Knowledge mercenaries

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Friday, June 6, 2014

THEY were four guys in ragged shorts and tees, looking like harmless nerds in fact. It was as if they just came from another all-nighter of binge programming or playing dungeons and dragons. But they were captured by rebels in the Pablo-ravaged mountainous area of Davao del Norte just this week and subsequently released soon after. That was when their sorry mugs were posted online by news outlets.

Turns out they were drone operators surveying the area with their unmanned aerial vehicles fitted with cameras and GPS systems for a Manila-based company that is in the niche business of drone surveillance. The company was supposedly hired by the DENR to conduct surveying activities for its National Greening Program.

Problem was the guys were caught by the rebels in areas far from known forested areas and presumably close to guerilla bases. Furthermore, they were also covering terrain in close proximity to potential areas expansion of foreign mining companies.


It is easy to feel for the nerds for finding themselves far from their comfortable man-caves in Manila and diving straight into the primary sites of contradiction of our nation. But I hope they took it, smart persons that they are, as a veritable lesson in the political economy of the country and their role as members of the educated and talented tech-savvy class hired as knowledge mercenaries, if the rebels’ suspicions were true, by big business to the detriment of the interests of the powerless indigenous tribes in the area.

One of the difficult lessons of my university education in the field of the social sciences is the awareness that the work that we do fall inevitably into varying degrees of complicity to, not just the maintenance but also the strengthening, of an unjust social order.

Obviously, I belong to the same knowledge mercenary class as these kids with my occasional foray into decent-paying odd jobs that utilize the skills I learned through public education. And over-time, I have learned to justify these in my mind through a single-all powerful word – racket.

It is a magic word that masks politically dubious involvements in exchange for the quick fast buck. As some smart but harsh pundit put it, we who are in the business of producing and transferring knowledge also prostitute our talents before funders, state apparatuses, and whoever happens to be the highest bidder.

But as I said there are degrees of complicity. There are those who earn millions for selling their soul to the devil. And then they farm out cheap contracts to people like me and the drone boys. The level of guilt also varies correspondingly I would like to think.

After all, in order to sample just a semblance of a middle class lifestyle, one must have the occasional racket to pay for just a new smartphone and not the multi-million windfall of the principals who get shares in Tagaytay highlands or brand-new SUVs with every new contract.

All these of course are trite excuses. There are those who have stood steadfast against this culture of complicity and have decided to fight the unjust system without looking back so to speak. And for me, they stand as my personal measure of principled living against whom I often find myself wanting.

But these kind of people are becoming rarer. Just like the majestic Philippine eagle, they are also going the way of the dodo with their population concentrated in hidden habitats which are threatened by surveillance operators backed by big business. And the onslaught is relentless from all fronts.

The neo-liberal shift in the emphasis of our educational system is a major culprit in mainstreaming this mercenary attitude. Our schools and universities are now oriented toward teaching employable skills to the detriment of the arts and the social sciences which provide ethical standards and meaning to pure technique. University education heavy in the liberal arts is now also on the way to extinction and we end up with a mercenary workforce bereft of any commitment to nationalism and public service.

But it is ultimately the crush of the economic crisis that converts us into knowledge mercenaries. If only there were opportunities for the drone guys to go into aerial surveillance for analysing what crops fit in what type of soil in a given area for instance.

If only becoming a teacher and imparting to students about the value of love for country allows one to have decent earnings to raise a family comfortably. If only this system recognizes that not everything, especially our humanity and intellect, is for sale.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on June 06, 2014.


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