By Srinath Sridharan
Human lives are intertwined with, increasingly enmeshed, and even dependent on technology. Often, we assumethat technology, on the whole, is a good thing. This assumption holds that such technologies are available and affordable by all and non-addictive as well. We expect people to move with technology. The larger social price we pay is because of the full implications and impact of the technologies being adopted. We use economic outcomes and commercial potential as measures, and ignore the peril of social losses. Addressing institutional inefficiency through technology will impose further costs, and widen divides.
For example, we tend to believe that the new digital economy is a clean and green one, far from from the haze and smog created by the technologies of the Industrial Revolution. Is it? Does the fourth industrial revolution have a greener design and promise efficiencies of a green-regulatory systems? Perhaps the new ‘cloud’ also adds to the pollution through it being powered by fossil fuel sources. Probably the mobile, for all its conveniences, is another culprit with its overuse. From the electronic waste generated to the tonnes of minerals needed to power the modern digital world, it surely does leave an impact on the Earth, its oceans, and all natural resources. According to the International Labour Organization’s estimates, 80% of e-waste “ends up being shipped (often illegally) to developing countries to be recycled by hundreds of thousands of informal workers”, with “adverse environmental and health implications”. Will having regulations—local, national or global—help here? Not at all. Assumably, it is part of the policy doctrine “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken”. No wonder it is also fashionable to convert them quickly into catchphrases for policy institutions to latch onto. For example, we see this in the inadequate climate action despite all the noise and hype it has seen over the years. The other tipping-point topic is the next crisis—in the blue economy.
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The purpose and nature of work, skillsets required to be employed, and the balance between work and life have been transformed over the past three centuries, by innovation and newer technologies. Technology has indeed transformed economic lives globally, but has not been inclusive across population cohorts. A century ago, only a rich person could afford even a single horse. Today, over a fourth of the global population has access to privately-owned vehicles that have power equivalent to at least 100 horses. However, technological advancement, a car in this case, has led to increase in dependency on the vehicle. Very few people think of walking shorter distances or taking a public transport, just because their cost of car ownership is sunk in.
We are engrossed in this technological merry-go-round, and we can’t simply get off it. A tangible human impact is that most of the non-digital-native generation who grew up with retentive-memory that enabled them to remember data and numbers, now suffer from retrieval-memory (they simply ‘search’ on their gadgets).
Technology is rapidly changing the natural human ways of socialising. Human dependence on the internet and social media has led to emotional and mental health concerns. We seem to be creating an alter-ego in our digital avatar. Evolution is the process by which species adapt over time to their environment. The sad part of such a human evolution is we have the power to change our environment and build what we think suits us, with no ability to undo it.
The crisis of tech adoption seems to be that the way to deal with unintended harm from innovations and technologies is now understood as developing newer ones. The human environment, once modified, could lead to newer class of social dysfunction and psychological stress. To provide food security to a large population, we developed food processing and preservation methods, only to have obesity as an outcome of easy and cheaper availability energy-dense foods. To protect ourselves from hurtful pathogens, we adopted better-hygiene and invented antibiotics—but that simply increased the rate of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Dependence on technology could also bring newer risks. Failures in the technological infrastructure could create economic and social chaos. Imagine internet outage in a country; what could happen to their financial systems then? So public policies have to factor in a recognisable probability of technological failure or hiccups.
The rationale for policymakers to spend money to encourage innovations and technology is to improve lives and livelihood. Most of the costs can be measured from economic as well as from a social perspective. Individual decision-makers usually take into consideration many cost-based variables. The actions of these individuals also cause externalities that impact the acceptance, utility and existence of others (individuals, institutions, societies, communities). A social cost would include the value of such externalities.
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There is a catch-22 as well: commercialisation of emerging innovations will continue, as long as markets (consumers) are accepting of it. Will such a consumption force governments to be more accepting of such innovations without working on their long-term negative aspects? At the same time, it won’t be amiss to see industry lobbying the policymakers, given any slowdown or regressive policy measure could impede the growth of their sector and even national development.
This is why the political imperative of embracing emerging technologies and the policy urgency in regulating them has to bear in mind the long-term social sacrifices that the constituents would make due to such an innovation. Importantly, with every technology that emerges, what is the social cost of its access? What is the social cost of the technological divide? How will these impact human freedom and interdependence on one another as social beings? This is why governments must think of long-term social costs to balance quality of living, while embracing newer technologies. Forcing nature to bend to our innovation-will to create our own newer system has a setback—nature hits back. Here lies the greatest challenge to humanity.
The writer is policy researcher and corporate advisor