Technology, Education, Innovation and All That

I was having a discussion, online, with someone who's opinions I have huge respect for.

It is sad that machines and automation are seen as a sign of indulgence or decadence. Machines are a great big social welfare mechanism. If machines are not used as tools, weaker or meeker people of society get used as tools. I'd rather have a society where people build machines which in turn work for the society, than people becoming machines or compromise on their individuality for the sake of survival.

It was a good point of view, one that viewed automation, technology as a deliverer of improved standards of living, democracy, equity. And yes, it can do all of that. But my instinct said that it could be used exactly in the opposite way as well, and much of industrial history has been about that!

Got me thinking.

If, in the last couple of centuries, innovations, education and technology have gotten us here, they must share the responsibility of our current state. Yes, they're all tools and finally what we do with the tools matters, but it remains true that certian tools have made certain behaviours easier.

We have more *things*. We have a better shot at fighting disease in a short term way. We're overall eating unhealthier food, and breathing worse air, and its likely have a much higher incidence of cancer and the like than earlier. Land, the oceans and fresh water sources are more polluted, and access to these is limited to way fewer than ever before. Monetary systems dictate the value of effort and produce, not represent them, and as a result, economic power has shifted and more and more have lesser and lesser time for everything, despite appliances which "save time". Something's not right.

I believe that the "why" and "what" of education needs a massive overhaul, but for now will restrict myself to technology.

Technology does liberate the individual. But I suspect this is truer in regions of low population density and attendant prosperity and plentifulness - where freeing up one's time/effort enables more production and pursuit of higher level goals and desires. In a high population density area, it becomes a tool in the hands of those who have access to capital and technology, and exploitation follows. Case in point - the workers in manufacturing are more educated and skilled today than a couple of decades ago, but relatively make much lesser because organizations have used automation to not only reduce the overall need for humans, but use it as a bargaining tool as well. There's no "fair".

Technology also dumbs down the workforce, moves innovation and "research" into labs and organized pusuit of the same. As an example, farming was very human dependent and there was a continuous effort in improving techniques, experimentation that varied with geography, crops, changing weather patterns and farmers not only built up knowledge, but continuously added to it. The same went for farmer driven seed improvement. The knowledge was owned by the community, and evolved all the time. 

Machines and technology, from the user's pov, "freeze" knowledge at a specific level at a specific time. The next iteration/improvement then needs to come from "the lab" (Monsanto's seeds are a good example). Farming thus becomes more menial and we start justifying lower and lower returns because its not a "knowledge enabled industry". 

(I just got back from a village where everyone has a job and very fertile fields next to a river lie untilled.)

Its not that technology, or education itself is to blame. Its what we do with it, and use it for. But its undeniable that overall, its not necessarily been a positive force. Its moved value to a few, reduced practical innovation, helped the same few control the innovation and over-exploit a few resources to their advantage. We need a serious rethink of all these for a more sustainable, a more holistic and fundamentally democratic, equitable and stable society. 

This ain't really working too well.



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