Dignity in Development

“… despite a dire labor shortage coupled with a flat birth rate and rapidly graying population, humanoid robots are preferred over immigrants as caretakers of children and elderly persons to assist housewives, ostensibly freeing them to stay home and have more children (and future workers) instead of pursuing professional careers …"

Jennifer Robertson, Gendering Humanoid Robots: Robo-sexism in Japan

It is no secret that Japan is years ahead of most other countries with their common, everyday use of technology; the Tamagotchi, popular in Europe in the 90s was the last companion I had heard about until last week. The Asian Dynamics Initiative at Copenhagen University held a conference last week entitled Asian Diversity in a Global Context. I listened to several diverse lectures by scholars from US, India, Denmark, China and South Korea among others. Two presentations in particular made a strong impact on me. The first was by Jennifer Robertson, Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan, who gave an enlightening and somewhat disturbing presentation at the opening ceremony about the gendering of humanoid robots in Japan. While other countries have been adjusting their statutory leave arrangements and benefits relating to childbirth to include both men and women, and (supposedly) improving alternatives and provision of child care in their efforts to increase birth rates, part of Japan’s policy approach is, in short, as the above quotation suggests, simply to use ‘female’ robots to do stereotypically female work such as caring and cleaning … and then women are free to get pregnant and have more babies.

There were two aspects of Jennifer’s talk that I found particularly disturbing: 1) that there is no feminist or rather gender discussion in Japan about the way the robot technology is progressing and 2) that the Japanese decision-makers believe that providing families with robot domestic workers will be an incentive for Japanese women to produce more children. Just to add insult to injury, I was also told that the robo-technology is so advanced that in Japan a robotic uterus has also been developed. Who needs women?!

The other presentation by an Indian scholar, Preeti Mann, Assistant Professor at the Amedkar University in Dellhi, was a vivid account of the consequences of development for rural communities in India. In short, Preeti gave us an insight into the attitudes and feelings of a self sufficient community that only uses money to purchase salt, oil and clothes. Other than that the families have plots of land, as much as they need for survival, and they trade with one another. The idea of ownership of land is preposterous to them; they had survived well with this livelihood strategy. In the name of development, these families are being displaced or ‘resettled’. They are given a plot of land in a new location and an amount of cash money and then more or less told to get on with it. The people that Preeti spoke to were highly dissatisfied with their new situation as the money that they were given, and/or that which they could earn from their designated plot of land could never provide them with the food security that they had had before.

There are so many angles to consider. One of the main points was that well-being is highly subjective – it means something totally different in different geographical sites, and as the rural subsistence farmers proved prior to ‘development’, the monetary economy is not the answer to everything, nor is it the preferred way of trading for many, many people. Preeti’s account is one of many such stories of the effect of development on rural communities in Asia, and more than likely also in Africa as well.   

I leave you to ponder the advantages and dangers of the blind obsession with ‘development’. Personally, I do believe that we have the capability and possibility to progress without destroying people’s lives and exploiting others. I will expand on this at a later date. On an academic note, I am really fascinated by the research being done in the natural or life sciences and strongly believe that the social sciences need to pay more attention to what is happening in these fields. The times of studying and researching ‘pure’ subjects is long gone. Academia, like societies, is becoming more and more complex and diverse – fantastic!

Here are some links to related articles:

So, the food … as we visited India last time, I decided to go to Japan at the weekend. The fantastic thing about Japanese food is its simplicity, but I am a lover of hearty meals so I don’t go to Japan very often in the kitchen! I do have a Japanese cookbook at home but I have only ever flicked through it. The dish that I ended up with was inspired partly by a recipe in the book for Salmon with Soba Noodles. I really wanted to do that dish, but didn’t have time to search Copenhagen for soba noodles and couldn’t find any decent fresh salmon (admittedly I was a bit pressed for time). The other inspiration came from a recipe for Sesame Udon Noodles. My kitchen has a lot of stuff in it. If I find a recipe that requires ingredients that I know I will not use before the use-by date, I leave that ingredient out or find a substitute somehwere in my kitchen jungle. Anyway, I ended up creating my own dish: Teryaki Tuna with Spicy Udon Noodles and Red Peppers. The dish was quick and easy to make and the flavours were absolutely delightful! Enjoy …

Blog tip: post your comments about development-related issues here and about the food on the recipes page.