Home / Opinion / The paradox of progress

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" are the opening words of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale Of Two Cities. They describe the mood of people in France and England when revolutions against the old order brewed in Europe in the 18th century. “Paradox Of Progress" is the title of a report by the US National Intelligence Council in January 2017. The paradox is that while humanity has experienced the best few decades in history, with billions lifted out of poverty, there is increasing unrest in many nations. While people have more freedom from poverty, and more political freedoms than they have ever had before, they are rising against the liberal-democratic ideology that should be given credit for the remarkable global achievements of the last half-century.

There is rarely a single cause for the confusions that disrupt societies. Novelists like Dickens, and historians, provide insights into the forces that have shaped societies. Philosophers, observing the deep forces within societies, often express their concerns for the future. 1984, George Orwell’s grim novel published in 1949, warned that states would use technology for surveillance and control of citizens. Before him, in 1932, Aldous Huxley had foreseen an even more dystopian world, in his novel Brave New World, in which technology would be used to satiate the material needs and to sedate the minds of citizens. In this world, citizens would become mere consumers, without minds of their own, easily manipulated by owners of the technologies.

Complex chemicals are created by combinations of many components. And, as chemical engineers know well, catalysts, that form no part of the equation itself, can accelerate complex chemical processes. Social unrest is produced by combinations of frustrated aspirations, anger against injustice, and inadequacy of governance institutions. Technology, though it takes no sides, can be a potent catalyst, speeding up ferments of sociopolitical change.

Digital technologies have advanced beyond the imaginations of Orwell and Huxley. Computers, intelligent machines, and robots will soon be able to displace human beings in almost any activity. What work human beings will do in the future, and how they will earn to pay for all the goods and services machines will produce for them, have become burning questions for policymakers. Moreover, in a world of interconnected digital devices, what human beings do and even what they think can be easily tracked by corporations and states. Both Orwell and Huxley were champions of human freedom. Both warned that if societies were not careful, technology would be used to deprive human beings of their freedoms. Orwell was mostly concerned with the loss of political freedom. Huxley had a deeper concern that humans would lose their individuality and freedom to think for themselves.

Rapid advances in digital, computational and communication technologies are beginning to have profound impacts on democratic societies. One is intrusion into citizens’ privacy, along with the power of surveillance these technologies give to states and other actors. Another is the concern with the right to free speech that is being misused by trolls, hate-mongers, and other anti-social elements on social media to create an uncivil society. The third is an increasing concern that the algorithms used by social media’s platform managers have become an insidious interference with citizens’ freedom to listen.

Increasingly, smart algorithms know “who" each person is and give each person exactly what she wants. They nudge people towards advertisements of products and towards opinions and news that people “like". The efficiency of social media algorithms is a boon for advertisers and sellers, and for political campaigners too. Undoubtedly, the efficiency of algorithms makes life easy for consumers. They need not search too far to get what they want. The problem is that while people get more and more of the “same", they become more isolated from people who do not think like them. They no longer hear those across the walls of the boxes into which algorithms have put them. Thus, social media is accelerating divisiveness in societies just when, in an increasingly global world, we must learn to live together harmoniously.

The paradox of the Internet is that, theoretically, it should expand human freedoms, enabling people to listen to anyone anywhere. In practice, it has increased the power of states and other owners of technology to snoop on everyone everywhere. Meanwhile, citizens are losing their ability to listen to people with different views. Huxley feared that in such a world, people would become less human. People in such a world, he said, “will cherish the illusion of individuality, but in fact they have been deindividualized. Their individuality is developing into something like uniformity".

“Uniformity and freedom are incompatible", he emphasized.

In the final analysis, technology is neither the solution, nor the problem causing the present disharmony in the world. As said before, technology is only a catalyst, albeit a potent one. The causes of unrest go deeper into the psyche of society. When some feel they never had it so good, as the upper-crust beneficiaries of globalization do, while others are denied their dignity and suffer injustice too, there will be upheavals, as Dickens had described. The solution lies in further improvement of institutions of genuinely democratic governance. This is the unfinished agenda of the French Revolution and Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful march for freedom for all Indians.

India’s development agenda must go much deeper than digitization of the government and the economy. Institutions must be built for citizens’ participation in governance, in villages and cities. Aspirational India has become a cliché. India’s youth aspire for more than smartphones. They want dignified work, and respect for their communities, in Kashmir, the North-East, and in the tribal heartlands too. Technology will not hold India together. Listening to, and respect for, “people not like us" will.

Arun Maira served in the erstwhile Planning Commission.

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