Gandhi's seemingly bizarre statements on the railways can be read as related to the unintended consequences of modern technology. People look at only the benefits that a new technology can provide and eagerly adopt it without considering its negatives. In the case of railways, people see how it provides a quick and cheap means of traveling long distances but they don't see its effects on various social goods.
He is concerned that people tend to think of the goods and services they buy only in economic and not in social terms. The railways spreading bubonic plague sounds bizarre till you realize that he was talking about long-distance travel causing long-distance disease transmission. The latest instance of it is the coronavirus scare. It isn't the first, it won't be the last. From a Gandhian perspective, the vast amount of environmental harm caused by the blind application of modern technology shows how their unintended consequences can lead to heavy costs.
Mobile phones were thought of only as instruments to help improve communication. It was not realized that it improves communication only with people who are far away; it reduces communication with people around you. Nobody thought that it would become an aid to control with employers who expect staff members to be available 24/7. It helps in stimulating our emotional insecurities, requiring us to see what others are doing, 24/7.
Gandhi’s critique is directed at a civilization committed to the quest for continually improved means to carelessly examined ends. The ultimate result is that people become concerned only with what is, as distinct from what ought to be with the consequent erosion in moral values. We might dismiss Gandhi’s concerns about the moral impact of the technological and scientific advances in his time as excessive, but the underlying principle of them is still highly relevant. He was in effect saying that we shouldn’t be led by the nose by science and technology. We should stop to think about the price we pay for adopting them, so that we don’t misuse or overuse them.
Gandhi said, 'Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary restriction of wants.' He finds that the consumer products of the new economy become new needs that exhaust people leaving them too tired to perform other duties. He observes that modernity brings its own forms of degradation and enslavement. He said in Hind Swaraj, 'We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions, the more unbridled they become.' And elsewhere in Hind Swaraj, 'Formerly, men were made slaves under physical compulsion. Now they are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy.'
The market has a vital vested interest in constantly whetting jaded appetites, planting new wants and creating a moral climate in which not to want the goods daily pumped into the market and to keep pace with the latest fashions was to be abnormal and archaic. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of created needs which force people to continue working where it is no longer a real necessity. In a letter to Henry Pollack on Oct. 14, 1909, Gandhi says that when he looks at Britain, he is 'disillusioned'. He sees people who 'seem half-crazy. They spend their days in luxury or on making a bare living and retire at night thoroughly exhausted.' They have nothing else in life but work and consumption.
Gandhi thought that modern civilization had a depressing air of ‘futility’ and ‘madness’ about it. He sees people numbed into accepting catastrophic consequences produced by modern science. 'The ceaseless rush in which we are living does not leave any time for contemplating the the full results of these new technologies. After a brief period of mourning following a disaster from a new technology 'the dead will soon be forgotten, and in a very short time' people will get back to their 'usual gaiety as if nothing whatsoever had happened.' (Indian Opinion, Aug. 20 1903).
He condemned the blind adoption of whatever technological breakthrough happened to be the latest and most sophisticated. He once said, “I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time to increase animal appetites and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction.” He might well remind India and indeed the rest of the world of words said by Krishna in the Gita, “Enveloped by wisdom is this insatiable fire of desire which is the constant foe of the wise.”
As Oscar Wilde warned, “nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old fashioned quite suddenly”. As modernity proceeds, increasingly trivial items are marketed as items that are essential for leading a happy life. People spend more and more time in front of the mirror, keep buying beauty products whose names I had not heard earlier, there are 'beauty bloggers', 'selfie surgeries' etc. Before my stroke, there were no beauty parlors in this area but now there seem to be several of them. Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition attacks Marx's view that the emancipated man will reach for 'higher' activities - that free time eventually will emancipate men from necessity and make the animal laborans productive. She writes that we find:
. . . the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving his appetites. That these appetites become more sophisticated, so that consumption is no longer restricted to the necessities but, on the contrary, mainly concentrates on the superfluities of life . . .
In The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent writes about Edward Bernays, known as the “father of public relations.” Bernays was Sigmund Freud's nephew and used his uncle's insights into the subconscious to develop his new method of influencing consumer behavior. “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture,” declared Bernays's business partner, Paul Mazur. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man's desires must overshadow his needs.”
In 1928, Bernays proudly described how his techniques for mental manipulation had permitted a small elite to control the minds of the American population: 'The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government that is the true ruling power of this country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of . . . In almost every act of our daily lives . . . we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who pull the wires which control the public mind.'
The following year, a presidential report gave credit to the mind control espoused by Bernays for helping to create a limitless future of American consumption, explaining it had “proved conclusively . . . that wants are almost insatiable; that one want satisfied makes way for another. The conclusion is that economically, we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants that will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied . . . by advertising and other promotional devices.”
In Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman has a definition of marketing which you will not find taught to MBAs: ‘Marketing is dedicated to the discovery or invention of questions to which the recently introduced products can be seen as providing the answers, and then to inducing the largest numbers of potential clients to ask those questions with ever growing frequency.‘ Thus temptation and seduction move to the top of marketing concerns. Products soon tend to succumb to the pressure of ‘new and improved’ products with additional bells and whistles well before the working capacity of a product meets its preordained end.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warns that a democracy can fall into despotism by succumbing to an excessive passion for material well being.” He observes that democracy engenders an “ardent” interest in acquiring material comforts. According to him, “what attaches the heart most keenly” to material well-being “is not the peaceful possession of a precious object, but the imperfectly satisfied desire to possess it and the incessant fear of losing it.” If the democratic taste for material comforts goes unchecked, Tocqueville warns, democratic citizens will begin to view the duties of political participation as a burden because they take time and energy away from private economic activity.
According to Tocqueville, there is “no need to tear from such citizens the rights they possess; they themselves willingly let them escape. The exercise of their political duties appears to them a distressing contretemps that distracts them from their industry.” Neglecting these duties, they leave a kind of vacuum in the political realm, a political void that may be filled by despotism. If “an ambitious, able man comes to take possession of power” under such circumstances, he will find “the way open to every usurpation.” And if he chooses the path of usurpation, the citizens will surrender their freedom and submit to his rule.