Category Archives: STS

Bridging Nature and Humanity

I personally find it quite strange to think of humans as apart from nature and vice versa, but after many interactions with people who think otherwise, it seems that I’m in a minority. If evolution is to be believed, we as a species (Dawkins would say individuals!) have evolved mechanisms to improve our survival rate, to the extent that we are now the most dominant species in terms of geographical reach and resource use.

However, our genes seem to have forgotten to encode limiting behavior, atleast with respect to resource utilization, which would enable us to live sustainably. Therefore, we have to resort to non-biological notions like stewardship and animal rights to keep ourselves in check. From where such notions arise, one really does not know. Nevertheless, questions in ethics, epistemology and ontology have interested us as much as questions in physics, math or chemistry.

Ancient scholarship, both Western and Eastern, never viewed either category as seperate from the other and, to quote a friend, did both physics and metaphysics. It is only recently that our world view has taken a schizophrenic turn, looking at billiard balls using differential equations (bottom-up) and guiding human behavior using teleology (top-down). It has been notoriously hard to reconcile these world views and thus each developed practically independent of the other.

No doubt, there have been attempts by one to encroach upon the other’s turf. Dawkins and like minded compatriots went one way, while the Christian Right in USA and Astrology try going the other. All in all, it seems unlikely that one or the other will have total dominance anytime in the near future.

Thus we are stuck with quarks on the one hand and The Goal Of Human Life on the other. For example, mainstream economics ignores nature by invoking the Axiom of Infinite Substitutability (One kind of good can always be substituted for another, thanks to human ingenuity), so if rainforests go, then we can always conjure up something to take its place. Marxist thinking takes the view that all human development is the result of economic processes, so trees and animals don’t even merit a mention – they are simply unimportant as far as human society’s development goes. On the other hand, we have climate models which put in a large amount of CO2 into the model atmosphere and see how things change, as though humans are just passive CO2 emitters who cannot recognize calamities and adapt their behavior (This seems ominously probable nowadays!). Each approach has value, no doubt, but it is obvious that neither economics nor climate modelling can actually solve the problems we face today.

One solution is for people with different outlooks to sit down and reach a consensus. My last experience with such an experiment was not very encouraging, and the recent spat between Rajendra Pachauri and Jairam Ramesh did nothing to to encourage anyone about interactions between politicians and scientists, I’m sure. The other solution, of which one is more optimistic, is for researchers to break  the new barriers and go back to a world view where one can engage with physics and metaphysics without being called a witch-doctor. Natural and social sciences are ripe for such a synthesis — we have finally reached a state where our metaphysics (explicit or otherwise) is affecting the earth’s chemistry and biology, maybe even the physics: while I don’t think we can change the Gravitational Constant anytime soon, but a few thermonuclear warheads here and there could change g=9.8 m/s2 to something substantially smaller!

Little known but impotant steps towards such a synthesis are being seen — ecological economics is bound to be mainstream before we kill ourselves, social ecology is bound to be important in the future too. Scientists seem to be getting more comfortable doing politics outside their institutions and politicians are learning some thermodynamics, thank heavens. The principle of  learning two subjects well, one closer to quarks and the other closer to the God side of the spectrum of human thought will serve researchers well in the future. Oh, and present day economics does not count on either side of the spectrum.

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.