Peter is published! Peace Corps Prime Directive

So here in Vanuatu the Peace Corps have a publication that volunteers can contribute to. Here is Peter’s latest contribution!

Peace Corps Prime Directive

In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive states that to interfere with the development of any culture or civilization is prohibited, and this includes avoiding first contact until that population has risen above faster than light travel (or warp technology).

This is going to start off nerdy, but there is a point, and it is relevant to all Peace Corps Volunteers.  In the Star Trek franchise, the Prime Directive is usually about technology, and only infrequently about any other oblique form of information, with the exception of knowledge of other intelligent life. This implicitly suggests that technology; especially new technology has an inexorable impact on culture, and the evolution of that culture.

New Technology Sticks Around

There is stickiness to new technology, I believe for two reasons. The first reason is that new tools allow us to do something either we couldn’t do before, or to do something in a new fashion. Once we have habituated to using a new tool or device, we resist returning to a previous tool. We lose skills that were necessary before the introduction of the technology that lead to that tool’s introduction.

The second reason is what I will call the toy factor. This is the aspect that encourages individuals to buy new models and newer versions of devices that they already own. To some degree this can make a lot of sense. Buying a new model of car that has new safety features, such as seat belts or air bags is a reasonable upgrade. Buying a new phone with either an mp3 player and/or a camera, albeit not better than the camera you already own- this is a toy upgrade.

Technology has an irrepressible impact on a culture and the evolution of that culture. We in the West have been aware of this for some time as can be substantiated by the existence of different strains of technophobes as well as the historical Luddites and contemporary Neo-luddite groups.  These groups, part of the English working class in the 19th century, feared losing their jobs and way of life due to an advancement in technology.  They have known that technology changes things like cultural strata and organization, not necessarily for the better. Once it is embraced, progress tends to be one way. With the exception of the Amish, hardly any ever give it up for a more rudimentary way of life.

Where is this unstoppable progression of technology leading us? Quite possibly to a state of affairs where we are incapable of living without them.  Once technology has been accepted and taken hold, it is difficult to reverse the impact it makes on a society.

In War, Technology is Transmittable

‘Tech gulf’ (similar to the idea of the bomber gap or missile gap during the Cold War),  is a term that I will use to describe when there are two different cultures, one of them with technology that is superior to the other. Should these two cultures compete, assuming they are equal in every other way, having superior technology will be an advantage to that culture. Being exposed to a culture with an advanced technology will be disruptive to your own development, either to its benefit or detriment. Think about the technology Ni-Vans can leapfrog over, skipping coal burning electrical generators and moving directly to solar panels. Also, the least advanced culture suffers the risk of being exploited by the more advanced culture, because as stated by Arthur C. Clarke’s Third of Three Laws, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The tech gulf does not need to be restricted to merely military or weapons tech; a tech gulf can exist to profound impact in economics, government, communication and intelligence gathering. For instance, the US proved superior in economic tech when we defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Star Trek Prime Directive vs. Peace Corps Prime Directive

Let’s now explore the principle behind the Prime Directive. The unspoken premise in the Star Trek universe is that all cultures develop (or fail to and stagnate) towards a “universal cosmopolitan order.” (This phrase is borrowed from Immanuel Kant’s essay, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” in which he argues that a universal or world war involving all nations will bring about a collective distaste for war, effectively ending war as we know it.) At such a point, they are ready to intermingle with other races and intelligent life and join the confederacy of planets. But they are not ready until the race has conquered such domestic issues as civil war, poverty, inequality, etc… For some reason, the development of FTL travel or warp drive technology is thought to only be possible to a society that has become a universal cosmopolitan state.

After a culture has mastered these domestic policy issues, it is then possible to interact and share culture and technology with them without fear that said interaction will derail their moral and civil development.

The Peace Corps has a Prime Directive too. Not to avoid interference but quite the opposite; to aid development, to build capacity and to diminish dependency. We interfere with other cultures at their request, but we try to avoid the moral hazard of spoiling them or subjugating them to our culture.

We are in the midst of a grand age of globalization: of technology, of commodities, of information and of services. This is a patchwork project with no overarching philosophy or end. Sovereign nations and NGO’s and corporations all determine their own ends and the means to pursue them. It is a world where some people proclaim and strive to bring about the supposed right of internet access alongside the universal need for clean water. I do not mean to disparage any one project or goal, rather merely to show there is no unifying principle, everyone steers by their own stars.

What Gets Left Behind

Since coming to site, I have had the experience of seeing globalization in action. I have learned the history of Western impact on these islands that we now reside on. I am (of course), not responsible for all so-called white man interactions with this culture, and yet at times I have thought, “We caused this,” and by “we” I mean Western culture. I have seen a village of subsistence farmers struggling to find ways to join our economy; some to find ways to pay for schooling and Western education, others to pay for laptop computers and TV’s. I have seen people who struggle between the values of Christianity that were fostered on them and the remnants of custom values left to them.

To be fair, this is just the way of the world- the clash of diverse culture has been the stuff of the recorded history of humanity for three thousand years. Every interaction has been a contest, the winner has spread their culture and the loser’s culture often disappears. Where before the Mongols came with the tech of mounted archers and the recurve bow, and the Spanish came with the musket and the galleon, we come with wireless devices and Google. Before, the clash of different cultures was motivated by , the looting of goods to sell. Today we may have become less violent as individuals, but we are still motivated by new markets and the profit that can be gained by the trafficking of goods.

Many Ni-Vans have already succumbed to the siren call of our society—captivated by our entertainment industry. After the first taste they are drawn into the web of participating in our cash-fueled economy at the expense of their traditional island economy of plenty.

Let me pose some questions now-

A.              Should our values dominate their developmental values without debate?

B.              Should we try to protect them from the damaging influence of our values and technology, much like Spock and Kirk must?

C.              Can we protect their agency and seek to only do good by offering improvements and amelioration?

I will try to answer these questions, but invite others to share their viewpoints to them as well. Questions A and B set up a false dilemma, an either/or scenario that are not the only two options. Rather, a third position somewhere in the middle is preferred. There should be a debate on this issue. Let them choose which values and goals to pursue, democratically.

I feel that this is what was missing in the work of the Missionaries before their Independence. The message Christianity delivered was, “You are wrong. Read the Bible.” Ni-vans are passively choosing our materialist values without the benefit of the deliberation of that choice – or without the realization of what they were likely giving up. Population wide consensus on this issue is unlikely any time in the near future. But that shifts the burden to us to inform them of the possible outcomes and perils of their choice. We cannot educate every man, woman and child, hem wan; but we can reach crucial numbers of individuals to start the conversation in a meaningful way.

The answer to Question C seems to be ‘No’ and yet modern man has repeatedly sought and failed to do just this. The frontier between two cultures is described as one civilized and the other (at the worst) barbarous, savage or (at best) simple or noble. Is this a comparison of religious beliefs or art or language forms? No, respect for those complexities always comes later. At first it is a comparison of technology- with one being ‘higher’ and the other ‘lower’. To be fair, there is more than this going on, and I have neither the wit nor space to paraphrase Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”; While geographical underpinnings might have had the causal power in giving one society an advantage or edge over another, I am speaking directly to the impact of relative levels of technology between cultures.

But not until modern cultural anthropology have we really considered judging them based on something other than what we value. I feel morally horrified and ethically superior when they mistreat dogs and other animals or when they have unaddressed sexism and domestic abuse. If it was turned around on us- if we were judged by our values- then even though we value egalitarian and humane treatment of animals, our culture is still horrifying and falling short.

It’s Up To Us

At the risk of losing you, my reader in a quandary, I give you my (imperfect) answer to this dilemma. I believe in the right of the individual and the collective culture to decide and grow in the direction it sees fit. To determine the wisest direction means having a proper education and ability to think critically. This is why I am in support of mandatory education- to develop the mind and the character to be capable of good critical thinking skills and being able to make mistakes, bounce back from them and learn from them.

Early on in the 20th century, America had a very ‘hands off’ approach to foreign affairs. In some regards, it seems an isolationist approach is more respectful of other cultures than our last six decades of activity in this sphere. But this is moot- the eggs are broken, we can either throw them away or try to make an omelet. And since we have done the egg breaking ourselves (through aggressive trade, insurgent democracy, infiltrating cultural media, and destruction of resources potentially necessary for self-sufficiency) we cannot take a stance like that of Switzerland or Bhutan. I feel we should- that is, we are morally obligated to try to make something of the situation. Nations like Vanuatu have no opt out option- they have already been contaminated by the outside world, so to speak. So knowing this, how do we do right by them, so that they can develop freely, so that they can choose for themselves their own values?

Given an understanding of the problematic situation facing us as American cultural ambassadors, there is wisdom in Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Like newly graduated medical doctors who take the ages old Hippocratic Oath, “First, Do No Harm,” we as a nation should try to fulfill the Peace Corps Prime Directive- to aid development, build capacity and seek to diminish dependency. The danger is that while we are in country seeking to do just that, American foreign policy is promoting dependency around the world.


One thought on “Peter is published! Peace Corps Prime Directive”

  1. Well said Peter. I agree with what I think you are getting at. We need to offer ni-vans the chance to choose what of our culture they embrace and what they reject but the only way to that is to have intelligent conversation with the decision makers.

    Also, you write like a philosophy major. :p

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