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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Incompatible with technology

WHAT is one to make of the societal exhortation to focus the nation’s energies on acquiring scientific knowledge and updating the technological base to traverse the 21st century with some degree of confidence? Although it may appear fashionable to be pessimistic about our chances of ‘making it’, one wonders how we can imbibe scientific thoughts and methods with the intellectual baggage we carry. Can we reinvent and modernise government and private businesses? Does the youth and new breed of young entrepreneurs provide greater future hope?

Any nation’s response to technological change is partly influenced by the environment and partly by genetics. Pakistani society is inherently at odds with technology. Whereas axiomatic reasoning and treatment defies any prior knowledge, we take many things as given — prior beliefs cannot be questioned. We are a nation of believers. We are used to being given ideas and accepting them. For example, the educational examination systems are based on the concept of the textbook as gospel. Then there is the socio-cultural set-up which insists that our elders, our religion, etc, are always right. Such an environment is incompatible with scientific analysis.

The process of analysis is missing only partly because of the lack of literacy and poor quality of education. Its absence is more because of our beliefs. We cannot ‘discover things’ for ourselves and are, therefore, excluded from participating in the development of technology involving innovation, automation, analysis and information gathering. In other words, the support base for technological growth is weak.

We can admittedly import technology (through the process of technology transfer) but within severe limits. The industrial sector has little need for local technology. Both private- and public-sector managers seek more dependable sources in international markets against whose purchases they can retain some foreign exchange abroad (through commissions or over-invoicing of imported goods). We, therefore, have a technologically dependent industrial structure whose machinery and technical processes have primarily been imported. Thus, there’s little scope or incentive for indigenous technology to blossom.

Whole-scale import of technology also becomes a problem, not because those who have developed it will not part with it easily but because technology must improve productivity, and productivity is a marginal concept. In a society where profits are made without competition and on merit but by ‘fixing’ deals and arranging ‘desired’ import duties and sales tax rates through the infamous SROs, productivity is an alien concept. In a system in which the well-connected prosper through the abuse of discretionary powers without fear of being challenged there’s no need for professionals, quality management or the technology embodied in people — human capital.

As the system is not driven by productivity considerations adapting to local conditions becomes a problem. When promotions in the public sector are based on seniority or ‘right contacts’ and not on merit and performance, how can the state system recognise and reward productivity? The incongruence of society with technology has made technology and scientific methods irrelevant.

Technology is like a hybrid in our society. Hybrids like a kinnoo, a mule, etc, cannot reproduce themselves. You cannot nurture these concepts because the processes and requirements for doing so are missing — in particular, the support base and cultural environment for technological growth.

Our value function for time is also short. We don’t believe there’ll be a tomorrow. This has been prompted not just by political uncertainty but more by insecurity and fear that the system will not be fair, the rules of the game will be changed to suit family, friends, patrons, etc. Rent-seeking elites have traditionally dictated industrial and trade policies. The system lacks transparency because there’s no commitment to the need for a level playing field.

Then there’s the fear of change caused by technology because of lack of control over it. For example, businessmen do not computerise their accounts because they want to maintain two sets of books — one for themselves, one for the tax authorities. For the older generation of businessmen with limited exposure to computers, controlling a manual system maintained by the accountant is simpler than a computerised system which can also maintain two sets of books.

However, in the latter case, the businessman, essentially because of his own lack of knowledge, is not confident that he can exercise the kind of the control he does in a manual system for recording transaction.

Similarly, bureaucrats fear loss of control over information which gives them special privileges and powers. In such an administrative culture, acceptability of technology becomes a problem.

Finally, there is lack of institutional capacity to undertake scientific and technological research of even basic nature, to adapt simple technology to local conditions, because the state does not have the management capability to even affect transfer of technology let alone promote technological growth.

The bulk of local science and technological research, despite the heavy rhetoric, is run by mediocre individuals whose work is of poor quality and irrelevant to the country’s developmental requirements. Scientific research is planned by bureaucrats. They manage the science in this country, and the few scientists in the top echelons of management in the different science-related departments and institutions function mainly as scientist-bureaucrats. It will, therefore, serve little purpose to pull up the establishments dealing with science in Pakistan for their abysmal failure in not seriously attempting to solve the problems confronting the nation.

However, change is afoot which provides hope for the future. This includes massive improvements in access to internet, new and younger businessmen/entrepreneurs seeking a more competitive environment, an assertive media and growth in social media, the demands on government to share information and the resulting legislation for Freedom of Information, etc.

BY SHAHID KARDAR: The writer is the vice chancellor of Beaconhouse National University.
http://www.dawn.com/news/1076074/incompatible-with-technology
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