflections

There was a workshop in IIM-B on Technology, Governance and Citizenship whose description can be read from the former link, rather than reiterating it here. It was, upfront, one of the most varied spectrum of people I have ever come across, ranging from technocrats to art curators and everything in between. A most varied set of people, with a common agenda to understand the dialogues between science, technology and society, and their implications especially in government and governance. The group was very talkative and this resulted in very interesting discussions about how to make politics more scientific and science more political. Since the time I wanted to do interdisciplinary studies in and around science and technology, STS was pointed to as an alternative, and this was a golden opportunity for me to see the whole spectrum of personalities and find at which frequency I resonate. Call it an ethnographic study of sorts, if you like.

One of the main points which kept persistently creeping into discussions was about how STS was not being political enough and why was this and what could be done to resolve this issue. We never managed to find any satisfactory answer to this unfortunately, but I now wonder whether you can find one. One of the organisers lamented that people turn out in numbers to listen to technologists but not to social scientists. Well, people do listen to economists and psychologists, and put their money where their ear is. Sociology and humanities seem to be out of fashion, more likely. But this disconnect is pretty much present and something needs to be done to bridge the gap. It was not always the case that sociologists were apolitical, however. Durkheim, Weber, Russell and Marx are prime examples.( Russell could be called a mathematician, but he was a trenchant critic of society) As any line of thinking matures and becomes a ‘formal’ discipline, such behavior seems to curiously disappear.

One set of behavior patterns that seemed to emerge, however, was the insouciance of the technocrats in implementing technological solutions (“Science is obviously the answer to all problems”, to paraphrase one of them) and the deliberate, measured attempt at doing nothing by the academicians (“Academicians have never achieved anything”, “It is better to watch from the sidelines”) If there was a feeling that people are too ‘boxed-in’ to ever reach out to the other, it was probably because the fault lay on both sides of the divide. Technologists want to do something, and the academicians ostensibly hesitate to, and because of this hesitation technologists dismiss their work as impotent and irrelevant, which is obviously not the case. It is not that technologists slept through all the social scientists discussions. There was a (sociological) post-mortem of an Online Complaint Management System that made one of them request for details for help in implementation of future systems with similar function. Thus, there seems to be some areas of common interest and one must characterize them. At the opposite end, an activist, Leo Saldahna (do read their report on the home page about BMIC), was enthusiastic about implementing District level governance, and an academician commented that in theory, deliberative democracy has been discounted and wondered aloud whether it was just a lot of hype. Intrigued by this comment, I further enquired about this over lunch, and realised that they were talking about two very different things. But making such sweeping ‘theoretical’ statements would just increase the disconnect, since field workers won’t enthusiastically support things that don’t work, and Leo does not come across as a dumb bunny.

Another situation commonly encountered is that sociologists are hesitant to comment about ongoing situations, since they are unsure of what the effects will be. Highly justified. But for a fieldworker, this information is potentially very useful. This brings out a distinction between theories in natural and social sciences: Natural scientists make models to predict future behavior, and social scientists build models for reasons I’m not entirely sure about. In other words, I have no idea why they do it other than for analytical purposes, but they do not analyse rapidly changing situations and come to make decisions, for reasons given above. At the height of the Narmada agitation, I wonder how many people were analysing the situation in terms of post-colonialism or neo-imperialism or epistemic violence perpetrated on the displaced tribals, and how many were talking about future ecological damage and predicting future power generation capabilities and resettlement of displaced tribals. My feeling is the latter group was bigger.

About characterization of common areas of interest, they seem to be more the case-study kind of work rather than the theoretical ones. This reminds me of the only STS related book that I have read, by Bruno LaTour. It is about a method of doing sociological research called Actor-Network-Theory and the Online Complaint Management case seemed to me to be an example of a social situation described as an Actor-Network. The irony is that this methodology originated in STS, and there were very few papers which even mentioned it(One, if my memory serves me right). LaTour castigates sociology for using models which black-box potentially useful information, and for putting words into people’s (people/group under study) mouth, and this phrase (put words into my mouth) came up atleast twice during heated discussions. One wonders whether this inclination is endemic to sociologists. ANT seems like a very promising approach, but as LaTour tries to keep models and the attendant polysyllabic words out of an analysis, it might not help to publish too many papers.

A dissonant voice among ‘elegant’ theoretical discussions was that of Ashwin Mahesh, who consistently spoke of asking questions whose answers are self-evident, which clarifies discussions, and most of the questions being asked at the forum were ‘too large’. While I agree that solutions (what needs to be done) become self-evident, an argument must be made that implementation of solutions (how it needs to be done) may not be all that clear, and will require some ‘theory’ to back normative judgement. This is where, at last analysis, my opinion about the place of social sciences in the wider arena of developmental activity lies.

Lastly, the question of doing something. The answer may lie in two ethical theories: Mill’s argument that none know the whole truth and therefore must not impose one’s views onto others, and Gandhi’s argument that one must hold steadfast by one’s moral attitudes and be an example to others. An even more explicit, simpler statement was made by a person I know: “You have to do what will make you happy. If you can ensure that it is non-destructive, nothing like it. If you cannot, too bad, but do it anyways (since nature is a cycle of creation and destruction)”. Well, doing what makes one happy is a very difficult task indeed, if one thinks about it, but this statement explains both the attitudes of the technologist and the sociologist and does not place either on a pedestal.

Travelogue – The Timbaktu Collective

Like I had mentioned in the previous post, am just back from a visit to a place close to Dharmavaram in Andhra Pradesh, called the Timbaktu Collective. It’s beginnings and philisophy are best read about on the website itself, will just narrate my experiences there.

After 2 hours by train to Bangalore and 5 hours of navigating somewhat substandard roads to Chennekothapalli, was picked up and packed off for some lunch at the school run by the Collective here.

The school has an interesting philosophy of no competition and no extracurriculars. No competition would mean no grading and exams and rankings, student progress is monitored via worksheets that they fill up regularly. No extracurriculars simply means that everything is in curriculum! They have daily crafts, singing and other arts, sports and studies which mainly focus on language and math. Their idea is that if a student masters a language well, then learning knowledge in that language will be facilitated. Most of the students here are from socially and economically backward backgrounds, and some with a history of family violence and others who have been rejected as failures in the local government school.

This is the only school that I have seen that actually encourages making paper rockets in class! The picture alongside is the classroom, The students being engaged in their song and dance practice.
Close by is a children’s learning centre, with a well furnished library, computers, tailoring machines, physics and chemistry labs, woodworking tools which the children not only of their own school, but the local government school as well can use. The only restriction is that there is no teaching here, if the students have doubts, they ask the elders present, else they essentially freak out in what which way they like.

The photo alongside is the students learning centre.
Timbaktu is slightly outside the village, and the person you see with the vehicle in the children’s learning centre, Mr. Subba Raju was my official guide and contact. A member of the Collective almost since its inception, he is a PhD in Power Systems from IIT Powai, and takes care of the educational initiatives here.

Playground, with a scenic view.

The reason I had visited Timbaktu was to demo a motion sensor based lighting system, like what is available commercially nowadays. They have installed LED based pathway lighting, which is left on the whole night. Considering that they run the whole Collective on solar power, anything that can cut consumption is welcome, and hence my proposal.

This is Subba Raju’s house in Timbaktu. Like everything else in Timbaktu, appropriate to the social, economic and environmental conditions found in this area, which boasts of being one of the driest places in Andhra Pradesh, with annual rainfall of 300mm. We reached at around 5 PM, and spent the rest of the evening demoing the system, as well as discussing LED lighting. After a great dinner which was well suited to my tastes (salty, not too spicy), talked a bit about how civilization is progressing and other miscellaneous heavy matters, and dropped off by round 10 PM to rest.

Another incredible initiative of the Collective has been the protection and regeneration of the forests around. The forests have been severely degraded due to forest fires, over grazing and wood-cutting. 15 years of protection have allowed Nature to regenerate the forests, unlike Forest Dept initiatives to bring in fast growing varieties from nurseries and plant them in foreign conditions. The contrast can be seen in the following photos. One is of a hill which is not protected and the other which is. Timbaktu takes care of an area of about 100 acres of forest, and supported an initiative of joint village ownership of forests on revenue wastelands which spans a mind-boggling 10,000 hectares. These forests have made streams perennial, revitalized the economy of artisans and forest produce harvesters as well as providing the local animals with shelter.

I left back for the other kind of reality the next day morning. On the whole, a very refreshing experience, with the added bonus of a kilo of really tasty chutney powder which was made that morning. Timbaktu is an interesting experiment to seek alternate forms of social organisation which are not necessarily parasitic upon the surrounding ecology. Though it will remain an experiment for atleast a few more decades, time will come when the lessons learnt here will be taken seriously by ‘advanced’ civilizations such as ours. Their entire outlook can be summarised by the next photo. As you might have guessed, this is the same stone that says ‘Welcome to Timbaktu’. You will see this on the way back.