Machines, not humans, still define civilisation

Machines, not humans, still define civilisation SINCE US President Harry S Truman proclaimed the dawning of the Age of Development in his inaugural speech on January 20, 1949, the accepted measure of a modern society"s civilisation is the standard it has achieved in science and technology. So it is that from Kashmir to Kerala, the toothbrush and the toothpaste became the gauge of an Indian community"s civilisation -- and its members have even learned to be repelled by persons who do not brush their teeth daily.

Measuring development in terms of scientific and technological achievements became a worldwide practice because of the North"s insistence that only science and technology can be considered the "key to prosperity". This insistence inevitably gave birth to the belief that the North"s advances in these fields were an index of the European"s innate superiority over the Chinese, the Asian and the African.

This notion of science and technology being the basis of Northern superiority has its roots in the 16th century, says Michael Adas in his recent book, Machines as the Measure of Men. The notion was anchored in the European conviction that Christianity helped them to best understand the universal truths. The scientific revolution did not end this reliance on Christian standards, and even today, they are considered paramount. However, by the 18th century, this practice of using religious standards to measure the attainments of non-Western people diminished and scientific and technological criteria became increasingly decisive, largely because they could be empirically demonstrated.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, most European thinkers concluded that the unprecedented human control over nature, made possible by Western science and technology, proved that European modes of thought and social organisation lay closer to the underlying realities of the universe than those of any other people or society, past or present. This assumption shaped the ideologies of European imperialism and buttressed the belief in white racial superiority. These notions of scientific and technological superiority also influenced the educational policies that European colonisers used to refashion non-Western societies.
Doubts about machines However, during World War I, the massive slaughter in the trenches caused many European thinkers to challenge the assumption that better machines implied privileged access to physical and universal truths. But in USA, the newly emerging centre of global power, these doubts were less pronounced. The longstanding American addiction to technological innovation fructified during World War II and ultimately gave rise to the modernisation theory, which reasserted the role of scientific and technological standards in bridging the gap assumed to exist between traditional and modern societies. Its popularity in the post-World War II era reflects a restored confidence in the premise that Western thinking and external reality corresponded closely.

French historians estimate that by the 15th century, Western Europe had made such strides in technology that it was far ahead of China, which for millennia had excelled in invention, in the application of technology to everything from farming and transportation to scholarship, in bureaucracy and in waging war. Without the agricultural and mechanical innovations of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Europeans would not have been able to undertake the exploratory voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, nor would the weaponry, ship-building and manufacturing techniques be available that were vital for the success of European efforts to project their influence overseas through trade and warfare.

But though science and technology were far less important than religion or sociopolitical organisation in shaping European attitudes towards the Africans and the Asians during this early period of expansionism, they contributed significantly as aspects of material culture to European perceptions of the levels of development attained by the communities in these continents. Scale and complexity of the technological innovations found in these lands counted for a great deal in European assessments, whether these were manifested in far-flung, imperial bureaucracies or walled cities and irrigation works.

Religion was a vital point of reference, but it was the differences in material culture, including science and technology, that shaped the hierarchy of non-Western peoples in European minds. This hierarchy was not as explicitly delineated as it was to become in the 18th century, when classification became a fashion, or as hard and fixed as in the writings of racist writers in the 19th century. Nonetheless, the beginnings were there. China and India had clearly impressed European visitors more than the cultures they came into contact with in Africa, though all of them would subsequently be devalued in relation to Europe. The European ranking of non-western societies -- China, followed by India and Africa -- persisted well into the 20th century.

One remarkable aspect of the writings of this period is that the authors rarely resorted to racial explanations for differences in social and cultural development between themselves and the Africans, Indians and Chinese. They were unabashedly ethnocentric, but seldom racist. In the 18th century, however, the gap in science and technology between the Europeans and the Africans widened and the perceived lack of scientific inventiveness on the part of the latter came to be interpreted as evidence of their lack of potential in these spheres. In the 19th century, this trend culminated in the dominance of biological or racial -- rather than environmental or cultural -- explanations for African (and Asian or Amerindian) backwardness and the adoption of the somewhat patronising creed -- that the docile, faithful "noble negro" needed to be protected. It was this creed that transposed hospitality into indolence, docility into cowardice and loyalty into inevitable submission to the racially superior.

---AMIT MITRA wrote this based on Machines as the Measure of Man by Michael Adas, published by Oxford University Press, Delhi.