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Home News Power Sector News COMPUTERS - new tool in the hands of 'knowledge workers'

COMPUTERS - new tool in the hands of 'knowledge workers'

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(Edited version of talk at the meeting of the Officers' Association of KSEB at Thiruvananthapuram on 12.5.1992)
The modern computers, no doubt, are in the centre stage of technological change. While computers have grown in their capacity to perform and liberate the lime of the workers, as also in increasing productivity, it has also the potential to affect the economics of developing countries in a negative way. The computers have in the past been termed 'machines', but right now they are just 'tools' and is up to us to use this tool to our best advantage.

(Edited version of talk at the meeting of the Officers' Association of KSEB at Thiruvananthapuram on 12.5.1992)
The modern computers, no doubt, are in the centre stage of technological change. While computers have grown in their capacity to perform and liberate the lime of the workers, as also in increasing productivity, it has also the potential to affect the economics of developing countries in a negative way. The computers have in the past been termed 'machines', but right now they are just 'tools' and is up to us to use this tool to our best advantage. It is my hope and wish that this tool be utilised also for purposes other than education and awareness creation. I have few suggestions to make in this regard.

The advantages of using computers, in almost all walks of life, is now a fact of common knowledge. There is not even a single sphere of activity which cannot use computers for improving matters. I do not want to reiterate those aspects. But, technological changes such as those fuelled by the developments in the field of computers are so explosive that it would disrupt, if not properly guided, llie whole economic system, even in a nation as large, as rich and as varied as ours.

During the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19lh centuries, society was ill equipped, economically, psychologically, politically and sociologically, to cope with the hardships that arouse due to mechanisation and the factory system. As a result, it demanded harsh and difficult socio-political and techno- economic re-adjustments. But, during the present micro- electronics fuelled revolution, we can neither afford, nor do we need to accept, a repetition of similar strains. Though, there is no lime to waste with fast changes in technology, there is probably enough interval to absorb shocks. It is not yet a story where 'tomorrow is cancelled' due to ultra fast changes in technology. But, such a situation is around the corner.

It is historical knowledge that the availability of technical knowledge alone will not suffice to have it being accepted and implemented as such. The best such example is the history of Railways. The Armagh train disaster which killed 80 people in Britain - a major one of yester years - was not because there was no technology to avert such a mishap. The continuous vacuum brake was invented much earlier. There was also a Railway Inspectorate to guarantee public safety, since 1842. Yet, it happened because none of the Railway companies cared to introduce the continuous vacuum braking system for preventing run away conditions of compartments, saying that it puts them at a 'Competitive disadvantage', if the other companies do not spend on it. It required public pressure after the accident to pressurise the government to enact a Bill to this effect. Similarly, it look the efforts of Ralph Nader in USA, who wrote the book 'Unsafe at any speed' and others to protect the interests of consumers.

Workers' unions and scientific workers have a responsibility to guide technological changes for their own benefit and that of the society. A nucleus of such responsibility was evident after the first world war, in the Association of Scientific Workers of U.K. with labour government in position, the Association look initiative in drafting a 'Policy for Science and the Nation'. Thus, they included a Chapter on 'Consumer Research : How to assess our requirements' in this document policy. Though the Government is a protector of public interests, managements in general do only 'lop-down' research. Market research is always lied up with producer's interest. Consumer Research from below is, therefore, very important. Collective groups of intellectuals, whether they are while collar group or not, are at present to be considered as 'Knowledge workers' as they are one exposed to severe 'exploitation' by the managements.

People's research with scientists and workers

pooling their on- the-job knowledge is best exemplified by the workers of ICI in UK and the caslellanica branch of Montedison in the 1970s (both MNCs involved in major chemical industries). They prepared a list of noxious chemical industries). They prepared a list of noxious chemicals in common use, their break down into components and their brand names, since the product labels concealed the actual contents and consumers were helpless against this. Though this group had to close down later, their activities were a pointer to the future. The social responsibility of scientists was further highlighted by the 'Science Shops' movement in the Netherlands, which spread later to the whole of Europe. Started in the University of Utrecht, the science shops were managed by few scientists from the universities who solicited problems for solution from industrial workers, farmers and the citizen's groups etc. Though the universities forced these shops to be closed, a strong student agitation in mid 70s, helped not only to re-establish them, but required of all universities to have them in each University and meet the expenses of 2 or 3 scientists out of University budget.

The micro-electronics revolution - the computer boom is part of tills spurt - is basically a management initiated change. It is still controlled by the giant industrialised nations. The share of the developing countries in it, is still insignificant. Though advances in technology are labour saving, what happens overall is not the easing of work. For the last 200 years or so, the trend has been to intensify the skilled work, downgrade the skilled work to the unskilled level and exchange the unskilled work to unemployment. Using the fast information processing ability of cheap electronic equipments, managements can drastically reduce the amount of knowledge which belongs to the job. This may lead to reduction in pay, status and employment. While the current price of the salaries may have been higher than the past, in most cases, they are paid only below the inflation level. Software industry in India, is a typical case. It is an accepted fact that higher productivity will increase employment in the long run, but during the transition, deliberate efforts are required to minimise temporary frictions and strains. Otherwise, the externally propelled changes will confront us, before we can come to terms with it. The time released by changes in work processes and work methods must be put at the disposal of workers including the knowledge workers - the category in which you and I belong. It has been our tradition to equate leisure with idleness and idleness with sin. The fact remains that even in this modern era, the idea of educating the masses for 'leisure' is not even suggested.

I repeat, the knowledge workers also have a role to play. In the course of a day's work, an employee who keeps his eyes and cars open and is tuned to the problems of the workers and their 'users' (in electricity, it is the society at large), he can pick up many things which an outsider or even the top down research of the management can never get drift of.

The most modern tool, viz. the '486 computer' in the hands of the Officers' Association of KSEB should necessarily be used for increasing the computer awareness of its members and their families, to undertake part of official studies -certainly on payment basis, but should not stop with that.

It should further be put to use for doing 'Consumer Research' relevant to the industry you are in. There are innumerable problems of great consequence to the consumers which need only a quick run through a large volume of location specific data at a lower level, than a sophisticated technology or a software package evolved out of a theoretical exercise. For eg. How do low tension supply interruptions occur, where do they most often occur and why, how docs a poor household or a small consumer of any type perceive and experience in real life, the loss of reliability or a frequent and prolonged supply interruption, How does our energy system affect our economy; industry, agriculture or service sectors? The question is whether we arc able to suggest alternative strategies to cope with or tackle these situations. These studies need not stop at issues of a mundane nature. What is going to be the impact of the very computer itself on our daily lives, on employment scene, on the economic front? If negative trends arc in focus, how can we help ourselves from the-onslaught of the ill-effects of such technology transitions? It is high lime that trade unions, forum of knowledge workers and even government of the developing countries develop alternative strategies of use of modern technologies, so that it does not ultimately niter in evils to the less developed economics, retaining the fruits to the so called 'investors' in this technology. This is all the more important, since multi-national corporations will not decentralise their R&D activities and at the same lime they would also insist on exerting control over the dissemination of technical knowledge. The debates going on, on the intellectual property rights and the US sanctions on our ISRO and the Glay Kosmos of Russia arc not to be seen lightly. A sentence from a not so recent Report of OECD should help to open our eyes. It says, "The intellectual Capital constitutes the major asset of the industrialised countries in the new modes of international competition and interdependences".

Even in the famous 'North-South' dialogue, known also as the Report of the Willy Brandt Commission, 'A programme for survival', there is a pica which reads "consideration should be given to the creation of a new international financial institution - a World Development Fund - with universal membership, and in which decision making is more evenly shared between lenders and borrowers, to supplement existing institutions and diversify lending policies and practices..." Even in this report, the right of private capital to dictate the forms of technical developments is left basically unchallenged. The effect of inter-dependence, as we have come to know, has been to institutionalise the exploitation mechanisms and not to ensure greater equality.

Therefore, of greater consequence is the direction of technical development and the mode of sharing the fruits of improved productivity within the economics concerned. The Andean Pact group of countries vi/. Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador have tried to develop a critique of technological dependency, in which it is linked both to a system of internal technological co-operation with each other. The 'Group of 77' covering 120 countries, including India have also been fully aware of the consequences of the present technology transfer mechanisms and the effect of increased concentration of international trade within MNCs and their constituents and associates (extending to about 40% of all trans-country global sales). An attempt is also being made within these countries to present a common negotiating front to the technology suppliers. But, such official moves arc far from adequate. The computers in the hand of 'Knowledge Workers', I would suggest, should be used effectively to give a new direction and dimension to the emergence of alternative strategies for the intricate, but all important international exchange and transfer of technologies encouraging more and more technology sales within developing countries and sharing of the benefits of increased productivity within the nations of the 'South'. An alternative use of the computers is what I expect of you.

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