What About Technology And Development?

Humanity indeed finds itself embedded in a technological world. This is a world where human beings consume technology, and where technology in turn incorporates human identities. It shapes human interaction, and it shapes the future. There have been many unforeseen byproducts from the advancement of technology and technologic science. The nonplussing lack of “miracles,” and astounding strides in progress, for example, reveal the deep-seated complexities that arise from the dynamic relationships inherent to science, technology and human society. James Smith writes in his book Science and Technology for Development: Development Matters, that, “Society and technology are mutually constitutive.” The same is arguably true of technology and development at most any level now. 

Which Master Does Technology Serve?

tech_DVExamining the successful landing of the Mars rover (during the Mars Rover Exploration Mission) in August of 2012, is akin to pondering the imperial tour de force of some centuries ago. Politically and economically powerful nations sailed their great armadas, or naval fleets, so as to flaunt their technological and military prowess at would-be competitors. What one nation—the super-industrialized Untied States of America—achieved across a solar system, and on the surface of another planet, surely marked a new phase in the overall mastery of human technological capacity. It certainly marked a new era in international, military showboating. Whether or not the Curiosity rover operation seemed inherently political to the layperson, though, mattered little to embedded power; what the spectacle successfully demonstrated to would-be competitor nations was obvious enough. That the human reach effectively spanned a heuristically unknowable void (space) only to land on another planet was also, historically speaking, nothing short of astounding. 

Today, we see that the richest nations on planet Earth funnel unprecedented amounts of wealth into the research and development of technologies that will capacitate them to dominate spaces that far exceed the biosphere. Meanwhile, the global poor are continuously impoverished. For that matter, processes of foreign aid, along with development planning, cannot overcome the inertia of this self-evident truth. Just as capital is required to generate more capital, some even argue that it is many times easier to “help those who can help themselves,” rather than help the helpless. This especially encompasses technology. Nevertheless, asking whether enough really has been done for those who suffer most never ceases to be relevant. Though developing nations might resemble the working and living patterns of developed countries, they still contain the “non-modern sectors” that account for the overwhelming majority of the world’s citizens. In fact, in least-developed urbanizing states, living and working patterns are not only miserable, but as E. F. Schumacher notes, “in a process of accelerating decay.”

It is important to remember that capital is the product of human work, and unless technological advancements can also help engender work or job opportunities, there is little reason to hope for a truly radical and technic-inspired alteration to the looming specter of perpetual global misery for the marginalized. At times, such change seems unlikely to happen, especially given that development efforts remain focused on big cities where new industries are quick to emerge, and where finance and other markets can sustain them through kinds of economic mutual symbiosis. This cyclical boom continues to hinder certain types of production throughout the rural areas of developing countries, while at the same time accelerating migration from rural areas of misery to population centers that do not guarantee much more than homelessness and urban misery.

A Need to Examine Technology as Human Beings

The fact is, technological advancements have long contributed to human and political development. Technology has impacted physical spaces of human history as well as deeply psychological ones. It has even shaped revolution. For example, Ernesto “Che” Guevara wrote a letter to his children a half-century ago, instructing them to mature as good revolutionaries, and to study hard in order to “master technology, which allows [humans] to master nature.” Lewis Mumford, in his 1962 work, The myth of the machine: Technics and human development, wrote something reverberant of Guevara’s missive to his children. Mumford noted that, per “the relation of man to technics,” advancement from the “primeval state of man” is marked by the “invention of tools and weapons for the purpose of achieving mastery over the forces of nature.” This, argued Mumford, would push humanity toward “a radically different condition, in which he will have not only conquered nature, but detached himself as far as possible from the organic habitat.” 

Does human mastery of a habitat truly ring the bell of freedom and development, though? In 1958, German philosopher Hanna Arendt published her book The Human Condition. In her work, the philosopher addressed both “human condition” and “human nature.” The philosopher signaled space exploration in particular, and the mark it left on the general trajectory of human progress. Arendt made her distinction between the human condition and human nature yet apparent. She postulated that were humans to colonize the moon, or some other “planetary body,” the conditions under which humans lived would change; human nature, which is endogenous to the human being, however, would remain uncompromised. Wisely, her paradigmatic forecast did not preclude advancing technology from profoundly reshaping human existence. Thus it need not only send robots to Mars; it must fix earthly problems, too.  

The effects of the “unchanging human condition” and unceasing technological progress imbue development. This is a serious matter for consideration; it affects far-reaching policy and the consequences (intended and unintended alike) that technology has on development. Moreover, today’s ever-globalizing culture largely depends on technology in painfully obvious ways. There are even serious “recurring environmental and social ills” that technological progress has engendered. Those seeking public office often politick on contrived platforms that blindly links technical development with the furthering of human development and well-being. They unquestioningly associate innovations in technology with human salvation.

While the human being makes technology an endogenous part of everyday life and existence, technology has yet to receive perhaps a full philosophical inspection as to its existence. In fact, some of the best technological explorations of the philosophical significance came from Karl Marx (through the development of his history of historical materialism), and Martin Heidegger, who treated technology in his theory of ontology. Otherwise, technology arguably retains little in the way of enduring and important philosophical address. And although none would outright deny the significance and utility of technology given a half-decent comprehension of the human condition, technology arguably warrants a much greater inspection from all corners of humanity. The ethics alone cry for attention. 

Where Technology Might Do More

Large technological (socio-technical) systems might absolutely affect development for the better. This especially holds for focusing on the application of information and communication technologies (ICTs) via global efforts on international development in urban as well as rural areas. This not only challenges current methods for approaching and engendering development; it emphasizes the need for a newness of ideas, and new expertise, too. Moreover, to consider the Global South is especially imperative; there will be changes in major areas, especially in the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central, South, and South-East Asia. Exploring where technology can and will both further and foster change is critically important.

Richard Heeks, of the University of Manchester, states that we should ask “why we should give priority to ICTs application for the poor in developing countries.” Indeed, there are many very good reasons to do so. To start, the development of ICTs is largely oriented toward the wealthy and their demands. Maximizing revenue and marginalizing cost at such stressed junctures of supply and demand in the rich world cannot be arguably thought to outweigh the moral economy of approaching the useful advances that ICTs might propel in the most desperate and disparate corners of the world. Concerning global “megaproblems,” it is the world’s poor that bear the brunt of climate change, terror, conflict, disease, and resource depletion—not to mention, virtually half of the world’s denizens subsist on less than two dollars each day.

In addition, rich world elites should not forget about the staying power of enlightened self-interest. Unintended consequences of poverty include migration, terrorism, disease, etc. The fact remains that poverty lends itself to strife and misery that does not heed political boundaries. Also, there may arise prosperous markets among developing countries, as the poor are able to generate wealth for themselves and can purchase rich world goods and services. Though detractors cite how technologies do not pose nearly the promises that clean water or sanitation do for the poor, surely none argue, that technology is a substitute for water. Furthermore, development now requires “water and information,” as Heeks puts it.

The future is now, and the macro-response is most appropriate. It necessarily involves the economic, social, and political dimensions of human development, as well as technology. Whatever the area of human life, it will increasingly become more digital. Excluding the world’s poor from access to ICTs, as an example, will only further ensure their overall exclusion, and hamper development—an unforeseen consequence of ICT development itself. For that matter, some developing communities already prioritize ICT options to the same extent they prioritize essentials, such as water and sanitation. Thus, they should also have access to these technologies and the systems that sustain them. Technology, as an intrinsic part of development, should not only work for those who can launch it leagues beyond the biosphere, but it should also work for those who stand to most benefit from it.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border, writing for many alternative political newsletters and Web sites. He can be reached at: mateo.pimentel@gmail.com. Read other articles by Mateo.