How can science and technology converse with democracy? A workshop report
Shashank Deora and Gaurav Kapse
February 6, 2023 | Report-Backs
Science and technological advancements ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to new biomedical breakthroughs continue redefining socio-political relationships across the globe through ideas such as smart cities, data-driven surveillance, and mandatory vaccinations. However, these ideas are simultaneously shaped by the socio-political realities of the day. Similar traditional and novel entanglements of science, technology and society were in discussions at the two-day workshop organised by the Centre for Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi on December 8 and 9, 2022.
The workshop was part of a newly launched larger initiative which is also being coordinated by CSDS. This initiative attempts to delve into and critically examine the interactions of science and technology with democratic politics in India. One of the primary objectives of this initiative is to try and understand the kind of interventions in Indian academia that can help further the dialogue between science, technology and democracy, also identifying the kind of questions that need to be asked of such an inquiry or dialogue in the present-day context.
This brainstorming workshop brought together Indian scholars working in diverse academic disciplines on different aspects of science, technology and democracy. Being first in a series of events, the workshop aimed at building a conversation among the diverse disciplines from which the participating scholars came. It was an attempt to generate shared imagination among participants of the institutional, pedagogical, and conceptual form that a field of study dealing with science, technology, and democratic politics, may take.
Participants in the workshop discussed very diverse kinds of research work, debating over crucial insights from them. The deliberations in the workshop though focused on the socio-political context in India, have wide-ranging significance for other countries of the Global South.
During one of the presentations at the workshop. Image courtesy: Sachin
Starting with an invocation by Rajeswari S. Raina of the American economist Robert L. Heilbroner’s question ‘Do machines make history?’, the workshop participants spoke about re-examining if and how can Science & Technology Studies (STS) help with the contemporary issues of economic disparity, social inequity and the threats to environmental sustainability. Some of the discussed research concerns the engagement of STS with urban. Rohit Negi and Vasundhara Bhojvaid, for instance, highlighted the problem of air pollution in cities and its multiple edges – an incomplete knowledge of the problem and possible solutions, the difference in disciplinary training of actors coming together to address the problem, policies for air quality management, future implications of both the air pollution and the air quality management policies for the social and economic equity.
Harish Damodaran, C. Shambu Prasad and Mekhala Krishnamurthy delved into the interactions of science and technology with the rural by discussing their research examining issues concerning agriculture in India, for instance. Among other aspects, their presentations highlighted the limitations of the top-down technology-focused policy environment and the technology-driven institutional reforms. A top-down technology-focused policy environment in agriculture does not recognise the culture of decentralised innovation by non-scientists. Another research concerning rural presented by Pankaj Sekhsaria identified the possibilities of documenting non-institutionalised technological innovations in rural areas as a democratic practice.
Arjun Ghosh and Venu Madhav Govindu brought out the issues and challenges concerning the frontiers of traditional science and technology domains and the nature of scientific practices. They alerted the workshop participants of the pitfalls and inadequacies of artificial intelligence in simulating human decision-making and the digital practices of converting all human knowledge into data and capturing it as propriety knowledge. Similarly, the role of digital designers in influencing democratic processes needs to be examined and questioned ethically, as Saumyaa Naidu’s research presentation suggested. The role of digital designers in democratic processes is growing with the increasing use of illustrative designs for activities like protests or election campaigns. The presentation by L. S. Shashidhara brought attention to the democracy embedded in science practices through the falsifiability of hypotheses and an open peer review system, which, when compromised, contribute to an inequitable and unsustainable society.
Among many critical insights from these discussions is the need to challenge the unquestioned pursuit of technology-led solutions, as highlighted in the presentation by Anant Kamath. Challenging this unquestioned pursuit requires placing knowledge and its inquiry instead of technology at the centre of democratic discourse. For this, another workshop participant Jahnavi Phalkey suggested that we must recognise and acknowledge the uncertainty and tentativeness associated with both – scientific knowledge and democratic politics.
However, has the STS scholarship in India reached a juncture where it can help facilitate this recognition among the learners of science? One of the participants, Aasim Khan, pointed out the need to democratise the domains of STS and the history of science themselves – to bring them out of their domain constraints – so that they can engage with the messiness of democratic politics. Renny Thomas and Gautam I Menon articulated the challenges of teaching courses with an STS perspective to students of both traditional science and liberal science at India’s higher education institutes.
The workshop participants recognised that STS, as a field of inquiry, has minimal recognition in Indian academia. There is a rare presence of STS scholars and formal STS programmes in India’s mainstream science and engineering education institutes.
However, whether and how STS, as a separate and standalone discipline in traditional science and technology academic institutes, can offer different and comparatively better than existing possibilities and avenues for the conversation between science, technology, and democracy? This question remains one of the multiple points to ponder emerging from the workshop.