Tuesday, 13 January 2009

KNOWLEDGE SOCIETY DEBATES: A BATTLE OF ENLIGHTENMENTS

By SHANTI MAHENDRA

Bangalore was second location on the STEPS Centre's Knowledge Society debates three-city tour of India,on the 8-9 January. The public discussion in Bangalore, entitled ‘Knowledge Futures in the Innovation City’, touched on a good many subjects including: 'knowledge’ never being innocent or existing alone; there being more to the talk of ‘knowledge society’ than research and development budgets alone; that directions taken by innovation embody wider political choices and carry more pervasive social implications; and that different pathways for agricultural innovation, for example, may empower farmers, seed producers or food retailers in different ways.

Shiv Visvanathan, an advisor with the STEPS Centre, set the debate in motion, positing a challenge to the audience asking them to re-define what they understand by ‘democracy’ in the Indian context. “The crisis faced by the West today, is a battle of the Enlightenments, as the European Union and United States of America seek to construct narratives which can speak simultaneously of science and democracy. We cannot have a celebration of innovation, without also remembering to raise a dirge to obsolescence,” he said.

Obaid Siddiqi, Professor Emeritus at the National Council for Biological Sciences at Bangalore, started by musing about the accuracy of the term ‘knowledge society’, wondering if it wasn’t something of a hyperbole. He then went on to discuss the state of Indian higher education today, and what the probable causes for its dismal state might be.

Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard University and a STEPS Centre advisor reflected on how and why we are poised at a particularly interesting moment in time now. She says “we can now see clearly the ramifications of the 20th century – the emergence of all things ‘mass’ – mass communication, mass entertainment, mass education and mass destruction, all aided by science and technology.” This perhaps makes it apt moment to consider how this has come about and the directions

Physicist Srikanth Sastry of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research then took the stage, speaking about how private players are on the rise in Science and Technology. “Technological solutions are not ‘complete’ ones – that they might be is an illusion. We need a different imagination for the role of science in India today,” he said.

Andy Stirling, the Co-Director of the STEPS Centre, spoke about the “crucial commonalities facing us today, in the way high-level politics is engaging with what is known as ‘knowledge society’”. He said, “Their definition of it is limiting, though – it is relegated to science and technology exclusively. Which knowledges and innovations to support, how and to what degree, are the most urgent political questions of the hour. We need to open up a more mature politics of choice, if this is going to work.”

The final speaker of the day Vijay Chandru, Chairman & CEO, Strand Life Sciences, said we had to guard against getting “carried away by paradigms that are not necessarily the right or only ones – the terms knowledge economy or society are a reflection of our aspirations to reap demographic dividends. We are a relationship-based culture as opposed to a rule-based one, and we’d do well to remember this difference.”

An engaging public discussion followed, throwing up reflections and questions ranging from the homogenisation of ‘knowledges’ in this day and age, to the impossibility of ‘originality’ in a world increasingly seeking clones, intolerant of deviances from the norm.

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