Feb 16, 2009

Unhappy Highways: Economic Growth, Technology and Alienation

By John Samuel
Economic Growth and technological innovations are the two key drivers of change in the modern world. Economic growth is expected to increase surplus income with more access to services and comforts. Technology and economic growth feed in to each other and access to economic growth and technology is supposed to make life more comfortable. But the key paradox of economic and technological growth is that both of them often tend to increase comfort and tend to decrease the level of happiness. While rapid economic growth can create access to income, it can also create the paradox of abundance- where in quantity of money and comforts subvert and undermine the quality of time, life, living and environment.When the growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) does not produce a corollary growth in Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH), one has to ask serious questions about the purpose of economic growth and use and misuse of technology. Economic Growth is not a bad idea. But abundance can be a sin when it unleashes the demons within us- replacing a sense of freedom with that of fear- ceasing to trust each other, with increasing insecurity, paranoia and violence.Technology is both beauty and the beast at the same time. Technology is a double edged sword. Every tool's validity depends on who uses it for what? Tool itself may not be political- but the use of tool is always an exercise of Power. Hence, deeply political.Technology has been the main protagonist in the drama of economic growth in the modern and post-modern times. The growth of technology was not merely propelled by the need for more comfort, facilities or to increase productivity. From a historical perspective, there seems to be direct correlation between innovations in technology, innovations in warfare and innovations in domination and controls. Hence, technology is not only a means for better facilities, but paradoxically the same technology also becomes an effective tool for “control”, “domination” and war.. Technology did make a difference to human condition, comforts and lives. Technology helped to heal as well as helped to make holocaust possible. Technology has almost acquired God-like- power to create, sustain and destruct; and at the same time a means for the search for perfection; conquering stars and cloning life. The ground zero in New York, the blazing bullets and exploding young men on a busy street symbolize the frightening dance of technology.It is the unequal and asymmetric access to technology that also propelled various kinds of dominations. In fact, technology, as means of domination- as means to travel great distance, communicate and as a means to confront an "enemy' with more "productive" killing power( weapons of mass destruction- played a very important role in all conquests. Those who had access to horse breeding, gun powder, steam energy, ship technology, missiles, space technology used all these to create muscle power to dominate. This power play and technology are still being played out across the world. The origin of this very technology- Internet- too is in the defense labs of the US.There is a clear connection between patterns of conquests, colonialisation, technology and natural resources. Colony went where there was coal, timber, iron, and food. Hence, in the 18nth or 19th century the so called “middle east” did not exist in the imperialist scheme of things. Railway lines happened wherever there were some resources to be ripped off. The printing press created new politics of knowledge, and new rules for domination. Of course, printing press also unleashed a linguistic revolution- through hundreds of new grammar, new dictionaries, new Bibles and new books. Translations translated and transformed lives and times. Shipping technology helped us to cross the sea to hold hands as well as to capture lands. The moment technology shifted from Steam based mechanics to Oil one could see the shift in focus of imperialism. There is a direct connection between the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century and the shift of imperial interests to the so called “Middle East"(erstwhile Persia and Arabia). Even the original "mother goddess"( as fertility cults and creative impulse) concept was also co-opted or subjugated by powerful "Male" Gods of war, plunder and domination( with a direct correlation with the improvement of technology- and use of fire- "the Ygnas" or various sacrifices too had a technological element). Even in India, the advent of " Vishnu"- with that of new technology- on the scene changed the power dynamics and also the marginalization of "mother goddess" from the mainstream to the periphery (as family deities or village deities) This seems to be the beginning of patriarchy- based on the notion of Power Over or power as a means to control- as means to dominate and subjugate. While technology provided the hardware for such subjugation, religion provided the software for such subjugation.The mode of technology often determines the mode communication. The mode of communication tends to determine the mode of community and mode of thinking and action. While the radical shift in the digital technology and Internet transformed the mode of communication, it also seems to have transformed the character and nature of community. This shift seems to have created new identity crisis and alienation in the real lives of people. The cyber world, social networking on the net etc creates different sort of distant and imagined communities, while subverting and undermining human communities in real lives. When the cyber-world helped us to create virtual “Skype”, “msn” or “yahoo” neighbors, we get less time to meet the next door neighbor. The one in our immediate vicinity becomes an anonymous other- a potential threat- if he or she does not have the same colure or look When we are busy in chat rooms in the cyber world- in search of a companion or friends- we simply do not have enough time discover or feel for a potential friend next door. We look for quick information, quick gratifications and quick desires on the information highways- in search of elusive images, slippery love, and virtual intimacies. Some of these tensions between economic growth, technology and happiness play out in a dramatic manner in the Japanese society. These days if one travels by the metro train in Tokyo, most of the young people are glued to their mobile, playing games, browsing Internet, chatting with someone on line and they hardly even notice the person sitting next. This is also a usual sight in many other "developed" countries. Earlier (it is still there a bit in London), people used to read newspaper or magazines and at least they used to exchange news paper or magazines and do a bit of chat. These days, while people are connecting with some in the distance, they are alienated from the person sitting or living next door. This sort of alienation also seems to affect the creative instincts.Communication, community and creativity are closely interlinked. And such relationships are facilitated, controlled or undermined by technology. So as the economic growth and communications have changed the notions of community, creating alienated forms of individuation, there has been a declined in the general creative urges in search of beauty. As a result, in such situations, people tend to innovate more for utility and less for a sense of beauty. This sense of erosion of aesthetics from human relations and society tend dehumanize the society and the world.For instance, in an economically developed country like Japan, young people are too busy to fall in or rise in love. Thirty thousand people commit suicide every year- one of the highest in the world. Everyone seems to be so pre-occupied with his or her own economic survival, at the cost of emotional security and consequent social/community disintegration. As everyone is busy to find a job, to prove his or her sense of self-worth as a "hardworking" professional with " sincerity" to the role, there is no time to hold hands, or to walk in a park or to sing a song. Everything is highly automated and when life is so automated and orderly without a possibility of anarchic thinking and life, creativity takes a back seat and productivity takes a front seat. Livelihood takes precedence over living and living takes precedence over life. Efficiency of our work goes up and the effectiveness of life gets discounted.So when human beings cease to be creative and tend to be productive, the seeds of alienation bloom in to a cancer of social disintegration and depolitisation. One ceases to be a part of a community but a loner in the midst of an anonymous crowd. This tragedy is so evident in Japan- where an aggressive economic growth and an invading technology seem to have created more people using Internet to find a "mate' to sleep with or to do "love- networking, and young people using technology to get a high kick to make "suicide- pact" on the net. When even love, passion and feeling get automated and orderly with sense of perfect routine, life becomes a boring burden: where life cease to give any excitement, people may search excitement in death!We need to locate Economic Growth in relation to Culture, Social Psychology and socio-political contexts.1) Culture Matters: Economic growth and technological interventions/innovation seem to have a two-way relationship in relation to culture and society. The dominant culture and power systems in a society may have an influence on the modes of economic growth and the negotiations with technology. Similarly, economic growth and technological interventions have different impacts in terms of social psychology and political process in different cultural contexts. Economic growth and technology may increase the access to comforts, but may also induce new individuation (transforming people from "social animal" to "economic animal" driven by economic compulsions), social disintegration, new paranoia and consequent loss of time or mindset for poetry, politics, love, companionship or community.This paranoia, emotional insecurity and loss of community also create a new market for spiritualism and new adapted form of market-driven religious denominations. Maharishi Yogi to Osho to quick Nirvanas to various shades of Charismatic movements is thriving as a result of the market induced emotional and social insecurity among people who have becomes the villains and victims of the mega-markets!2) Sudden waves of Economic Growth may induce Social dislocations and corollary socio-political issues. In fact, sudden economic growth (due to multiple reasons) can induce more demands in some sectors of economy and as a result prices may go up in a steep manner. Such growth often concentrated in urban centres induces multiple forms of migrations and new population pressures.For example, the sky rocketing real estate prices, smashed the dreams of millions of ordinary people to have a house to live in. The increased income of a miniscule minority also propelled new consumerism with consequent increase in cost of living. This in turn reduces the real purchasing capacity and increase the discontent of those who did not get much out of economic growth. This creates new economic and political tensions, making the recipe for an economics of violence. But depending on the size of a country, economy and the cultural and social diversity, this sudden economic growth can have different implications for different society. Hence there has to be a holistic approach to manage economic growth in relation to social and political dislocations.3) Economic Growth based on “productive outputs" many not necessarily create social "outcomes" in a positive way. Japan is arguably one of the more homogeneous countries. Sharp Economic Growth from the late sixties to early nineties created a whole lot of new social dynamics. In the beginning there was not enough skilled labour force- so instead of importing labour, the existing labour force sort of "doubled" there output- with a very handsome "overtime" salary package. So from the mid seventies most of the people got used to working late hours (something like the new culture induced by the Call Centres in the Indian cities). In the beginning this was a real economic incentive. But this higher income also induced higher cost of living- as the cost of real estate price and service sector shot up. So in the second phase from mid eighties, everyone was forced to work- both men and women- as a result of economic compulsions (as different from the earlier economic incentives). So Japan has a relatively high saving. But it is those who worked from sixties to eighties are the ones with savings and they are relatively rich and old.The life expectancy too is one of the highest in the world, due to better healthcare facilities (of course for a higher cost). So here is a society with rich old people and relatively poor young people (as distinct from the case of India's emerging upper middle class). More than one third of the workforce in Japan is supposed to be on unstable job and income (hence difficult to get mortgage etc) and most of these are young people. And the cost of living is one of the highest in Japan- and hence all young people will have to work overtime or do multiple jobs (with no time of themselves or for companionship) for the sheer survival- ending up loaners in the anonymous crowd- returning home after 15 hours of work to sleep with their laptops or mobile phones!The Economic Slowdown from the late nineties also induced different social dynamics and economics of survival- though Japan is one of the largest economies with high percapita-economic growth. The bureaucrats- politicians cartel that run the government are more worried about the emergence of a giant of China and a economically vibrant Koria- rather than the predicament of young people -with less job, less pay- in a relatively depoliticized society.Japan had a vibrant left movement and was totally against Japan's joining the world war two. Though during the American Occupation between 1945 and 52, the government sought to first co-opt and then make them redundant, the Left political Movement was very strong in Japan. The new-left Magazine AMPO (Against Japan- American Security Pact in the early sixties) and a group of intellectuals were very active in the public sphere. However, when the economy began to grow at a rapid pace - every educated and skilled person was sucked in to the workforce with more economic incentives and corollary political disincentives. So the income grew and the political bargaining power went down. As a result, Japan has one of the weakest civil society movements and political process. Though there is a network of activists, there is hardly any strong social mobilization or political process among young people. Most of the young people are more preoccupied with their struggle for economic survival and less concerned about politics or social consequences.It has become a case of an economic society superimposed on a very traditional socio-cultural society (hence new identify crisis) with pervading sense of new individuation and depoliticisation. As many of the Asian Countries are on the path of rapid economic growth, it is high time to learn from the experience of Japan and other countries. It is important to manage economic growth with a long term perspective about the social, political and cultural consequences. If economic growth creates more social paranoia, social and emotional insecurity and consequent loss of mutual trust, we need rethink about the modes of economic growth and the about the effective use of technology.

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