Communities, Technology, and Participation vs Emtech

March 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

I had the opportunity to drop in briefly to Emtech India a couple of days ago, and the contrast between it and the Communities, Technology, and Participation workshop was striking. There was some overlap in topics – quite a few of the presentations at Emtech touch on issues related to accessibility and development, and some of the presentations that I attended showed concern for social justice issues. However, the paradigm that everyone was working within at each of the events seemed to be radically different.

To give an example, Daniel Nocera’s presentation on ‘The Future of Energy’ demonstrated a clear interest in how to deal with global inequalities and the problems caused by our existing energy use. At the same time, though, there was no critique of the underlying assumptions behind the idea that technology will solve complex political problems related to the distribution of resources on a national and global scale, and no critique of the narrative of development.

The second very striking example came during Jeffrey Karp’s talk on ‘Successful Innovation at MIT’. Karp was discussing Robert Langer as a one of the best at MIT when it came to commercialising academic research, and said that Langer’s use of wide “blocking patents” (find a reasonably good explanation here) was a key part of his strategy. During the question session, nobody asked what these patents might mean for the accessibility of government-funded research, or the ability of other people to build on research, or any other ethical questions.

In contrast, discussion at Communities, Technology, and Participation regularly questioned the idea that technology can solve the world’s problems alone and that “development” is an unproblematic framework. There was no discussion about whether it’s a good idea to block other people’s research in order to make more money at the workshop, largely because I don’t think anyone would argue for the position.

Going to Emtech was more of a culture shock for me than coming to India. It was also an excellent reminder that there are plenty of spaces in which the ideas I take for granted (like the need to take a critical perspective on science, technology, and “economic development”) are wholly absent.

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