Policy 14.5 Islamic Science Strikes Back! A new era for the citizen scientist?

Prophet Muhammad (saw) said:
“Take benefit of five before five: your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free-time before your preoccupation, and your life before your death.”

Consequently, free time is like health, wealth or youth - a resource to be used for good.

Cognitive surplus: Pooling free time to do good

NYU Professor, Clay Shirky, coined the term “cognitive surplus.” What he pointed out was how the Internet has made it possible for people to pool free time together and use it for enhancement of society. For example, Kenyans used Ushahidi to track communal violence that occurred after the 2007 presidential election.

In terms of scientists consider the case of Giorgia Sgargetta is a good illustration of how this concept could work in the Khilafah. She has a regular day job working in a pesticides factory working as a quality manager. However, during her spare time, she is a scientist. She has her lab and tries to solve scientific problems. Through a crowdsourcing platform, InnoCentive, she used her skills to develop a dye that would turn the dishwater blue when the right amount of dishwater was added.

Similarly,  Melcarek was awarded $25,000 for figuring out how to get fluoride powder into a toothpaste tube by putting an "electric charge to the powder while grounding the tube." The scientists employed by Colgate-Palmolive couldn't figure it out, but he did in a few minutes.

iStock from photo enthusiasts to exploitative profits

Early use cases of crowdsourcing involved amateurs sharing and collaborating for the sake of their hobby – not profit. However, since these innovations have occurred in Capitalism, such things get inevitably absorbed the corporate behemoths who exploit both producers and consumers.

iStock was developed by a Canadian musician to help amateur photographers share photos of concerts and this expanded to other areas. So when a non-profit organization needed pictures of sick people, they were able to buy the images from iStock for $1 per piece. However, since then iStock photo was bought out by Getty Images, who raised the price to $13 per image. That's a 1300% increase.  This is why Capitalism cannot be trusted to develop innovation that helps society. Instead, it ends up being a way for people to grow their already massive fortunes bigger, with the community as an accidental beneficiary at best. 

When it comes to cognitive surplus, it assumes that the citizen has free time to spend on such projects. So, who will do these projects when almost “four in 10 workers report logging 50+ hours on the job”? As prospects of the average citizen get bleaker because the ability of corporations to squeeze workers, there is less capability for the society to harness the cognitive surplus. (For more on this issue, see this post which discusses the problem of "monopsonies"; where markets dominated by a few companies  results in the artificial depression of wages.) 

Why will the Islamic Society take such capabilities to new heights?

Islam prescribes a merit-based society. For example, it was narrated that 'Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) forbade the people to give too much in dowries. When he came down from the minbar, a woman from Quraysh intercepted him and said to him:

 “Have you not heard what Allah revealed in the Qur’an? He said: What is that? She said: Have you not heard that Allah says (interpretation of the meaning): “…and you have given one of them a Cantar (of gold, i.e. a great amount) as Mahr …” [an-Nisa’ 4:20]? 'Umar said: May Allah forgive me; all the people have more understanding than 'Umar. Then he ascended the minbar and said: I had forbidden you to do such and such, but now whoever wishes to give whatever he wants of his wealth may do so. He said: Whoever is happy to do that, let him do so. “

The woman made a valid point, and that was it – the policy was immediately changed without delay.  No need for a royal commission or no need to lobby congress for decades and only to get nowhere.

More importantly, Islam solves the economic problem of distribution – giving more people basic needs. Without addressing this, why should people attempt to tackle the pressing scientific challenges of the day? Though the Capitalist civilization is built on the freedom of thought, it refuses to accept the limits of the mind. Consequently, it is unable to bring balance to society. Specifically, it leaves everyone – including the rich – in a state of insecurity. As I noted in a previous post:

“it’s bewildering to realize that everyone is anxious in the US. The worker is afraid he may lose his job. The welfare recipient is afraid to lose their support. The black person stopped by a cop is afraid to lose their lifeAnd the rich are afraid the poor are going to rise up and kill them. There’s no peace for nobody.”

Society must provide physical security to rich and poor alike: it is a basic human need. If it doesn't, we really can't expect it to get it far. With Islam, the focus of the economic system is distribution and ensuring everyone's basic needs are met. The rich must pay 2.5% - letting them keep 97.5% of their assets – to the poor, indebted and others.

Why does this matter? Because the rich can’t just pay off politicians to get rid of such a tax.

I remember attending a Friday khutbah (sermon) where the speaker discussed how Abu Bakr (ra), the first Khaleefah (caliph), fought the (rich) people who tried to get out of paying the zakat.  He commented on how it was a rare example in human history of how a war was fought for the poor.

To be sure, zakat acts in concert with other economic and political policies. However, the critical point is brotherhood: the rich and poor can be brothers because the rich got rich by playing by the rules. Today, the Capitalist system is a system for, of, and by the rich – and so it’s impossible for rich and poor to be brothers.

The other challenge is that the issue of Capitalism only recognizes material values. So, if you are giving your free time to a for-profit company, there is a lurking sense that you are allowing yourself to be exploited by the company. For example, this article "Uber Was Designed to Exploit Drivers illustrates how innovations, such as crowdsourcing, end up just being another tool in the hands of the wealthy to tax the 99%. So those who are suspicious of such innovations are prudent. Islam, in contrast, recognizes that humans have non-material values, and it is recommended do things for non-material rewards.

Consequently, when the Islamic Society does provide economic well-being and security, it enables people to free up their time. This free time can be used to pursue science as well as Islamic scholarship, political activism and other non-materialistic endeavours. This coupled with a focus on pressing issues (instead of binge-watching the latest show or being enthralled by said sports team), human beings would have free time to tackle the more significant challenges that are impacting us globally.