Monday, April 24, 2017

Of machines, cyborgs, an old imp, and a spinning-wheel (also, technically, a machine)

G. Ramachandran, a young scholar from Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore's ode to life, learning, and all that is beautiful, spent a few days with Gandhi in Delhi, in October 1924. Bapu took the time to engage in wide-ranging conversations with this young student, and in them, the two covered much ground. Ramachandran managed to draw out the old man's views on art (anything that "helps the soul to realize its inner self"),  how beauty and truth are effectively the same (I didn't realise how much he loved Keats before I read this), and ultimately, how he felt about machines, given his well-known aversion to them, on account of the fact that they 'dwarfed' human capacity. Ramachandran asked Gandhi quite straightforwardly if he was against all machinery - or the idea of machines, even. To this, Gandhi's response was one which might have surprised his young interlocutor: "How can I be when I know that even this body is a most delicate piece of machinery? The spinning-wheel itself is a machine; a little tooth-pick is a machine. What I object to, is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on "saving labour" till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might,"[1] (my emphasis). Remarkably prescient for a text that is 93 years old, don't you think?

And why, pray, do I feel the need to revisit Bapu today, apart from the fact that I'm currently spending my days at the Ashram (and my nights reading that other architect of modern India, Babasaheb Ambedkar)? We were asked, this month, to think about what it means for us as a species, living and working our way through the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' which seems to be upon us. I would imagine this means dealing with the ubiquity of the internet, fast-changing everything we  do, the ways in which we 'know' (in terms of knowledge production/dissemination, the professions that are currently available to us, economic and business models and c.); more, we'd also have to venture into the post-human space (and you would have no choice but to recognise quite quickly how much the 'future' looks like the present when you read about the various biohackers, cyborgs and other suchlike who 'walk among us' already[2], or note the popularity of shows like the dystopian (but is it? really?) 'Black Mirror' which indicate the firm grapple-hold this theme seems to have on popular culture, always an excellent barometer of the spiritus mundi).

But I realise I haven't answered my question yet, and to it my response is a simple one: the reason I bring Gandhi into play today, to frame this discussion, is that I don't see how we can theorise the so-called Fourth Revolution when we haven't adequately managed to wrest ourselves from its predecessor: you know, the one which gave us Modernity (with a capital M, no less). In the form of late-capitalism and the global corporate order we function (or, more accurately labour and suffer) under today, this is not something we've finished living through quite yet. From it emerges that which will be, and this is why something that was true in 1924  remains so to-day: we run the risk of being 'dwarfed' by technology; slaves to machines (big ones, of course, but so too little ones, as Tagore was to remind Gandhi, on the subject of his precious spinning-wheel). How are machines or the 'craze' for them which now seems inescapable, given how thoroughly they've permeated every aspect of our existence, going to transform our lives? In myriad ways, forcing upon us new epistemes; reconfigurations in how we define 'privacy', 'relationships', 'knowledge', 'work', 'leisure', and other givens around which we've thus far constructed meaning in and for our lives. Is there a chance that this will have to involve re-imagining and re-defining what is meant by the descriptor 'human' itself? Hasn't it always?         

[1] CWMG, Vol. 25, pp 247-256.  You can access the entire 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi at the Sabarmati Ashram's online archive,

[2] See this fascinating piece for more: human-biohackers-embed-chips-their-bodies-n150756

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