Science and technology
working with nature- civil and hydraulic engineering to aspects of real world problems in water and at the waterfront - within coastal environments
Turning the Wheel of Progress
In a short blog posted before, I have introduced the idea about the Gift of Science and Technology (S & T) in defining and sustaining world civilizations. The role of this S & T sector of human activity is unlike any other – it is the foundation on which other sectors must rely in order to thrive successfully. The words primitive, backward or advanced used to describe and characterize a society, are nothing but a reference to the level or standard of S & T of that particular civilization. It is the S & T sector that has discovered and invented the elements of the Wheel of Progress, and human prosperity depends on how well the Wheel is rolled on to the future (image credit: anon).
Who are these individuals in the S & T endeavors on whom social progress relies so much? What motivates them? Let us try to go back in time to answer the questions.
Necessity is the mother of invention – that is where we need to begin. Survival instincts led early humans to innovate, to develop and perfect tools. One thing leads to another in the process of reincarnating knowledge and expertise – a process responsible for contributing to the social progression by leaps and bounds, or in a slow pace. It was the survival instincts of our early ancestors that motivated the smartest ones to think freely and creatively to develop tools and methods. Therefore we can safely say that it is the freedom of thinking and creativity in our genes that are responsible for turning the Wheel of Progress and prosperity. The smartest ones came from all walks of life – monks, philosophers, craftsmen and technicians, to name some. Many were self-motivators driven by curiosity, freedom of thinking and creativity. They were not called scientists or engineers – these professional labels came only after modern techniques of managing things were conceived.
If one looks at the long history of Chinese civilization, it would be clear how prolific Chinese scientists and engineers have been. There were hardly any areas of science, technology and engineering that escaped Chinese thinking, discovery and invention. In the Indian subcontinent, pre-Buddha Indus civilization, Buddha’s enlightened teaching (563 – 483 BCE), and post-Buddha developments at the world’s second earliest university at Nalanda (5th – 12th century CE) touched many aspects of spirituality, rational thinking, science and technology. Similar progresses happened in other corners of world. Notable among them were the civilizations that flourished in Egypt, Native America, in the states of modern Middle East, and Greek and Roman empires of Europe. We tend to think that these ancient civilizations are isolated, but archeological findings that come to light now and then, suggest that there have been cross-fertilization and cross-breeding among cultures. Conquests and the zeal to propagate religious teachings led the way in many respects. But perhaps more than we like to think, it was the migration of our ancestors in search of food and better living that made transfer of knowledge possible across cultures.
In ancient times, it was most often the royal patronage that inspired master technicians and master craftsmen to innovate. It was the need for defense, and the desire for comforts of royals and nobility that drove the S & T sector growth. Other areas of quests for better living also played a role, but perhaps not to a substantial degree. It could be imagined that during this period, freedom and creativity were limited by the wishes of the royal patrons. Was this approach in the historic past destined to stagnate or fail?
The destiny was not clear until Europeans joined the foray. The European Renaissance (14th to 17th century CE) following the dark ages of Papal theocracy ushered in rejuvenated freedom in thinking and creativity. The pioneers including the new settlers in America collected and absorbed accumulated ancient knowledge, tools and methods from across cultures and refined them in workable forms that modern humans inherited. These new S & T endeavors have one distinct difference from others in the past. It was the drive to make huge profit from knowledge and inventions by producing things in a large scale for mass consumption. When masses are included in the equation – there appears another dimension to humans’ collective freedom, creativity and progress.
While being the engine of progress, does profit also have the seeds of steering the S & T sector in the wrong direction? Well, things rarely progress well unless a framework of checks and balances is established. Perhaps that is where the roles of people, democracy and good governance are so important to steer things in the RIGHT direction, but without restricting freedom and creativity.
Did everything go alright in the S & T progression? Most likely answer is yes because innovations are reflections of time and place to which they belong. However, we could imagine when applications of combustion engines were proposed, someone might have thought it was a stupid idea to cover the whole world with steel rail lines or cover Earth with pavements of concrete and asphalt. Others might have questioned why the S & T guys could not come up with better systems. It is not important whether or not those comments have really occurred, what is important is the fact that constructive comments and criticisms are always helpful in moving forward. The combustion engine technology was a breakthrough and it generated many other sets of supporting S & T innovations. One thing leads to another – all are tied to the universal knot of cause and effect.
In time, other services of economic activity evolved to fundamentally avail the pieces of the S & T pie, and managing the system by identifying and creating demand opportunities to distribute and sell the products. There came the financier or investor, the economists, the planners, the health care sector, the administrative outfits of political rule, bureaucracy, judiciary, media, law enforcement and security establishments. This means that in the modern management framework, support services play the role of a partner in rolling the Wheel. But in this framework there will always be some who would have the luxury of riding the Wheel at ease.
Most often we see terms like nerds and geeks to describe the S & T people in a negative sense. What a terrible way to assume these poor souls as such – treating them like social outcasts, but who work hard to bring comforts to people’s lives! I am tempted to highlight some materials from a parody Shoe Invention by Bengali Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861- 1941).
Once upon a time a King was disgusted with dusts and dirt sticking to his feet. He asked his court to find a solution. The court issued an order to dust all the walkways and roads so that no dirt could ever touch the King’s feet. As cleaning went on and on, the whole kingdom became so dusty that it was difficult to breathe. The King demanded an answer of the mess – the court started blaming each other but promised to find another solution. It came up with a brilliant idea of covering the walkways and roads with hide. Cobblers were found to do the task. But there were not enough hide to do the job. One courageous nerdy cobbler suggested that instead of covering the land it would make sense to cover the King’s feet. The court members became furious at the daring suggestion. How would they touch the King’s feet to bow and kiss! They decided to take the poor cobbler to the King to be hanged. The King started hearing the angry complaints of the audacious suggestion by the untouchable cobbler. He looked at the cobbler and said, “Let me see what you have got,” The poor cobbler trembling in fear presented the shoe he made. The King got the shoes washed to cleanse of the untouchable stains, but after wearing the shoe, he became very pleased and asked the court to reward the poor cobbler. Seeing the pleasure of the King, members of the royal court started fighting among themselves to claim the credit for the idea. The poor cobbler was caught, paid some pennies and was ordered to vanish from the kingdom so that the truth would never surface.
Well, we need nerds and geeks to carry us forward with the S & T innovations that knock at our door virtually everyday. It is their innovations in transportation and communication that have transformed the world so much so that it is becoming smaller and smaller bringing cultures together. Internet communication has opened the vista of resources and knowledge to most people around the world. In a profit making framework it is impossible to stop the S & T innovations. But sometimes innovation and progress appear so overwhelming that the future of mankind comes into question – the question of greed and malpractice, of wrong hands getting the control, or of the likelihood of disruption and modification of the natural evolution of human race and social living.
Well, what can humans do? Like everything else, wherever lies the engine of progress, there also lies the seed of abuse. Collectively we have an option not to choose the later however.
Here is an anecdote to ponder:
The disciple asked the master, “Sir, I am very inspired to be a part in turning the wheel.”
The master smiled, “I am really disappointed to hear that! I thought it was much better to ride the wheel.”
. . . . .
- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 19 May 2016
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