Cover Image
close this bookTechnological Independence The Asian experience (UNU, 1994, 372 pages)
close this folderIntroduction
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe region and the global historical setting
View the documentPost-second world war geopolitics
View the documentNew technologies
View the documentThe study
View the documentNotes

New technologies

When industrialization began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, technology associated with the steam engine was a key factor. Since then, successive technologies have transformed manufacturing and consumption, and these waves affected different countries at different times. Those countries that began to industrialize in the nineteenth century, for example, first incorporated the earliest industrial technologies and later added other generic technologies as they emerged. In this, the early latecomers to industrialization followed the historical sequence of technology development in the West, although in a telescoped form.

Those that came later still - particularly those that embarked on major industrialization after the Second World War - encountered a world of generic technology that had a greater spread than existed in the early years of industrialization. At the heart of our description of the mastery of technology in Asia in the last 40 years is the differential importance and impact of the generic technologies.

The key technologies in order of emergence are: steam; electricity; chemicals, oil-based chemicals, and synthetic materials; and, in the contemporary period, information technology and biotechnology.

One should note here that new technologies, as they develop, pass through the economy in "creative waves of destruction," in the words of Schumpeter,19 destroying the old and establishing the new. This process gives rise to a new range of products together with new technical means of manufacture. Steam was one such technology, powering the early systems of mass manufacture. Its penetration, in the form of application to products and processes, achieved a plateau in the latter half of the nineteenth century, around the time that Industrial Revolution technology was beginning to penetrate parts of Asia.

The next technology was associated with electricity.20 This gave rise to a wide range of applications, changing not only the motive power in manufacture from steam to electricity but also making a qualitative shift. Here, the motive power associated with the electric motor signalled a change in the organization of the factory, from one with a centrally placed power source based on a steam engine, with a clutter of belts to transmit the power, to a more decentralized system with several individual manufacturing operations powered by individual motors. The new electrical technology also gave birth to a variety of new products in the new forms of light, heat, and motive power. This "wave" rose rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century and reached a plateau in its applications in the West around the 1950s, at a time when the bulk of the Asian region was launching itself on a concerted industrial programme.

In similar fashion, the technologies associated with the internal combustion engine, oil-based chemicals, and synthetic materials emerged around the beginning of this century, and their applications then increased rapidly,21 levelling out around the 1970s, at a time when most countries in Asia were beginning a shift from import-substitution and quasi-autarchic policies to a more global orientation.

The two new technologies that are rapidly maturing at present, namely information technology and biotechnology, are expected to have a much more pervasive impact than the earlier technologies. Information technology will replace many human functions on a mental level, in the some way that the steam engine replaced human and animal motive power.22 A wide variety of hitherto human roles, from the highly skilled to the most routine, are being penetrated by the new technology. In addition, this technology is able to perform new mental functions formerly beyond the scope of humans. It will therefore penetrate not only manufacturing systems and manufactured products but other sectors of the economy as well, including many human functions in such spheres as administration, marketing, and finance. It should be noted that the number of applications of the new information technology is rising rapidly, much more rapidly than did the earlier technologies, and a levelling-off if there is to be one - is not in sight.

The other new technology, biotechnology, does not replace human skills but it gives rise to a very wide-ranging array of products as well as manufacturing processes. Its range of applications is increasing rapidly as new uses are discovered in fields from health to agriculture and manufacturing. The degree of penetration of this technology is at present unclear. Three possible trajectories for growth have been surmised by Freeman,23 but since his projection appeared in 1987 development in this field has accelerated, and it now seems that the faster and more pervasive scenario for the new technology is the more likely.

These two new technologies, which began to make an impact in the 1970s and 1980s, are arriving on the Asian scene at a time when Japan has caught up with the West in industrial terms and when several other Asian countries have passed their import-substitution phase and are beginning to open up to the outside world.

It is also important to note the interplay between the different forms of technology and the time dimension in the Asian countries. The different generic technologies that we have described have been presented to the different countries in the region at different times, at different points in the maturation of their economies, and at different periods in the global socio-economic system. In general this meant that, the later the technological arrival, the greater the spread of generic technology that one could shop for and the more telescoped the technological history that had to be acquired and mastered.

Drawing the various threads together, it is clear that the context within which the mastery of technology occurs in the Asian region in the period under review consists of several factors. These include the global geopolitical structures subsequent to the Second World War and their later rearrangement, particularly vis-à-vis relations with the West where modern technology first appeared. Many of the Asian countries emerged as political entities after momentous internal upheavals, revolutions, independence struggles, and wars; and, after they had taken their different paths towards industrialization, the global political and economic environment, as well as the nature of technology itself, continued to change. These different factors played themselves out and interacted dynamically with each other as the countries attempted technology acquisition. It is the resulting industrial directions, and their associated problems, that are charted in this research study.