INSIGHTS into the WORLD / Social systems’ hidden role in technology Social systems’ hidden role in technology

Japan’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign for priority groups seems to be finally going well. Although it remains uncertain what proportion of the population will actually get vaccinated, the existence of vaccines is certainly reassuring for overcoming this difficult situation.

It has been pointed out that Japan continues to lag in developing COVID-19 vaccines because of Japanese pharmaceutical firms’ reluctance to invest resources in their development in the wake of a series of legal actions related to vaccine side effects in the past. To combat this situation, the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry in the summer of 2020 introduced a scheme to subsidize emergency private-sector vaccine production.

Another reason for Japan’s delay in COVID-19 vaccine development is said to be how its national-level system to tackle infectious diseases differs from those of some foreign countries. For not only the United States, Britain, Germany and France, but also China and Russia, vaccine development projects are part of their national security strategies — they prioritize the availability of vaccines for their troops to be dispatched abroad.

When former U.S. President Donald Trump was in office, the United States introduced Operation Warp Speed, a national program to mobilize resources of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Department, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Energy Department, among other federal bodies, together with those of the private sector, to accelerate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. The United States thus has a system of using the aggregate power of the country to expedite every effort from vaccine research to distribution, instead of relying on individual experts’ knowledge or research activities via private-sector corporations or individual scientists.

Vaccine manufacturing is not as easy a matter as it may appear. Even if a recipe for producing a vaccine is available, it does not necessarily mean that vaccine manufacturing can readily begin. There must be both a pool of human resources with knowledge and experience in vaccine research and development and related facilities. Only those countries that have a system of bringing together such experts and facilities — relevant knowledge and experience — from a comprehensive security standpoint can actually begin manufacturing and distributing necessary vaccines.

As for such a national-level system essential for the development of science and technology, I recall what Chinese economist Justin Yifu Lin, who once served as chief economist at the World Bank, once said.

Ancient China is known for epoch-making inventions and discoveries, including gunpowder, ironmaking and printing. Nevertheless, the Industrial Revolution did not originate in China. Why? Lin answers clearly that Chinese society could not invent a “social system” called science. Science is not a universe where knowledge exists in pieces. It needs a culture — a social system that exists inherently with methods to discern and determine the truth and falsity of knowledge.

Compared with Western Christian society, Lin said, in China no sociocultural environment — where intellectual probity and individual responsibility are preserved — had historically emerged. In this regard, the development of science and Christian social ethics go in tandem. To keep science progressing, Lin says, it is indispensable to strictly adhere to truth.

The concept of science and technology is not so simple. Some people say a country that gains superiority in the field of technology becomes a hegemonic state. But the history of China does not necessarily show anything supportive of such a view. A social system that includes the foundations for technological research, development and manufacturing as well as an ethical foundation (perhaps including the process of clinical trials) supports a scientific culture. Countries that assume leadership in international politics are capable of building such a social system. They also are thought to turn out excellent human resources in the fields of science and technology in terms of hardware.

The examples cited above indicate that it is not enough to see science as a single totality when discussing whether countries are forging ahead or lagging in terms of technology. Technology has layers, ranging from the base to the surface. Asei Ito, in his Japanese-language book “Dejitaruka suru Shinkokoku” (Digitization of emerging countries), which won the 2021 Yomiuri Yoshino Sakuzo Prize, points out that Japan lags far behind emerging countries in terms of digitization. He reports that not only China but also India and Southeast Asian and African countries have installed electronic payment, facial recognition and other biometric identification systems and launched new information technology-enabled business activities at remarkable rates.

In the book, my attention was particularly drawn to a section depicting vulnerabilities associated with the digitization of emerging countries in recent years. Emerging countries have to import both core digitization technologies and related infrastructure, which were developed and improved by private companies in developed countries, to digitize themselves. This obviously means that developed countries are in a position superior to them.

In the hierarchy of digital technology development, applications used daily for smartphones come above physical platforms. Many of the emerging countries have massive populations, namely digital device end-users. Against this background, emerging countries have been focusing on developing so-called super apps.

What agonizes Japan is the fact that it has been playing second fiddle to some foreign economies as to core digital technology and application development. The digital technology field has a unique structural characteristic of enabling those companies that achieve clear market leadership to enjoy “winner-take-all” benefits. Ito says Japan will have to make a difficult choice about which way to finally go in the future. This is because a country that already dominates a core technology field is highly likely to remain a hegemonic one in it.

The convenience of digitization is often discussed in connection with the merits and demerits of a society being controlled, as in the case of present-day China, with the use of sophisticated systems for gathering personal information. In fact, the prevalence of digital technologies causes even social scientists to deal with a hitherto unknown social landscape. Thanks to enormous amounts of personal information collected with the help of digital technologies, social research especially about individual behaviors is getting more and more refined. When I read journal articles written by U.S. researchers about measures against COVID-19, I often feel amazed by the fact that the corporate, federal and academic fields in the United States are joining hands to build a system that enables researchers to track personal data rapidly and frequently.

Researchers have already been analyzing big data — including credit card purchases, bank account-recorded salary information, retail sales and so on — collected, anonymized and possessed by private-sector entities.

Official statistics gathered on a yearly, quarterly or monthly basis as in the past are no longer useful, as it now is increasingly crucial to know how changes in consumer and corporate behaviors evolve on a virtually real-time basis. For example, conventional official statistics now are not appropriate to analyze instantly how effective each COVID-19 measure introduced by the government is.

However, even anonymized personal behavioral data cannot be free from the risk of being de-anonymized. Such information always is exposed to the danger of being leaked to “others.” This means that individuals are constantly under surveillance all the time by “others,” be they governments or corporate entities.

In the process of technological research and development, manufacturing or distribution, what really matters is not limited to the development of a standalone technology and its convenience. In the process of developing new technologies, there must exist an environment called a social system that ensures and facilitates such development. As mentioned earlier, the field of technology has its own structural hierarchy. Improvement of a country’s international standing in terms of technological research and development sometimes depends on whether it will be able to dominate the fundamental part of the hierarchy.

In reality, digital technologies are rapidly spreading in society, causing international politics and our lifestyles to unknowingly change to a great extent. New technologies are discussed with great expectations for the convenience they bring to us. To what extent do they change our lifestyles and society? Can they help improve the living environment of a country? Or, should we expect them to create a situation in which we will have no choice but to be subordinate to the countries and companies that dominate those technologies? We cannot avoid such fundamental questions.