Technological Determinism: Privacy vs Surveillance

Paojakhup Guite *

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, technology is trying hard to prove its worth all the more like never before. It is seizing this bad time as an opportunity to showcase its deterministic property to humanity.

Given the intensity and gravity of the pandemic, human beings are, like it or not, ought to accept this determinism of technology. Technology is evolving and correspondingly, so is the human civilization.

The term "technological determinism" was coined by Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist and economist in 1920s. By the term, he believes that technology is the principal agent of social, economic or political change. Behavioural patterns and social interactions of human beings are determined by technology.

In this globalisation era, technology is a major force that easily binds us together virtually (video-call) or physically (short journey time). Hyper-globalists or ultra-globalists are of the view that technology has made the world a 'global village'- that, the 30 per cent continental mass of the Earth looks like 3 per cent of itself, while the 70% oceans (water bodies) appear as if 7% of itself.

Technology Drives History

The wheel of history is lubricated by technology. In the beginning, human species (say, the ancestor of Homo sapiens) was gifted with neural networks, though its synapses were not functioning to a desired level and had no capacity to develop his thinking potential.

It was kept at futility, while its utility began much later. Consequently, this Cognitive Revolution (CR) kick-started history and it's about 70,000 years ago. Simultaneously, a technological bent of mind began to develop in the brain of our ancestor.

As a result, in the last phase of ice age called Holocene, man began to think of agriculture. He began an institution of family as also a sedentary life. Nomadism became a thing of the past. Thus, Agricultural Revolution (AR) expedited CR about 12,000 years ago. And, not more than 500 years ago, AR rose to its higher level, called Scientific Revolution.

Today, AR has been replaced by AI (Artificial Intelligence). The technological calibre of human beings has been so immense. Due to this tremendous influence of humankind on other species and environment and climate change, some historians propose that Holocene has ended and been replaced by a new epoch called Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Epoch begins from 1950. From 1950 onwards, we have witnessed many technological breakthroughs, both harmful and beneficial.

The new Epoch has witnessed global catastrophes umpteen times. This is partly or wholly due to human negligence. The two World Wars (nuclear bombs) were primarily caused by a mad race for power, and culminated into its folly by technological advancements.

Several lethal arms and weapons of mass destructions (WMD) have been manufactured. We have destroyed enough our cultures and civilizations. We rebuild them again with a higher level of technology that destroyed them. Albert Einstien once said, "You cannot solve intractable problems with the same thinking that produced the problem".

The ever worsening climate change, no doubt began since time immemorial. The present rate of the change is at a critical stage mainly due to anthropogenic activities. We have constructed insurmountable industrial plants. Man began to extract fossils to run industries.

These manufacturing units produce poisonous Green House Gases (GHGs) which are released into the atmosphere, thereby expanding the Ozone Hole over Antarctica at an alarming rate. Worse, world leaders could not stand together in one accord to fight against this common threat of GHG emissions.

The Paris Agreement (2015) remains a paper tiger. The agreement is being dragged into the domestic politics of the US. Mr. Trump's campaign of "First America Policy" or "Make America Great Again" has become a stumbling block against global climate initiatives.

Therefore, in history up till today we have learned that human cultures and civilizations have been shaped by technology. In this 21st century, we need not just a technology, but one which is innovative, scientific, effective, efficient and climate-benign.

A Critique

Opposite to technological determinism theory is "Social Determinism". According to social determinists, technology is rather an entity outside of human society. Man uses it and manipulates it in the way he desires.

In practical reality, politics is the Sugar Daddy of its kindred disciplines such as science (technology, for that matter), literature, social science and what not. In the eye of politics, technology is not deterministic, and the fact that something can be done does not mean it must be done.

In other words, politics is as old as human species, and technology is a later phenomenon. This view is in congruence with Social Contract Theory which is put forth by political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacque Rousseau. They each had different interpretations of social contracts, but the underlying idea was similar.

According to Hobbes, the state of nature was one in which there were no enforceable criteria of right and wrong. Life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." The state of nature was therefore a state of war. This war could be ended only if individuals agreed (in a social contract) to give their liberty into the hands of a sovereign (State) who was thenceforward absolute, on the sole condition that their lives were safeguarded by sovereign power.

Lock differed from Hobbes insofar as he described the state of nature. He opined that the rights of life and property were generally recognized under natural law. He therefore argued that the obligation to obey civil government under the social contract was conditional upon the protection not only of the person but also of private property. Sovereigns who violated these terms could be justifiably overthrown.

Rousseau held that in the state of nature humans were unwarlike and somewhat undeveloped in their reasoning powers and sense of morality and responsibility. When, however, people agreed for mutual protection to surrender individual freedom of action and establish laws and government, they then acquired a sense of moral and civic obligation. In order to retain its essentially moral character, government must thus rest on the consent of the governed ("general will").

In this critical period of Social Distancing triggered by COVID-19 outbreak, technology has sneaked into the privacy premises of the people. But, in modern democracy, citizens don't want to sacrifice their rights at the altar of technology. In other words, consciousness of political rights in their cognitive mind has refused to concede fully to Hobbes' Theory of Social Contract.

So much so that they protect their rights to privacy and protest surveillance of any kind. Undeniably, as we are grappling with social distancing rules, technology has brought us many gifts of ICT (Information and Communication Technology).

From Aadhaar to Aarogya, the buzzword has been around data privacy of responsible citizens. A beneficiary of government undertakings (even private sector) has to compulsorily surrender his 12-digit Aadhaar number which bears not only one's demographic details, but most riskily, biometric informations.

Most recently, the Civil Aviation Ministry, in its air passengers' guidelines made it compulsory to download Aarogya Setu App to book a flight ticket. Aarogya Setu App is a contact-tracing software application developed by India. Mr. Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder lauded Prime Minister Modi in this regard.

However, it is being alleged that the App encroaches upon one's right to life, because it traces or snoops a person's living area. It ascertains as to where one is from which colour zones- Green, Orange, Red or Containment.

It sounds discriminatory as a person's habitat area is stratified based on colour. Are we going back to Vedic Ages, when the Vedic society was archaic and divided into four castes based on Varna (skin colour) system? Are we switching on from Skin Colour to Habitat Colour? History repeats itself?

Zoom, a China-developed video-conference app is no less invasive against privacy of data than that of Aadhaar or Aarogya Setu App. Despite its easy handling to fight against the menace of Social Distancing, the App has attracted a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) from concerned citizens.

The aggrieved plaintiffs moved the Supreme Court of India to look into the privacy concerns of the people of the country. The case is sub-judice as the apex Court has directed the Centre to give its clarifications to the litigants.

A Necessary Evil

Is COVID-19 Outbreak a roll of the dice or a God-sent soldier? Technology says none. The outbreak is not the concern of Technology. Rather, it looks forward to adaptation or mitigation or annihilating it forever.

Technology not only drives history. It also determines our future. We cannot deny the fact that technology is the backbone of economy and development. We know that human development is a concern of all.

According to economists, human development can be measured mostly on two parameters-'health' and 'education'. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has since 1990 released annually its Human Development Index (HDI) of the world. India ranked at the 129th position on 2019's HDI. Sri Lanka led the rank at 71 among its neighboring South Asian countries. India is also the lowest among BRICS (2017, 2018).

Due to COVID-19 pandemic, health has been affected seriously. Add to this, due the COVID-19-induced lockdown, education has equally been at its lowest ebb. While everything is at stake, the Centre and the State Governments deserve a pat on the back.

Both the governments have taken up initiatives to bridge the likely gaps in all walks of life- health, education and economy- without compromising with their resolve to fight the dreaded virus. They have taken recourse on technology to provide virtual education, while Zoom App has enabled the governments to organize a video-conference meeting and make decisions.

To take a minute care on health front, Aarogya Setu App was developed to trace a passenger or a person. That will give information related to zone classifications (green, orange, red or containment zones), travel history, etc. Based on this, a proactive action can be taken further.

It is plausible that the Government of India is inviting any constructive suggestions from citizens to improve the contact-tracing App. Hopefully; this will make the App more user-friendly. Regarding data management, the Centre should think twice.

An independent body has to be appointed to look after data management, so that no leakage is found. This should include data related to blood samples collected for COVID-19 clinical test with their results.

In this way, Science & Technology should work hand in hand with politics, society and economy. That would raise the country's HDI rank in future. (The views expressed are personal)

* Paojakhup Guite wrote this article for Imphal Times
The writer is from Saihenjang, CCpur and can be reached at guitepaojakhup9(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on June 01, 2020.

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