Human rights and science
The death of Galileo Galilei under house arrest,following his incrimination on being found “vehemently suspect of heresy” has etched a lasting memory of injustice, unfairness and a dystopia which stems from a society that does not respect its rights and lacks scientific temper as well as imagination. This was in fact, an episodic trait which marked the dark ages of mankind. The medieval period or the dark age was characterised by men and women who were subservient to authority, lacked any curiosity and fascination and had no claims, privileges, powers or entitlements. They were under the yoke of power which was absolute and arbitrary. In the words of Immanuel Kant, man was under his self-incurred tutelage, and lacked courage to make use of his reason.
Enlightenment was man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. The Age of Enlightenment was characterised by mankind’s resolve to reason. Toreason became de-rigueur. In the words of Lord Byron, “ Those who will not reason, are bigots ;those who cannot, are fools ; and those who dare not, are slaves.” The major consequence of enlightenment or man’s ability to reason was that man developed a scientific and empirical bent of mind. He started questioning authority as well as its didactics. In a way dialectics soon replaced didactics. This newly found inquisitiveness helped man to understand that there are certain rights that are inherent in mankind. Man understood that nature has endowed man with certain rights that cannot be taken away arbitrarily. Right to life, liberty and property were thus coined as inalienable natural rights of man.
This unearthing and revelation of natural rights unleashed the forces of liberty, creativity and imagination. It gave further impetus to scientific revolution that fueled discoveries, inventions and cutting edge technologies. It is ironical that these technologies were to later on consume the very hand that fed them. With a growing plethora of arms and ammunitions precipitated by technological advancements, the world witnessed two world wars and a number of small wars which keep recurring. These wars severely destroy man’s ability enjoy his rights. The interwar period characterised by fascism is characteristic of complete capitulation of natural rights. Various ideologies like that of nationalism, communism, religious jingoism have time and again put to test man’s ability to enjoy his natural rights, and continue to do so. It was in this light, Universal Declaration of Human Rights were proclaimed to be inalienable, inherent and applicable to all human beings regardless of their nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic Origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.
Today a number of states are democratic and practice and propagate a liberal way of life. These states as well as societies under these states uphold the human rights and enforce them, keeping in check any actions or intentions meant to harm them. Such states as well as societies, that are characterised by a general will to uphold and respect the human rights again provide a fertile ground for the rekindling of scientific temper and imagination. It further spurs scientific innovation and leads to emergence of technologies which are not only futuristic but rather consequential. Thus, it can be said without an iota of doubt that for science and Technology to flourish, a strong foundation provided by rights is essential.
To this end, even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, under article 27 explicitly mentions that everyone has the right freely to participate in thecultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefitsand that Everyone has the right to the protection ofthe moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author. However, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. The undemocratic or weakly democratic societies seldom get this right, in many cases the rich and the powerful are able to get the better of these rights. Also, at times it is the technology which itself crucifies the rights intentionally as well as unintentionally. Surely, history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as a farce.
Today, we live in a global world. It is a world were the boundaries are fading, technologies have reduced the world into a global village. The advancements made in information and communication as well as transportation has made distances and languages irrelevant. Globalisation is akin to reduction in barriers. It is an advancement in human evolution, it has made us more innovative, more entrepreneurial, more plural, more tolerant and more united than ever. However, globalisation is janus-faced, a double edged sword. It has also made the world more vulnerable, the inequality is on the rise, today we face forces of destruction which are global in scale. Man’s greed for profits entails search of bigger markets and replacement of labour with capital. Globalisation has in fact made the world a single market and technologies are replacing human labour at a rate not imagined before. Such scenario creates only a few winners. Billions of people find themselves bereft of the benefits these technologies bring along, and to make matters worse, are often victims of these technologies, pawns intended to bring profits.
Even the states are resorting to iniquitous and ignoble usage of technologies to further surveillance and totalitarian tendencies. Technologies are used to manipulate behaviour. In a sense technology as a tool is being used to kill the reasoning ability in a subtle and elusive manner. Technology has the potential to enslave mankind in unimaginable and ineffable ways. It’s not a bit of surprise that today the voting patterns can be manipulated, our online preferencescan be marked and exploited for pecuniary and political gains, our health data can be cashed in forinsidious physiological and psychologicalengineering, so on and so forth. Every aspect of our lives today is vulnerable to science and technology, its advancements and evil manipulation. One major reason for this quandary is lack of basic rights to equal or equitable access to science and technology. These technologies are controlled by big corporations or states, the ordinary people are often at the receiving end of these technologies and do not share scientific advancements and benefits these technologies bring along.
Today shareholders of corporations benefit more from the stakeholders which constitute humanity as a whole. These shareholders of corporations with cutting edge technologies have grown to be very influential as well as powerful. Although, the primary responsibility of maintenance and enforcement of the rights lies with the state, it is often these big corporates who are invading the space of states. With advancements in technologies, today these corporations have practically the access to all facets of our personal lives, which they monetise at will. Certain public goods like education, basic healthcare, clean environment etc. too has come under the control of these big corporations. They are no longer free from the market imperatives.
In this light, there is a general public awareness which is growing. Based on logical and critical analysis of the deployed technologies, today concerned citizens are demanding newer generation of rights like right to be forgotten, right to privacy, right to clean environment, right over personal dataetc. As we have witnessed earlier science and technology prospers as long as rights in the society are respected and sustained. With newer technologies there is always a threat of an impending breach of rights and return to authoritarianism. Thus, mankind must make constant endeavour to keep evolving our rights which are inalienable and inherent so that no technology can act to the contrary. Human rights too is an evolving process which must keep pace with the technological advancements, both must act as two wheels of a cart- the cart of human development.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the chinks in the armour of human rights. It has also exposed the pernicious nature of globalisation marked with narrow self interests. The global pandemic needed a collective global response based on the central premise that all humans are equal. However it were only a handful of nations which had the money and the technology to cope up with the virus upsurge efficiently. Billions of people in poor and downtrodden nations are yet to have preventive and curative measures developed against the virus. With technology making leaps and bounds during the pandemic in the domains of healthcare and education, it were only those who had the requisite resources who eventually benefitted from the advancements the technology made during the pandemic. COVID-19 has caused major disruptions in all spheres of our lives across the globe, but only a few nations can claim to get life back on track. Almost all weaker states are still struggling for vaccinations, their death toll is rising, education has suffered and livelihoods of people lost. The Universality attached to human rights seems to be a mirage, a distant dream.
Today, we have on the horizon technologies like Artificial intelligence, metaverse, robotics, big data analytics, internet of things, genetic engineering, neurological advancements etc. Such technologies to name a few have potential to alter the humanistic way of life forever. However, as recent events have taught us, often these technologies have differential impact on different socio-economic and political groups. Also the rules, regulations and laws to regulate these technologies are often found in a catch 22 situation vis-à-vis the changing nature of these technologies. Adding to that, some technological conglomerates are so big, that they assume to themselves the functions of the state, for instance Mark Zuckerberg who owns WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram has a huge tab on the private lives of their users without any explicit accountability.
It’s a pity that today even the basic rights which were envisaged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not fulfilled in major part of the world, and humanity as a whole is at a cusp of another technological revolution. This chasm between the science and technology and socio-political awareness can turn back the clock on humanity and we may again be entering the dark ages. The Monarchs and the Churches of the medieval era will be replaced by surveillance states and technological conglomerates of the future. This dystopian future is not far away, technology is mutating at an exponential rate while our morality, ethics, laws and collective reason takes forever to keep up with the changing times.
Today, we need to redefine our basic human rights and need to ensure stronger enforcement which is global in nature and character. The right to remedy against the breach of basic Human rights needs to be absolute, if mankind needs to avert another catastrophic age. The need of the hour, is to create global institutions and institutional frameworks which can map the changing nature of technology and their impact on humankind along with a global legislative body which can frame laws that can regulate and keep in check these technologies in line with the revised human rights of mankind. Covid-19 is just a teaser of what the future beholds. Today we have a habit of looking at things in binaries of rich-poor, west-east, north-south, developed-underdeveloped etc. However with growing globalisation and increasing technological infiltration the binaries will cease to matter.
As COVID 19 has shown, no American is potentially safe until the last human is vaccinated against the virus, thus nationalities should cease to matter- the writing is on the wall. The future of mankind rests on this fundamental basis that all humans are equal, equal dignity inheres in all of them, and are subject to equal rights. Only a united mankind with revised set of human rights which gives equal respect to each other can face the disruptive changes, science and technology are going to unleash. Science and technology are only tools, their ultimate usage depends upon the possessor of the tools. While divided and narrow minded groups can use it to further promote disease, ignorance, inequality, poverty, crime, exploitation on earth which goes against the basic assumption that all humans are equal; a united mankind can create for the posterity a planet which is peaceful, prosperous and happy.