Technology has given us more information than we could have dreamed possible, but we should confront its bounteous offerings with two basic questions: Do I need it? Is it useful to me?

You may have read about the North American woman who, slavishly following the instructions of her car’s GPS, drove straight into the Atlantic Ocean. Something similar almost happened to me. In a strange city one night, a friend who swore by the GPS on his mobile was reading aloud its instructions to our taxidriver. He inadvertently took a wrong turn — the first left instead of the second. The GPS was smart enough to notice the error but too polite to point it out in so many words. Instead of suggesting that we reverse, go forward and take the next left, which is what any sensible human being would have done, the robotic device encouraged us to charge forward like the Light Brigade and to not question why. As the Voice led us seemingly further and further away from the main road, the other occupants of the taxi began to frenziedly issue counter-directions, which only muddied the waters. We bumped our way over increasingly narrow, unpaved, poorly lit lanes, now and then catching a tantalising glimpse of headlights on the main road; they were clearly to our right but the Voice kept saying woodenly, “Turn left.” It was all we could do to keep from wrenching open the doors and hot-footing it towards the traffic. My friend remained implacable, though. And the Voice did guide us out of the maze, after all.

I am not surprised by people’s unwavering faith in all manner of technology. I myself am constantly amazed by its stupendous powers (and this amazement springs from sheer incomprehension, let me add), but another part of me resists its invasive nature. Technology has shrunk the globe, lent speed and convenience to our lives, and given us more information than we could have dreamed possible, but we should confront its bounteous offerings with two basic questions: Do I need it? Is it useful to me? (And if you feel like inserting the word “really” in those questions, I won’t stop you.)

“Do I need to see this?” I asked myself as I watched live grabs of hair-raising traffic accidents on TV. What startled me were the unusual camera angles. These were not the surveillance cameras set up by the traffic police along busy streets but ‘dash cams’ or cameras fixed on the dashboards of the stricken vehicles. I could see the backs of necks and bodies slumping or being flung forward; I could hear and almost feel the shock of each crash as the vehicle spun and tumbled dizzily. “Is this useful to the victims’ families?” I asked myself. Pointless question. No doubt the most “thrilling” and “spectacular” accidents had already been downloaded by millions for their idle amusement. And some wise guy had probably added a comical background score and uploaded his own version. Useful technology can have trivial and sometimes hurtful spinoffs. The electronic eye, which is at the heart of much of today’s technology, is omnipresent, turning people into voyeurs and exhibitionists. Technology might help you catch or outwit a criminal, but remember that the criminal can manipulate the very same technology to outwit you.

Coming to science, I am astounded by the advances we’ve made in this field. How simple were the science lessons of my schooldays! I struggled to imagine the dimensions of the single-celled organisms that I found so easy to draw in my biology book: a blob for the amoeba, and a misshapen chappal with hair sprouting around its edges to represent the paramecium. Microscopic, millimetric, a hair’s breadth — these were the terms we used for very tiny objects. How could we have known that nanotechnology was on the way? Or DNA, for that matter. Scientists can gather a stunning amount of information about a long-dead human being from an itsy-bitsy jot of genetic material. An Icelandic man who died over 5,000 years ago was lactose-intolerant. A young pharaoh had enlarged male breasts. Tutankhanum was attacked by malaria twice. This priceless data was discerned, mind you, not by examining corpses but by breaking down DNA samples. I’m pretty sure that these were not the sort of details that the deceased gentlemen wished future generations to remember them by.

Science constantly attempts to explain ourselves and our universe. It doesn’t matter that such explanations might change and be periodically discarded; we await the latest with bated breath. We expect science to be able to explain and modify human behaviour, unaware that scientists — would you believe it? — have not been able to come up with a clear definition of “behaviour”. I was quite amused when I read that a brain scan can help you find out whether you love babies. By tapping into the spot marked X you can determine whether you’re baby-friendly and plan whether or not to have children. Er, isn’t it simpler to just rely on your basic instincts?

Despite evidence to the contrary, scientists are not demigods. They announced the other day that they have figured out only four per cent of the universe. Remarkably modest of them to admit it, I thought. But then again, unless they knew what 100 per cent was, how could they have arrived at the four per cent estimate? This means that they do have a notion of the extent of the entire universe. Science-om-namaha!

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Keywords: Sci-TechGPSScienceTechnology