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Deciphering the nexus of science, technology and society

Loknath Das February 11, 2020 Technology Comments Off on Deciphering the nexus of science, technology and society
Deciphering the nexus of science, technology and society

Professor Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard University

Professor Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard University has been described as the preeminent scholar on a relatively new genre of scientific inquiry — Science and Technology Studies (STS). Originally from Kolkata, but now an American citizen, Professor Jasanoff described STS as a field dedicated to the study of science and technology as institutionalized forms of human activity. But her work is much more than that. In an interview with DH’s Akhil Kadidal during her recent visit to Bengaluru, she said. “I have a liberationist mission. It’s to get people to become much more savvy inhabitants of a technological world.”

Can you tell us a bit about your background? 

I started teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. My undergraduate background was in mathematics, but I studied linguistics for a PhD. Immediately, this created a conflict because my husband is also a linguist. So, I went to law school and started working in an environmental law firm. After my husband’s job took us to Cornell University, I ended up becoming one of the founding figures in an emerging field called Science, Technology and Society (STS). But within that field, environment has continued to be one of my major interests.

There appears to be an idea in your thought that not all technological development is good. Is that accurate for me to phrase it that way?

I think that there is nothing that we do as human beings about which one can make a blanket statement that all is good or bad. For example, democracy is described as being all-good, but in its present state, democracy means majority rule. And the majority decides that it is unwilling to tolerate a religious minority in its midst. Is that a good democracy? I think that a better way of thinking about technology is not as black and white, yes or no, good or bad. A key question to ask is, of the set of shifts in our material world that a new technological innovation or an emerging technology makes, what are the beneficial and negative offshoots?

So, we need to pay close attention to the paradigm shifts that technology brings to everyday existence.

Have you heard about the “Trolley Problem”? It’s a philosophy problem about utilitarian ethics. It is a decision mechanism that gets you to choose between consequences that may both be bad. In this philosophical problem, we have a trolley going down the tracks where it splits into two paths. If it goes down one track, it will kill one person. If it goes down the second, it will kill five. So which way do you want it to go? People almost universally choose to sacrifice one person to save the other five. But there are new versions of the trolley problem that say, “Okay, supposing there’s only one track and down the track there are five people, but there’s a person standing on the bridge and if you push that person over, that person will fall in front of the trolley, the trolley will stop, and the five people will be saved?” It turns out that people do not wish to push this person off the bridge. But if you say to them, you can flick a switch, and a lever will eject the person, apparently, they say yes. This suggests that when technology is involved, it removes the feel of the moral choice. This is a dangerous feature of technology.

Do we see any such negative interfacing of technology?

We saw it recently on the world stage. Extra judicial killing of an adversary is one thing, but if you send in a drone, it looks different. I mean, even to the American people.

Moving on to environmental governance. This is relatively new to India in the sense that ordinary people haven’t necessarily had a stake in environmental governance. Do you have any insight to offer on this?

One reason that I work with people in India is that here, there has actually been a stronger history of mobilization. India had the Chipko movement in which people resisted tree-cutting in the Himalayan foothills. The phrase “tree-hugging” came out of that. There is also the Narmada movement, which didn’t stop the Narmada dam, but it had the effect of making the World Bank step away from those kinds of projects. The World Bank began a system of environmental assessment of its projects. This is even called the “Narmada Effect.” Even Bengaluru has had protests around questions of environmental governance, I mean, in particular against the steel flyover, and also around the protection of trees.

Can we expect to see greater environmental protections in the future?

Well, climate mobilization is certainly increasing, and we’ll see what happens in the 2020 US election. But even in the rich countries, people think that climate is somebody else’s problem, because that’s what the newspapers tell them to some extent.

You are saying the media is feeding misinformation?

It is not misinformation. It is the idea that the vulnerable will get hit more than the non-vulnerable. So, if you say that there will be massive loss of life in India, do Americans care? If you say Bangladeshis will be hit, do Indians care? Even if it’s right next door? We owe it to every human to act more responsibly. However, I have economics students who still believe in the fiction that if you get the GDP up, then the world can grow forever and the economy can grow forever.

Won’t green technology help alter the situation? 

On this trip, we visited the big solar power installation at Pavagada. I’d be very curious to see if any environmental assessment has been done. I was told that the solar panels themselves are seen as risk-free, and so nothing was done. However, there is an environmental cost of cleaning those panels.

So green technology is not 100% sustainable?

A solar panel is not going to be functional if it is not cleaned. These mega projects come with a “cradle to grave” consequences. Solar farms have a lifecycle of 25 years. But by that stage, new solar technology could be 20 times as efficient. What will happen to the ones that are already on the ground? It is a very static technology. And yet, it’s an installation that’s already built, it has already made massive changes in land use.


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