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Science, Technology and Society International Conference – Some Afterthoughts

Posted by Samuel Tettner at Mar 14, 2011 05:25 PM |
An international conference on Science, Technology and Society was held at the Indore Christian College on March 12 and 13. It was sponsored by the Madhya Pradesh Council of Science and Technology, Bhopal and organized by the Indore Christian College. Samuel Tettner, Digital Natives Coordinator from the Centre for Internet and Society attended this conference and is sharing his experience about the workshop.

This past weekend I attended the “Science, Technology and Society International Conference”. The experience was one of learning, more so on the idiosyncrasies and social particularities of academic research than on the subject matters presented at the conference. 

I arrived in Indore late on Friday night; my plan was to just check into the hotel and watch some Tom and Jerry before falling asleep. Then I met the conference organizer, the head of the Department of Sociology at the Indore Christian College, who informed me that I would be one of the key-note speakers the next day and that I had around 40 minutes of speaking time. My presentation at that time was around 20 minutes, so there was less Tom and Jerry than expected. This was the first indication of the interesting cultural experience I was about to have.

As I navigated the rather austere streets of Indore, I realized that this was really a modest city. Not in population of course, because Indian cities are huge compared to pretty much anywhere else in the world, but in its aspirations. I quickly noticed I was the only white person on the streets. “I made the conference international”, I thought, but I was wrong: There was one more white person, a middle aged man from Hungary named Laszlo who had come to present his research on population. And so as the first day of the conference rolled on, Laszlo and I got a taste of some bizarre reverence that continued throughout the two days. I can’t say for sure if it’s the result of some colonial baggage, the Indian tradition of treating guests like gods, may be a combination of both, the truth is that we got treated with way too much respect and an uncanny humility that was at times a bit embarrassing. Laszlo and I got to sit on the stage, next to the former Indian ambassador to Fiji, the head of the college, and other conference organizers. 

The influence of Hinduism in more rural areas is very visible, on the stage next to the podium was a huge representation of Saraswati (goddess of wisdom) and there was a constant puja being offered to her. I thought of the academia, the temple of rationality, the house of reason, surely cannot co-exist with the world of religion. It can, if anyone in the world can make it happen, it’s the Indians. There were floral offerings, and introductions, and dedications. It seemed the organizers were very concerned with decorum and pomp and circumstance, pleasing local government officials (I recognized them because they were fat and everyone smiled at them awkwardly) and maintaining a tradition I got the feeling they didn’t understand properly. This whole exercise was ironic to me, as the building was almost in ruins, there was no proper ventilation, and the restrooms were a complete mess with no proper running water, and so on. 

Finally I got to speak. I only got 15 minutes because one local man (maybe a friend of one of the local politicians) took his sweet time delivering his speech. This was definitely not my crowd. I was presenting a small paper I wrote called “iCare: Emergent Forms of Technology-mediated Activism” which was basically a summary of two of the findings of “Digital Natives with a Cause?”: One was a concept of activism which moves away from one time campaigns and looks at the practice of activism as an every-day activity, which can be valued without the need of an issue nor a community. The other was an observation about the language of activism and how it relates to different communities, through the use of voice, terminology, literary devices, and context. These were not the topics most attendees were familiar with, for example at the beginning of the talk I asked how many people in the audience used Facebook, and about 15 of out 150 people raised their hands. Relating to the issues of people who use technology incessantly was difficult for this crowd, who were not familiar with terms like “Slacktivism” and “Digital Native”, and who generally held the view that modern society and its overuse of technology were chipping away at traditional Hindu family values. 

I tried my best in those 15 minutes, to illuminate some of the basic conceptual bases of the kind of work we’re doing with “Digital Natives with a Cause?”. They enjoyed the presentation, or at least I gathered that from several people who came up to me afterwards and told me so. Many people came up to me and asked me where I was from, and I started saying “USA” after a while, because “Venezuela” does exist in their mind, and “South America” just means the south of the United States.

I got to learn a lot about academic life in more rural traditional social spaces. I am generally completely ignorant of rural life, as I was born in the capital of Venezuela, and have in general lived in very cosmopolitan and metropolitan cities all my life. However what little slices of rural life I had encountered while backpacking through India, were concentrated in the work around the house and the fields. I was under the impression that research, that academic pursuit, and that critical thinking, were activities reserved for the urban, the middle class, the English speaking. Attending this conference opened my view a bit in this respect. People in rural areas have their own academic culture, with their own research interests, views and perspectives, and in most cases, reliable data backing them. Granted, in many cases these cultures are reflections or copies of what comes out of the cities, (and the west to a certain extend) but many times they are not, and getting to experience the complexity of it was a great experience. For example, there were many papers presented which dealt with the politics of caste, which is a concept I have barely come in contact with while being in Bangalore. A lot of people also talked about sustainable development, the impact of technology on agriculture, how new chemical fertilizers are changing the lives of farmers, and one teacher talked about the exiting potential uses for the novel technology called the podcast. 

It was then that it dawned on me: “Science, Technology and Society” meant a completely different thing to my audience than it did to me. My presentation about how people conversing on Facebook can be viewed as activism must have seemed so alien and disconnected to them. I left the place very pensive about the whole experience. After taking pictures with some children, I went to a mall, and stood in front of a McDonalds and wondered how globalization is allowing for encounters like this one: A Venezuelan young man speaking at a local college in Indore, in the cultural and geographical centre of India. I’d like to think I was breaking barriers, participating in inter-cultural dialogue, exemplifying the exchange of intellectual and cultural capital that I hope takes places in the following years after our markets have gone global. Then again, I might not have been, I might have confirmed their perception of the well-dressed Westerner, who gracefully does them the favour of speaking at their college, and then talks in an accent about some random and obscure topic no one has any idea about. I’m still trying to decipher what happened. Eventually I went back to my hotel and experienced possibly the one and only truly cross-cultural and global thing in today’s world: Tom and Jerry.

See the agenda here

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Samuel Tettner

The child of Jewish Romanian immigrant and Italian-Venezuelan parents, Samuel has always had an eclectic identity and personality. At age 15, he emigrated to the United States and went on to study public policy with a concentration on philosophy, science & technology. Since January 2010, Samuel resides in India, where he co-coordinates the Digital Natives with a Cause? project. His interests include information and innovation systems, technology-enabled education, knowledge networks, and all that is open-source, collaborative and dynamic.