15. Reflections on Technology: Electricity at Home

In its first phase, the impact of the Industrial Revolution was only through its manufactured goods.  Whether it was paper or cloth, the locomotive or the telegraph, it was only the final product of technology that the layman witnessed.  No new pro­cess was introduced into the home.

In 1888 something of enormous significance happened.  A Serbian inventor who was born in a remote mountain village in the Austro-Hungarian empire, patented a number of electrical components:  dynamos that work on alternating currents, motors, transformers, etc.  (In 1831 Michael Faraday had already discovered the principle of the electric motor.)  The new inventions led to two major possibilities:  On the one hand electricity could be generated on a large scale and distributed to homes.  On the other hand, small devices using electric motors were constructed that could be used in homes.  The inventor’s name was Nikola Tesla.

One of the first items of modern electric-current technology to be introduced into the home was the electric fan:  patented by Tesla and the Westinghouse Corporation in 1889.  It was this invention that led to the installation of plug points in homes, so that the fan could be moved from room to room.  We must remember, however, that in the early days not everyone could afford an electric fan, let alone electricity at home.  Some reckless soothsayers prophesied that electric currents would be too expensive to be of general use in all homes!

Since then, as every school child knows, electrical home appliances have been in­creasing in number and in variety.  We have telephones and tooth brushes, washers and driers, computers and bells, vacuum cleaners and air conditioners, clocks and can openers, sewing machines and sump-pumps, radios and phonographs, and a good deal more, all working on electrical energy.

In all these instances we see technology in action in our homes.  Note that the goal in every such item is either to diminish human effort or to increase human comfort and enjoyment.  Essentially these devices have replaced human labor.  In former times, only the rich could afford to have their clothes washed, and their homes cleaned by others, i.e. by servants, slaves, or people of lower castes.  Now, much of the hard work that servants used to do is done for us by electricity.

We never really consume electricity:  we merely use it.  When we pay for coal, gas, or water, we are actually paying for the material we are using up.  But with elec­tricity, we do not use up any electric charge or current; all we do is to let them pass through our appliances, and they do the work.  Electric currents are like a band of well trained servants, silent and clean, who are sent by a central agency to our homes to do chores for us.

Computers and automation have caused what it sometimes described as the Second Industrial Revolution:  one in which technology replaces not only the muscu­lar, but also the mental effort of humans.  In industry and in factories automata are already functioning very efficiently.  Just as the First Industrial Revolution eventually moved from the workplace into the home, we may expect the Second Industrial Revolution to do likewise.  In other words, the automata or robots that we now find in huge factories will have their smaller-sized kith and kin installed in the homes of the future.

Indeed the field of research and development known as robotics deals precisely with problems of this kind:  to exploit the possibilities of artificial intelligence to such an extent that even the efforts involved in pushing the vacuum cleaner from room to room, or of pushing the lawn mower in the yard, or of dumping dirty linen into the washing machine will be done by robots.  And more:  domestic robots keep account of family income and expenditures, remind us of our appoint­ments, switch on the TV for appropriate programs, alert us in case of fire, and possibly extinguish it, cook meals for us, scare away intruders, take messages, and so on. More is yet to come.

What would be the overall effect of such changes in home life?  At the one ex­treme some people – usually those who are not directly involved with scientific and technological matters – have expressed the fear that robots will eventually take over control, and human beings will come under their merciless sway.  At the other ex­treme are the perennial technological optimists who insist that robots will eventually become and for ever remain our most versatile and efficient slaves that will work without complaining or will never get tired.  Most of the experts in the field tend to hold this second view.

As a matter of fact, the fears expressed by the first group do not arise from simple-mindedness.  Robots can gain control over our lives.  However, they will do so in the same sense that we have become pitifully dependent upon many other gadgets and people in technological societies find themselves to be in an utterly helpless state if they are deprived of the automobile, telephone, TV, electric lights, or hot water fur­nace.

On the other hand, even assuming that we will never be deprived of robotic ser­vices, another major problem that is expected to arise when technology takes over more of our domestic chores will be related to leisure.  Unfortunately, there is more than a grain of truth in the old prejudice of 18th century aristocracy that the la­bor class will be out for mischief and drunkenness only if they are kept constantly busy; except that this is valid for most human beings, irrespective of their class or caste.  A healthy and meaningful utilization of leisure doesn’t seem to be easy.

September 22, 2010

13. Reflections on Technology: Scholarship and technology

Technology has had an enormous impact on human civilization.  It has revolutionized human life styles in innumerable ways.  In particular, changes of great moment have occurred in human history in the past cen­tury or so.  Some of the major technological additions to society and to civilization were unheard of and undreamt of just two or three generations ago.

Commentators on society and civilization have reflected on the impact of technology on society,  In recent years considerable amount of scholarship has gone into detailed and scholarly studies of the impact of technology on civilization.  Educational institutions, specialized journals, research centers, international bodies, conferences, all have be­gun to take great interest in this matter.

Generally speaking, society as a whole gets deeply interested in a given subject for one of two reasons: Either there is some poten­tial in the subject for adding to human joys and pleasures; or, the subject poses a threat to our safety and security.  Thus, in the l9th century when it was realized that technology could accomplish useful things and make life easy, the study of science and engineering became popular in educational institutions.  Now, when technology seems to be causing some unpleasant problems, the study of technology as a phe­nomenon in human societies is becoming a topic of great concern and interest.

One may consider the impact of technology on society from different points of view.  One may explore the effects of specific technologies on specific aspects of life.  Or, one may discuss the overall effect of technology on civilization at large.  Or again, one may refer to the positive impacts of technology, or one may list some of the grave dangers to human life that have arisen from the development of technology, etc.

Many authors and research teams have spent considerable time and energy studying the hundred facets of the impact of technology on society.  Between 1964 and 1972, for ex­ample, a group of scholars under the direction of E. G. Mesthene explored the subject in great detail and issued the famous Mesthene Reports which provided some insights into this complex subject.  It is interesting to recall his fourth report which was published in 1967-68: If religion was formerly the opiate of the masses, then surely technology is the opiate of the educated public today, or at least of its favorite authors. No other single subject is so universally invested with high hopes for the improvement of mankind generally and of Americans in particular. The content of these millennial hopes varies somewhat from author to author, though with considerable overlap. A representative but by no means complete list of these promises and their prophets would include: an end to poverty and the inauguration of permanent prosperity (Leon Keyserling), universal equality of opportunity (Zbigniew Brzezinski), a radical increase in individual freedom (Edward Shils), the replacement of work by leisure for most of mankind (Robert Theobald), fresh water for desert dwellers (Lyndon Baines Johnson), permanent but harmless social revolution (Walt Rostow), the final comeuppance of Mao Tse-tung and all his ilk (same prophet), the triumph of wisdom over power (John Kenneth Galbraith), and, lest we forget, the end of ideology (Daniel Bell).”

In meetings, symposia, books and articles many specialists discussed and debadte the theme from a variety of perspectives.

September 21, 2010

12. Reflections of Technology: Aesthetic Aspects

It is said that when the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris the great French writer Guy de Maupassant was so shocked by its ugly presence in the beautiful French capital that he left the city in disgust.  Since then, however, millions of people, both of more and less refined tastes, have come to Paris and admired the elegance and majesty of the grand structure, and posed for snapshots with it, while artists have captured on canvass dif­ferent views of this technological feat.  Perhaps the same may be said of the Empire State Building in New York City or the Liberty Arch in St. Louis.  For, these too, like many others all over the world, are mammoth constructions that are products of our technological ingenuity, and these must also have offended (and do offend) the aes­thetic sensibilities of some people.

Interestingly enough, some of the people who vehemently decry the grand struc­tures of modern technology as vulgar and symptomatic of an obsession for the huge, are also the ones who would most readily admire the symmetries of Egyptian pyra­mids and the magnificence of medieval cathedrals.  While it should be granted that not every grandiose expression of our technological potential is an instance of artistic beauty, it would be unfair, not to say dishonest, to condemn something as being de­void of any aesthetic value simply because it is a product of modern technology.  But then, as Margaret Hungerford  said, beauty is in the eye of the be­holder.

When we look at some of the human technological achievements with some sensitivity for the complexity of the science and engineering behind them, as well as in terms of what they accomplish in economic and cultural terms, we are also likely to experience an aesthetic experience of them.  From this perspective, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal, the Kennedy Center and even a giant supertanker may strike one as objects of beauty.

At much smaller scales, considerable effort is expended in modern technology for enhancing the aesthetic qualities of its products, and this for a simple reason: Whether it be an automobile or an airplane, a computer or a TV set, a telephone or a wrist-watch, the attractiveness of the final product plays as important a role as its functioning capabilities in the buyer’s decision.  As a result, technologies have also developed for the express purpose of making things beautiful.  Rendering objects smooth and symmetrical are no less important.  So too are different kinds of paints, attractive façades and veneers, compact and good-looking packages, calligraphic etchings, shining buttons, etc.  All these are as much part of present day technology as the technical components and arrangements that go into a product.

20 September 2010

11. Reflections on Technology: Interactions between Science and Technology

Scientific knowledge gave a significant boost to the Industrial Revolution in the course of the l9th century. Of no less signifi­cance is the contribution of technology to science.  Indeed, science would not be at the highly sophisticated level at which it is today without the enormous support it has re­ceived and continues to receive from technology.

Perhaps we could have expected this from an aspect of the scientific enterprise: namely, the need to refine and extend our sense perceptions through instruments.  Instruments are largely the creations of technology.  The more complex and varied technology becomes the more sophisti­cated and powerful its instrumental potential.  Consequently, with the evolution of technology the fields of exploration of science also expand in scope.

Consider such a simple looking thing as the lens: an ordinary curved piece of transparent material.  Its fabrication is a work of technology.  Its role in the un­raveling of the universe has been vital.  Had it not been for the lens, one could not have made the telescope, and the vision of the world prior to the invention of this instrument was far more incomplete and certainly inaccurate, based as it was on superficial impressions on the unaided eye.  The stellar structure of the Milky Way, the satellites of other planets, Saturn’s rings and planets beyond Saturn, double stars and galaxies, and many other aspects of the physical universe would for ever have remained hidden from human recognition.  At the other end of the scale, the whole world of minute structures and micro-organisms would have been beyond the bounds of human knowledge without the microscope, yet another contrivance that uses the lens.

Technology has thus enabled us to explore the extremes of the physical world.  Galactic distances and the deepest recesses of matter at the two ends of spatial exten­sions.  Likewise, one may consider extremes of temperature, from the very cold to the very hot, from the vicinity of absolute zero to temperatures of the order of a few mil­lion degrees.  With technology, these have been produced and studied, enriching scientific knowledge considerably.  It is technology that has permitted us to bring about situations of extremely fast speeds and very slow ones, thus enabling us to gain knowledge of the physical world under these conditions.  What happens to matter when it is subjected to extremes of pressure, by exposing it to a vacuum on the one hand, and to enormously great pressures on the other? Developments in techno­logy have made such conditions possible, and have contributed to our understanding of related phenomena.

A considerable amount of twentieth century science  and beyond is indebted  to modern technology.  The physics of elementary particles relies heavily on the most sophisti­cated high-energy machines which are among the technological marvels of our times.  Electron microscopes, instruments that can detect and measure substances in the minutest amounts, giant radio telescopes that can receive the faintest signals from the most distant galaxies, extremely fast photography, and, of course, all the power of the com­puter: these are but a few of the many supports that technology provides to the science of our times.

Technology has also enabled humans to confirm what we have been able to dis­cover through the mind.  Thus, much as we admire the launching of rockets and spaceships and applaud our landing on the moon, we should remember that the physics behind many of these accomplishments had been discovered by and known to many generations of scientists before.  The laws of projectile motion and of gravita­tion, the overall conditions on the moon, the chemistry of rocket fuels, all these had been studied in past centuries.  While it is true that new things have been learned by our entry into space, it is no less true that many of the physicist’s insights into condi­tions elsewhere in the planetary system have only been confirmed by that exploration.

Science is an intellectual effort.  The mind plays the central role in the scientific adventure.  But the human mind, unaided by interactions with the external world is somewhat like a huge sheet of blank paper with no pen and pencil to go with: that sheet is likely to remain blank for ever.  If a simple pencil corresponds to such interactions, we may compare technology to a whole array of equipments includ­ing pens and colored inks, chalks and erasers, paints and brushes, straight edges and compasses, etc.  With the help of these, the potential on the paper is increased enor­mously.  The talented individual can now write beautiful calligraphy, draw precise diagrams, paint pleasing pictures, and even design intriguing figurative puzzles on the sheet.  So it is with the impact of technology on science.

It is important to recognize this aspect of technology because, generally speaking, the word technology invokes images of huge factories, polluting smokestacks, auto­mation, supersonic jet planes, flat-screen TV, cell-phones, and such.  While these are no doubt expressions of techno­logy, there is also this other dimension to technology: the field of human understand­ing.  Indeed, it is not only in extending our knowledge of the world by providing as­sistance to the scientific enterprise that this dimension of technology serves us.  By actually achieving what may be only theoretically possible, such as going beyond the earth or viewing the microcosm, we gain a new awareness and perspective of our­selves.  We are raised to higher levels of consciousness.

September 18, 2010

10. Reflections on Technology: Energy Sources

There are essentially four kinds of energy sources:

(a) Cyclic sources: Some of our energy sources, though they are being used up, are also being continually re-formed.  The most important example of this is food energy.  Although it is being consumed regularly and ceaselessly, food is also being formed at the same time by the various processes of agriculture, farming, the breeding of ani­mals, etc.  This is also the case with wood.  As long as green plants (and the sun) are with us, this energy source will re-emerge regularly.  Note that a gigantic natural fac­tory is indispensable for this cycle to operate.  It is practically impossible for humans to accomplish this all by themselves.  Although we refer to this as a cyclic process it must be understood that it is not the energy that is being recycled, but rather the atoms and molecules that lock in the solar energy continuously pouring over the planet.  These molecules (in the form of food) merely serve as buckets to capture and maintain that energy.  Once the energy is used up, the bucket returns to the ground, practically demolished.  They are then formed again and filled with energy by the green plants, and come back to serve living creatures.

(b) Finite sources: Fossil fuels are among our chief sources of energy today.  It took nature several million years to form coal, oil, and gas.  But during the past cen­tury we have been using them at a fairly rapid rate.  Although we have used up barely 2% of these resources, with our increasing rate of consumption we will deplete the remaining 98% in less than a century.  There is only a finite amount of fossils buried underground.  These energy sources, on which present day technology largely de­pends, pose serious threats to our future for the simple reason that they will not be available for an indefinite period of time.  Even if we do not waste fossil fuels, a time will surely come, sooner or later, when it will all be depleted.  What will we do then? This is what prompts the search for other forms of energy.

These other forms come under two categories: Those sources of energy that are known to us, but which we have not yet been able to tap effectively; and those which are as yet unknown to us.

(c) As yet fully untapped sources: Nature is filled with huge reservoirs and trans­formations of energy.  Humans have recognized and calculated these stupendous sources.  But our plight is somewhat like that of the penniless pauper who is staring at the gloriously decorated display windows of a store:  He knows it is all there, but how can he lay his hands on them? Consider, for example, the energy liberated in a lightning flash.  It is equivalent to that obtained by burning 12 kg of coal, correspond­ing to the average energy consumption of a household during an entire month.  There are about 100 lightning flashes occurring in the earth’s atmosphere every second of a 24 hour day, and all this energy goes wasted as far as we are concerned.

Similarly, there is a constant flow of heat energy from the interiors of the earth to the surface, and the total amount of this exceeds that of humanity’s daily energy re­quirements.  But we have not yet developed realistic methods of harnessing this en­ergy, except when parts of it occasionally gush out through hot springs.  These are but two examples of such untapped sources.  Likewise, the oceans lash out tremendous amounts of energy as waves and tides: about 17 billion joules of energy each second, it has been estimated.  This is enormous compared to humanity’s current rate of use of electrical energy which is less than a billion joules a second.  Then there is all the wasted power in the winds, though small amounts of this are being captured by windmills here and there.  Finally, we have that (for all practical purposes) infinite reservoir of energy: our central star.  We get incredible amounts of energy from the sun interminably, and if we could only tap solar energy more effectively all our ener­gy problems (it would seem) would be solved once and for all.

(d) Speculative systems: Vast amounts of energy are given out in lightning flashes.  Harnessing that energy is as yet at too speculative a stage.  There are other such (as of now even theoretically) impractical ideas.  One has talked of tapping the rotational energy of the earth, the energy of cosmic rays, the energy from the great flux of neu­trinos that are cascading the earth in never ending torrents of great but imperceptible intensity.  None of these is taken seriously at the present time.

But imagination and speculation have always played a role, not only in literature and in art, but in pure and applied science as well.  As long as, in any given context, facts and realistic appraisals are carefully distinguished from interesting fantasies, there is no grave danger.  It is no doubt difficult sometimes to draw the line between science fiction and real science.  Indeed, occasionally the science fiction of one genera­tion becomes the science of the next.  And scientists themselves indulge in fantastic speculations, consciously or otherwise.  Speculative systems are as interesting, if not as valuable, as great ideals.

September 14, 2010

S. Kalyanaraman, Indus Script Cipher: Hieroglyphics of Indian Linguistic Area, 2010

The interpretation of ancient records is no easy task. It is difficult enough when the records are in archaic versions of currently known languages, and even more difficult when they are in scripts long out of use. This was the case, for example, with Egyptian hieroglyphics. But human curiosity and ingenuity will not give up the quest to decipher what our distant ancestors were recording.
So it was that the tireless work of people like Athanasius Kircher, Sylvestre de Saci and others in the eighteenth century led to the triumph of Jean-François Champollion who finally deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics and rendered into a modern language portions of the famous Rosetta Stone.
Ever since the unearthing of relics of a pre-Vedic civilization in North-Western India, dating back to more than 5,500 years, scholars have been attempting to figure out what those seals, the first of which caught the eyes of Alexander Cunningham  in the 1870s, actually convey. In due course, two schools of thought developed in this regard: one insisting that it was no script at all, but merely unconnected drawings of an artistic nature; and the other convinced that the unearthed seals were actually elements of a systematic linguistic system. In the first decade of the twenty first century, the scholarly debates on this issue  degenerated into mutually name-calling platforms from which the proponents of the two views began to argue against each other more vociferously than for their own respective thesis.
That is more or less the background of this book which is the fruit of decades of dedication to break through the veil of symbols and uncover what they really stand for. The book is a rich and fascinating collection of Indic hieroglyphics, reproduced in black and white, organized, systematized, and presented with informative commentaries, copious references, and insightful annotations on each.
The central thesis of the book is that artisans of  the Indus civilization “created the Indus writing system,” and furthermore that “artisans of proto-indic language families … and Dravidian (languages)  interacted with one another, absorbed many glosses and structural language features from one another.” An insight informing  the decipherment seems to be that “the underlying language whose glosses are used in the key is mleccha (meluhha).” We are reminded that “Mleccha was substratum language  of bharatiyo (casters of metal) many of whom lived in dvîpa (land between two rivers – Sindhu and  Sarasvati – or islands on Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Khambat, Makran coast and along the Persian Gulf region of Meluhha).”
There can be little doubt that the  author S. Kalyanaraman is eminently equipped for this study. Versatile in many Indian languages, he is also deeply devoted to Indic culture and history. In 2003 he brought out an impressive five-volume work on Saravati Civilization. His erudition and thorough familiarity with the subject matter shine through every page of the book. In normal times this book would be hailed by one and all in the field as a worthy contribution to the Indus decipherment quest. But this is not likely to happen. That is because there is still a deep divide  in the scholarly world on the question of whether Indus scripts embody a language or  are random and unorganized representations of a variety of ideas and information. This book may not resolve the divergent perspectives once for all. While drawing on the pioneering work of scholars like Iravatham Mahadevan and Asko Parpola, the author takes on some of the established authorities in the field and is not shy of pointing out (what he perceives as) their errors. Without naming Steve Farmer or Michael Witzel explicitly, the book also challenges the view of the staunch upholders of the thesis that the Indus valley civilization had no written language, i.e. that it was non-literate. He asks rhetorically how one can characterize as illiterate a civilization with so many tangible references to heraldry, agriculture, myths, magic, rituals, religious, socio-political,  economic functions and the like. This raises the important question of whether there can be sophisticated culture and civilizations without literacy, i.e. a written language.
This book is a precious compendium of the treasure chest of the ancient tablets left by men and women of distant generations. To probe into the possible meanings of those silent seals is a commendable pursuit indeed. The next time one comes across the figure of an antelope or the carving of a papal leaf, the etching of a waistband or any other allograph or rebus, one can always refer to this fascinating book: a twentieth century Champollionesque pictographic dictionary that persuades the reader that the entries could very well have been entities of an once living language.
One may expect severe criticism of the work from experts holding on to competing views, both on the methodology and the conclusions of the work. But then, it is rather doubtful that there will ever be unanimity of this complex challenge to our investigations on this matter, all the more so because history, even ancient history, is wrought with political slants and cultural colorings in our times. But these will not, indeed these should not, diminish the scholarly substance and learned arguments presented in the book. I earnestly hope that scholars in the field will give due and serious consideration to the merits of the book.
One can find European books cluttered with Lain, Greek, French, German, and Italian words. But it is not easy to find a book so richly interspersed with words in diverse Indian languages as one sees here: Tamil and Sanskrit, Bengali and Munda and more. The average reader who barely knows two languages, and can read only things in the Roman script may therefore find the book somewhat difficult to plow through. But for those who are familiar with more than one alphabet, and are willing to listen with interest to an enriching perspective on this more than a century old puzzle, this book must be a treat.
I read Indus Script Cipher, not as an expert but only as an educated layman.  I feel strongly that Dr. Kalyanaraman deserves  the respect and gratitude of his readers, and most of all Indian readers many of whom are either ignorant of or unfamiliar with this fascinating subject. At the very least it will make them aware that we have meaningful and concrete relics of a civilization that thrived on Indian soil more than five millennia ago. The contemplation of our ancestors and their achievements is an integral part of both history and cultural continuity.

September 14, 2010