Monday, March 12, 2007

Thinking about Technology

In Malaysia, people often associate technology with science, as if without the latter, we would not have the former. It is not surprising because some dictionaries even define technology as simply 'the application of science.' This is incorrect and therefore misleading. Technology is merely the means or, if you like, the mechanics, of doing something.

An illustration is needed to better understand what I mean. Let assume there is this sick man. He has only two kinds of treatment available to him. One is with a witchdoctor. The other is with a medically qualified doctor with extensive experience in that area of sickness.

The witchdoctor's treatment may call for a few chickens to be slaughtered in an unhygenic manner, some guy in a loin skin cloth thumping a drum made of the skins of rare albino donkeys, some dyes to smear on their body and some wicked though limited dance moves around a bonfire. After the dance and mass open air orgy that follows that treatment, the patient is supposed to get better.

The doctor's treatment would usually involve the patient sent to some machines to have his insides turned out and represented in squiggly lines or numbers for the doctor to pore over. The patient would be told he had to cut down on his smoking, exercise more, eat less, sleep more, work less, etc. Usually he would be given some drugs (regretfully not the recreational type) to take to help him heal. Perhaps a few more consultations until the doctor finishes up the payment on his yacht (docked at Langkawi, probably, bastard) and the patient is supposed to get better.

Both are technology. In the age of science, we think as we do now that the doctor's treatment would be better and more effective than the witchdoctor's. And we would probably right (although one should not simply discount the beneficial effects of an open air orgy). But we must distinguish the concept of technology from its reliability. Just because the witchdoctor's method is likely to be less reliable (although much more fun) doesn't make it any less a kind of technology. Scientific technology tends to be superior than witchcraft technology because of their respective methodologies. Witchcraft technology relies on and assimilates ancestral myths, cultural practices and symbolism. Scientific technology relies on observing the mechanics of natural phenomena, figuring how it works, drawing up a hypothesis which is vigorously tested conceptually, mathematically and experimentally.

However we associate science with technology because the fruits of science tend to be more reliable, its methodology can be tested and tried by anybody with the requisite means, and we find that it empowers us, amplifies us, extends us. Witchcraft technology leaves us all in a mystery except the witchdoctor (who just maybe as well!). One would think that given a little thought on this matter would make it quite clear which we should rely on most of the time.

That Malaysia has so many of these witchdoctor's about (they are called a bomoh here) makes it difficult to wonder without a sense of despair why this is so.

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