|Technological Independence The Asian experience (UNU, 1994, 372 pages)|
|7. The lessons from Asia: From past experience to the future|
Recognition of this intimate relationship between biotechnology and information technology, on the one hand, and the social system on the other can allow for conscious social interventions in the technology, instead of the implicit intervention that usually happens, bringing a fresh dimension to the concept of Asian self-reliance. As the two technologies are very flexible to social and cultural pressures, the question then will be which culture's and which society's values will be mapped within these technologies as they unfold. A consequent task in self-reliance will then be to influence this most plastic of technologies so that it reflects the best social aspirations and knowledge systems of the cultures in Asia. Already, of course, the pre-industrial technologies of Asia have been blended with the old industrial technologies.24 The problem will be consciously to guide this blending.
The Asian region is rich in non-European intellectual activity, including aspects of technology and the sciences. Some recent research indicates that these indigenous Asian aspects could become a useful adjunct to the development of new technology in Asia.
Thus, developing new biotechnology material requires access to a variety of useful genes. Plants that are unknown in developed countries have many uses that have been identified over the centuries by farmers and non-Western medical practitioners across Asia. Part of this knowledge is now being gathered by MNCs, the plants and their properties identified, and, later, the particular gene responsible for a desired property isolated and incorporated in a new genetically engineered plant.25 Scouring Asia's past formal and local traditions for useful plants, and including these in genetically engineered products, would be a useful Asian contribution to the shaping of the new technology.
At the information technology software end, too, it seems that the diversity of Asian concepts of mental processing could possibly be used as a model on which software for information processing could be written. No single model of how the mind works, Western or non-Western, yet provides a complete picture of all aspects of mental processing and hence gives a perfect model to mimic in software. In several Asian civilizations, various systems of logic, epistemology, and psychology have been developed independent of the Western tradition,26 and these could be written as software, in a way similar to that by which various competing and partial Western models of mental processing have been used as the basis of a wide array of information products. Some preliminary successes may have already been made in this direction, for example in language translation programmes that use the linguistics of the fifth-century BC grammarian Panini.27
The greatest impact on self-reliance could come from Asian answers to some of the troubling questions raised by the new technologies. The latter put doubt on some of the most cherished self-perceptions of humans. Biotechnology raises key questions about traditional concepts of what it is to be a living being, including what it is to be uniquely human, in the biological sense.28 On the other hand, information technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI) that mimics human mental processes, raises questions about what it is to be uniquely human in a cultural sense. Real self-reliance will require searching answers to these questions within Asian cultural contexts.
Because of these key questions, debates on ethical and cultural issues are shaping both technologies. Thus, the release of biotechnological products into the atmosphere has been debated within a framework of its potential impact on other organisms.29 And advances in medicine relating to, say, the onset of life and its termination have been hotly discussed and have influenced conventional medical technology. Developments in the new biotechnology stretch these questions very much further, raising fresh and very complicated ethical issues.30 These discussions and controversies in the cultural and social sphere influence and continuously shape the new technology.31
However, the social and medical implications of biotechnology have as yet been largely discussed only in Western countries.32 These debates have unfolded within a context that assumes Western cultural and social givens as universal; the imprint of the West's religious traditions, for example, is unconsciously brought in.33 In Asian countries there has been little debate on these matters.34 Yet, workers in the field have pointed out that Asian traditions could well give different answers to these questions,35 as for example reflected in the Japanese response to definitions of clinical death.36,37
Advances in biotechnology, including gene therapy, could reshape and reformulate, among other things, life, death, health, and beauty.38 The ethical as well as aesthetic criteria on which these are decided are deeply culture-bound and, if debated within the Asian region's different cultural traditions, would give different answers from those of the West. And this act of self-reliance would tend to give a different direction to technology.
Advanced information technology, especially AI-related technology, aims at cloning the partial behaviour of the mind. This again would raise profound questions for those parts of Asia which have strong cultural and religious traditions emphasizing the importance of the mind and mind culture. Asian inputs into debates on the ethics and nature of AI could also strongly influence the direction of information technology.