Technology & Ethics: Negotiating with challenges in Modern World
Recently I was invited to deliver a talk at my alma mater, National Institute of Engineering (NIE), Mysuru to a group of students and faculty from the Department of Computer Science on the theme of technology.
Having a civil engineering background with much of my research being in humanities, I felt I had no insight to share on technology as such and hence, was apprehensive about it. But then, I realized I could perhaps share some thoughts on the human element. After all, it is the people who on the one hand are the drivers of technological advancement and on the other hand, are also the consumers of the fruits of such advancement. That is, Humans are both the producers and consumers of technology. An area, which I think has been very less explored, especially from an Indic lens.
With these thoughts, I chose the subject: “Technology & Ethics: Negotiating with Modernity” and would like to elaborate on the same in this article.
What is technology?
Technology in its most basic sense simply means “the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life.” It comes from the Greek ‘techne’ which means art, skill, or a craft. As such, it represents the tools, techniques, and the means through which people accomplish their tasks in their day-to-day life. In short, it defines the comfort and quality of our life at a purely physical or materialistic level. Any technological advancement, therefore, will have a significant impact on human life: how we live, what we do, the culture and social values are all impacted. In fact, technological advancements are likely to cause significant disruptions in how society functions.
Consider this, before the invention and worldwide spread of Radio and Television, the primary avenue for entertainment were watching plays, music, dance or story-telling performances performed by trained professionals on the stage. Ramayana and Mahabharata have been two extremely popular texts in India, which have been performed as a play, set to sublime music, turned into a dance performance, or told and re-told as stories for thousands of years across the country. There were specific communities of artistes in every village, every city, who made such performances not only a means of their livelihood, but also as a spiritual sadhana. But, with the arrival and spread of Radio and Television, and now the internet, the art forms and the artistes associated with those art forms are either slowly vanishing, or are forced to innovate and reinvent themselves to survive in the changed social situation. This change, this disruption was brought by as simple an instrument as television.
Then, there are even more serious disruptions that the industrial revolution and the subsequent march of technology has brought in to how the society functions. While there are definitely positive impacts of such disruptions, we are also left with certain previously non-existing problems to deal with. Take the example of unemployment. While we are all aware of technological unemployment i.e. the loss of jobs caused by technological change, what we do not often realize is that in Classical India, for example, the problem of unemployment, or at least how we understand it today was more or less non-existent. This was because the society was organized into various jatis, kulas, and trade-guilds, each of which had their own skill-set and professions. People were born into a profession hence, there was no question of unemployment or the associated host of issues that we face in the modern world. Of course, this does not mean people did not have a choice regarding choosing professions. They did, but with some restrictions based on learning, skill-set, and community put in place.
The issue here is not whether ancient India was better than modern India, or whether technology is good or bad. The point to notice here is, every technological innovation brings with it a set of new challenges at various levels- individual, social, ethical, psychological, ecological- that needs to be thoroughly addressed so as to ensure a smooth functioning of the society and a healthy and harmonious life of its people.
Ethical Challenges brought in by the march of technology
A few months back it was reported that 5 lakh Indians use the French extra-marital dating app Gleeden with 30% of them being women. Keyword to note here is ‘extra-marital’. It is a dating app specifically targeting married people, especially married women (Gleeden claims itself to be made by women for women) facilitating them to cheat on their spouses. And the predominant reason provided by the users for using the app was an unhappy marriage.
Adultery has always been looked down upon in almost all the cultures and societies across the world, because it not only involves cheating the spouses who love you and trust you (whether they know it or not), but often also leads to the breakdown of family and a host of other issues that come with it. Add to it the issue of unhappy marriage and how individuals cope with it.
Adultery, thus, poses serious ethical challenges, not only at an individual level, but also at the level of family and society as a whole. By providing ease of access to commit adultery, the advancement of technology in the form of social media platforms and mobile apps has only further complicated our lives and increased manifold the ethical challenges that come with adultery. As the news report notes, the decriminalization of adultery laws has resulted in the increase of users of this adultery app, thus furthering the establishment of adultery as a socially acceptable norm.
If adultery becomes a socially acceptable norm, what would happen to the institute of marriage? What would happen to the notion of love and trust between two people? What would be the status of children? How would they be provided a safe and healthy environment to grow up? What would be the psychological effect of adulterous activities on the couples and the children? These and many more such ethical questions need to be addressed by us as individuals and as a collective society.
A related issue is the production and use of pornography. Technology has made it possible that one can receive pornographic materials in abundance in text, audio, video, or even live-streaming. While the debate regarding whether it has destructive influence is far from over, the wide prevalence and consumption of it betray a deeper issue: that of sexual repression in society. Unfortunately, the modern world does not appear to have any means to either deal with sexual repression or with unrestrained sexual gratification. In fact, the latter appears to have been the modern West’s response to centuries of sexual repression caused by the Christian Church.
Take another example: advancement in the field of genetics. Without going to the well-known issues like cloning, let us confine ourselves to a brief discussion on medical genetics that concerns itself with diagnosis and management of hereditary disorders. One of the important aspects of medical genetics is genetic counselling. Genetic counsellors prescribe diagnostics tests and provide counselling regarding genetic conditions, risks that run in family, etc.
In a recent conversation with Dr. Anuradha Udumudi, who runs GeneTech that pioneers in medical genetics services in India, she shared how genetic counsellors are often faced with ethical dilemmas when giving advice to, say expectant parents. She noted how many expectant parents with either a first child having a serious genetic disorder or a history of some genetic disorders that run in the extended family, anxiously seek advice whether their current pregnancy will lead to another genetically handicapped child. And if there is such a probability, what should be the course of action for the parents: whether they must go ahead with child-birth or whether they should opt for abortion.
Now, Abortion in itself is a huge ethical issue with a fierce debate raging in the West between pro-choice abortion advocates and pro-life anti-abortion advocates. While both sides have their own merits and demerits, their positions are so extreme and at times dogmatic that there is no clear comprehensive and harmonious way forward. Further, while abortion itself has been prevalent throughout history, the technological advances have made it easily accessible, be it in the form of legal abortion or in the form of mushrooming illegal abortion clinics. Also, it is the technological advancements that gave rise to the whole issue of female infanticide in India, which is another ethically problematic issue that has turned into a social menace.
Further, the emotional and ethical issues in medical genetics are not limited to the issues about on-going pregnancy. There are also serious ethical issues regarding fertility (Ex. Seeking donor gamete to avoid serious genetic problems in children), and marriage (Ex. should one marry into a family having a history of a genetic disorder, or should one marry one’s cousins) as well. Some of these ethical challenges were simply unimaginable even a few hundred years ago. With the advancement of genetics, while we clearly have a lot of merits and advantages, we also have newer ethical challenges. Thus, making the role of genetic counsellors very crucial and one that is endowed with huge ethical responsibility.
In a recent blog, Dr. Pingali Gopal notes the ethical challenges that the advancement in medical genetics has brought in and how our current response to it has led to an ethical quandary. Illustrating this with the example of how we are negotiating with Down syndrome, he writes:
“This is disturbing indeed as babies being born with Down Syndrome are steadily decreasing in number. The entire antenatal screening strategies including blood tests on the pregnant mother, ultrasound scans, and genetic analysis on the fetal tissues is targeted world-wide to detect Down Syndrome and then terminate them. One author puts it succinctly as a ‘search-and-destroy’ technology….After a diagnosis of Down Syndrome, the counselling by the medical fraternity, instead of giving the options to the family, is heavily biased towards terminating the pregnancy. Most families comply with this. It is not any bad intention on the part of the medical profession, but simply the moral, ethical worry of continuing a pregnancy which is going to deliver an ‘abnormal’ baby. So here comes the great ethical quandary and paradox-on the one hand, we are trying to integrate Down Syndrome population into the society by calling them equal; but on the other, we are doing the best possible to prevent them from being born….The ethical justification in aborting a Down Syndrome baby (or any other malformation) because it is going to be a burden on the family is disturbingly ambiguous; because the same logic can apply to a female child causing a great disturbance to the social life of some mothers….It is a difficult situation for society, families with a Down Syndrome diagnosis on the foetus, medical professionals, and governmental machinery interacting in many discordant voices. The ethical, moral, legal, medical, and social dimensions in solving these paradoxes need a more detailed and nuanced discussion. Down’s syndrome is one prototypical example, of course. The ethical problems and issues are going to only increase in the future as more diseases enter the domain of pre-delivery diagnosis.”
Now, let’s consider the issue of ecological crisis. The destruction of ecology with the advance of technology is so widespread and well known that nothing more actually needs to be added. It is perhaps the biggest threat that our future generations would be facing and yet, we continue to pursue a lifestyle that furthers this crisis.
The root of such apathy towards social and ecological crisis arising out of technological advancement lies in the fact that with the march of technology, there has been a loss of ethics and values in the society. Modernity with its materialistic and consumerist outlook and misleading notions of development has posited itself as progressive and forward-looking, with technology itself being posited as the one-stop solution to all ills.
How Indic Conceptual Frameworks can help negotiate with the challenges of the modern world
We need to ask ourselves, do we really have tools to conceptually cope up with challenges of the modern world? Do we have frameworks to address the ethical challenges arising out of the march of technology? Are we even happy with our current lifestyles? If not, what is the way forward?
It is here that the ancient Indian civilization can make a phenomenal contribution. It can provide us a worldview that can approach society and its challenges in a holistic and wholesome manner; it can provide us conceptual frameworks using which the challenges arising at the individual, social, ecological, and cosmic level could be examined and solutions devised; it can provide a rich tradition of guidance in the form of Dharmashastra tradition for facilitating humans- the producers and consumers of technology- to handle technology with ethical responsibility.
The Hindu framework of Chaturvidha Purushartha– that posits Dharma (ethical responsibility), Artha (material prosperity), Kama (aesthetic fulfilment) and Moksha (spiritual emancipation) as the four-fold goals of life can help us move away from material pursuit centric consumerism that predominates the modern world. The Vedantic understanding of human being as made up of five sheaths of individuality termed Panchakosha –with Annamayakosha representing the physical sheath, Pranamayakosha representing the sheath of the life-forces, Manomayakosha representing the mind, Vigyanamayakosha representing the deeper intellect, and the Anandamayakosha representing the sublime sheath of Ananda or bliss—can help us to move away from body-centric worldview to a more comprehensive understanding of the individual. The Pauranic framework of cosmology and its positing of human beings as only one among the vast variety of beings and objects, each living according to their own Guna-Karma, can help us to move away from anthropocentricity of the modern world that is at the root of ecological crisis to a more cosmic view of human society as a part of a greater whole that respects nature and seeks harmonious existence within nature. The guidance of the Dharmashastras and the Itihasas can be used to resolve ethical dilemmas that may otherwise appear irresolvable.
Consider the issue of rising sexual frustration in the society that we discussed in the previous section. The roots of current sexual morality lies in Christian theology and the Victorian morality that deems sex as a sin and a taboo. The West with its march into scientific modernity rebelled against this sexual suppression by the Christian theology by indulging in unrestrained sexual gratification, sometimes bordering on perversion and positing such gratification as freedom. The consequences of such extreme social phenomena can be seen in the form of breakdown of institution of marriage, increased teenage pregnancy, abortions, addiction to porn, and the normalization of BDSM, paedophilia, etc.
Unfortunately, India is also going the same way. The Islamic invasion followed by the British colonialism first imposed the previously non-existent shame regarding sexuality into Indian society. And now, we are increasingly adopting the western mode of unrestrained sexual gratification as a means to express our sexual freedom. This did not go well for the West and this will not go well for India.
Does Indian civilization have an alternate way to deal with this? The answer to this is in the affirmative.
Dr. Bharat Gupt in a recent workshop organized in Mysuru by Indic Academy titled “Sringara, Morality & Modernity: A Vedic Perspective” noted how contrary to the current trend of reducing sexuality into a mere physicality and its further perversion, the Classical India elevated sexuality into a Bhava (emotion), a Rasa (aesthetic taste), and finally as a mode of Bhakti. He explained that the Hindu texts take a nuanced approach to sexuality and slowly elevate the mind to subtler and deeper aspects of it. Kamashastra, for example, deals with the physicality of sexual pleasure and the dynamics of man-woman relationship. The Dharmashastra enunciates upon the role of sexuality and the institutions like marriage (which have been conceived for promoting healthy sexual relationships) in society. The Natyashastra elevates sexuality from the realm of society and physicality to the level of art and sublime mental emotions (Bhava) and further transforms it into aesthetic delight Rasa. The Srimad Bhagavatham further elevates it into a mode of Bhakti through its accounts of Gopika’s erotic love and devotion to Sri Krishna and how as a mode of Bhakti, sexuality can lead one to the ultimate goal- Moksha.
Such a comprehensive understanding of sexuality will elevate the mind, instead of degrading it towards perversion. A sexual education curriculum designed on these lines can go a long way in preventing sexual objectification, obsession, frustration, addiction, and perversion that are widely prevalent in current society.
Similarly, the Indic discourse on abortion based on the centuries of debates and discussions in the Dharmashastra tradition can help us move beyond the binaries of pro-choice and pro-life positions and arrive at a nuanced middle path. The current discourse around adultery is yet another quagmire and the Indic perspective can provide many useful pointers to wade through it as well.
Thus, the conceptual frameworks of Indian civilization can pay the way to effectively negotiate with the challenges of the modern world- ethical or otherwise- that are arising out of the rapid march of technology. Therefore, there is a deeper need to revive these Indic Conceptual Frameworks and the larger Dharmashastra tradition so as to create an Indic social discourse that addresses the rising challenges of the modern world in a holistic, integral, and harmonious manner.
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