Must we (still) become a bio-tech nation?

Technology is artifact. Artifacts have creators. Creators are people. And people have politics. Where will technological determinism as ideology be if we could name the shadows on the wall of the cave?

Azly Rahman

Sometime ago, at the height of the Abdullah Administration's fascination with bio-technology, I wrote this piece below. Now the present government is renewing its interest in "bio-technologizing" Malaysia. Do we understand the philosophy of science and public policy, in an age of dependency and borrowing, appropriating, and imitating that displaces local culture and endangers the environment?


The brand name for the current administration, besides ‘Towering Malays’ is ‘Bio-Tech Malaysia

’. This is to give a brand new national-ideological identity to replace the previous regime’s economic branding in the name ‘Info Tech’ Malaysia, symbolically architectured in the landscape of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC).

But are we generating public discourse on the issue of technology and social change, and inquire into the fundamental nature of technology as a shaper and reformer of social relations of production? Have we carefully analysed who the global owners of the means of developing, deploying, and domesticating technology are, and who benefits from the ‘glocalisation’ of high-tech, at the expense of those at the receiving end?

Do we understand the ‘scientistic’ or ‘pseudo-scientistic’ language of this new wave in economic development? What do these new names, for instance, of ‘designer-genes of agro-business’ crops mean to the farmer in Sik, Kedah or Tambun Tulang, Perlis? How do they participate in the dialogue that will impact their livelihood? Will they remain as vulnerable and as silent as they have been, since the times of the Malay feudal economic system hundreds of years before the advent of Bio-Tech Malaysia?

Are we not aware of the stories of how genetically-altered crops are a threat to the environment? Do we no study reports coming from the advanced nations concerning the ethics of bio-technology? Are members of the proposed International Advisory Panel wise enough to see into the Malaysian future? Can they predict what will happen when a nation embraces the ideology of technological determinism, such as in the case of large scale transformations in the past: agricultural economies of scale, industrialisation, high-tech informational industries, and now bio-technology?

Is there not at all a raging debate amongst the natives in Malaysia, among our esteemed professors in the academic circles, among public intellectuals, among leaders of grassroots movements, among advocates of participatory democracy, and progressive opinion leaders of the urgent need to debate on the topic: should we or should we not bio-technologise? What ever happened to our modernisation process? Whatever is happening to our understanding and remedies of digital divide? What are we trying to achieve with this new global-local-corporate venture called bio-tech?

We ought to, as a nation, be worried. We ought to have a national debate on ‘dependency’. We must explore what modern-day dependency means. We must have our politicians read Paul Baran, Immanuel Wallerstein, Johann Galtung, Andre Gunder Frank, Christopher Chase Dunn, or even Che Guevara and Paulo Freire in order to understand the structural violence we will continue to create in the name of economic development. But we must explore this question: what is technology and how does it change social relations of production?

"Our Frankenstein"

We need to clearly articulate our relationship with technology. Is technology under our control? Or are we in fact controlled by it? We need to learn how to situate technology with the life we ought to live. We need to understand the periods in our history in which we uncritically adopt technology, transfer expertise, accept foreign aid – all in the name of development and modernisation.

In the 1950s, we hailed the sewing machine as an invention of wonder, albeit its role in displacing the human person and its function as an instrument of mechanical production which then breeds among others, high fashion. We imported this technology.

In the 1960s we looked in awe as the Caterpillar machine bulldozed its way through our padi fields, at the height of the introduction of new grains such a padi Appollo (even this name is ideological and sounds fantastic) and at the height of technology transfer from the Robert McNamara’s World Bank. We imported this ideology.

In the 1970s, we transformed the national economies into large scale agricultural industries under the Felda scheme, in the overall scheme of developmentalist economy orchestrated by the World Bank.

In the 1980s, we set up Free Trade Zones and micro-chip assembling factories and invited the migration of predominantly young Malay girls, the Minah Karan to become the new indentured servants who were in mental servitute to the corporate greed of the local and international Info Tech manufacturing elite.

In the 1990s we designed a large scale real estate project, the MSC, and build the largest airport in Southeast Asia, so that the international corporate elites can easily land on our shores, make as much money as they can, and fly off to their paradise that are beyond the control of their own national governments.

Radical changes

We marvel at the power Artificial Intelligence has upon Human Reason and Aesthetic consciousness, albeit its historical development which can be traced back to the womb of the Pentagon. Excitedly, like a child given a new high-tech gadget, we institutionalise radical changes that transformed and continue to transform our lives through the MSC project. We invited the richest man in the world to advise us and to help make his corporation richer. We institutionalised this fantasy.

The computers at our desks, scientific calculators our kids in school play with – Pokemon, Giga Pets, MP3s, Playstation, GPS systems, the Internet – all these are among the spin-offs we get from the Pentagon. Recall that the computers we developed out of the Pentagon's need for Control Command Communication and Intelligence (C3I), and the Internet is developed out of DARPANET, a Defense Department project to link five computers so that they can be intelligent enough to guide missiles. But, we celebrate its ‘neutrality’.

We blindly adopt technology as the engine of growth and as agents of personal, social, and cognitive change, there is the strong tone of technological determinism and hypism which seem to be present and unanalysed. We call the leaders of our nation ‘captains of industry’.

We do not know how to explore the ideology of technological determinism. We simply let it colonise our thinking.

Technoloy is ideology

Jim Carrey, historian of technology, proposed that technology and ideology is one and one which goes beyond merely discourse. Technology shapes consciousness, directs human affairs, transform systems, displaces liberatory ideals, cancerise metaphysical space, rapes our will to become more cultural and communal, and places us on the pedestal of conspicuous consumption.

Virtual reality technologies locate us at the portal of virtual capitalism. Bio-technology is another phase in the march of technological fantasy – that the world will get better and better with these newer toys and games to play. The mutated genes gets into our agricultural environment possibly creating killer weeds, possibly carcinogenising the food we eat and possibly cancerising more and more cells with which we live.

When issues of technology, ideology, and fantasy – all these are taken together as critical analysis of what technology is there is a sense of hopelessness. Here is one example: Technology of arms production is techniques borne out of the quantification and systematisation of the human creativity gone berserk, devoid of moral conscience, let alone availed of a deep sense of reflectivity on the fate of generations ahead. How do ideas colonise us and how do our politicians continue to import and impose these ideas onto the people who are vulnerable to these social changes? The answer may lie in hegemony.

In between our natural self and the world we inhabit lies ‘spaces of knowledge and power, as Michel Foucault says. This space alienates human beings and create ‘habituses’ of people. We are moving into another phase of developmentalism: the Age of Bio-Tech Malaysia. But what is it all about and how do we test its long-term impact on society?

"Technological determinism"

American Historian David Nobel in America by Design wrote extensively on the role of these corporations and the kinds of research and development, which have characterised not only the way science developed but also how it has affected public policy.

David Nye's story of electrification of America is also a story of the Internet as it colonises public sphere and brings with it the ideology that “technology is neutral and devoid of human constitutive interests”. In essence, I propose that technological determinism is an ideology itself which masks the human actors, the corporations, and those involved in the production, reproduction, coding, signaling, symbolising – and mystifying the masses.

Only a radical critique of ideology, an Ideologiekritik as Jurgen Habermas says – a cognitive praxis which contains the analysing of knowledge claims vis-a-vis human constituted interest might be a starting point in looking at these claims; claims such as one made by Nicholas Negroponte or Digital Gurus who roam the earth in search of nations to digitise.

Are we imitating the Western mind? Are we becoming too logical, too rationalising, too relativising, and too scientistic to see the qualitative dimension of Nature from an eco-philosophical perspective? I suspect so – based on the educational system we have built for our nation and based on the nature of human capital revolution we have engineered with the help of outside colonisers. Or are we doomed to perpetually engineer and plan destruction so that the human ecosystem can continue to be infiltrated by genetically-modified crops that will mutate and carry consequences against what the natural world is designed to accommodate?

Technology is artifact. Artifacts have creators. Creators are people. And people have politics. Where will technological determinism as ideology be if we could name the shadows on the wall of the cave?

Let us gather our own homegrown intellectuals together with the leaders of our grassroots movement and enlightened and rakyat-friendly NGOs to debate on this issue, so that the new discourse on development will not be dominated by the members of the International Advisory Panel.

Let the rakyat speak. Let them speak, in their own language, of the meaning of appropriate technology and available resources that do not alienate them and create bigger spaces of knowledge and power between the have and the have-nots, between the powerful and the powerless.

We are fundamentally an organic nation – not a genetically-altered polity.

While the opinion in the article is mine,
the comments are yours;
present them rationally and ethically.