Our ‘in’secure futures

emerging Technology, Sean kanuck, CyFy, Digital, Debates, Samir Saram, Insecurity, disinforamtion, globalisation, enlightenment, GDP, Aditi Kumar, Social Contract

The following is the introductory note from the upcoming publication Digital Debates 2019 — The CyFy Journal.


2019 will sputter to an end with unresolved anxieties about the future of emerging technologies, and their relationship with our societies. Sean Kanuck, our distinguished colleague and fellow chair of CyFy, identifies four trends that appear to be reinforcing these anxieties: “insecurity, disinformation, anti-globalisation, and un-enlightenment.” As is wont for these times, Sean contributes a new phrase to define the zeitgeist: “indisantiun”. They represent drivers of change that, by themselves, have little to do with the digital domain. Like their Biblical counterparts, these horsemen of the digital apocalypse represent malaises residual in 20th century global governance: economic and social exclusion, lack of transparency in the business of government, pervasive xenophobia, and a profoundly anti-elite, anti-intellectual tendency that is on the rise. These problems may have been seeded in the previous century, but attempts to resolve them using 20th century institutions, regimes and coalitions have come a cropper.

Kanuck’s contribution to the Digital Debates is one amongst fifteen essays for this edition of Digital Debates that are divided equally between five animating themes: Individual, Livelihood, Society, Governance and Conflict. We chose these themes to allow authors to explore comprehensively, the implications of digital technologies from their own unique vantage points as scholars and practitioners. Many of our contributors shared Sean’s assessment of a more insecure and anxious world. In fact, “Indisantiun” may well capture the inability of current global governance arrangements to respond to broader, technology-fuelled disruptions and their disquieting consequences.

We attempt here to tie these themes together, and to present (what we hope is) a coherent picture of the virtual world in 2019. As the most granular, and perhaps most consequential, unit of this world, it is fitting that the first set of essays address the anxieties haunting the individual. The platformisation of the public sphere may have democratised expression — or atleast deepened it through encrypted communications — its by-product has been the creation of new infrastructure designed to extract data and expand surveillance. This has created a paradoxical situation for individuals: the more they interact with digital spaces, ostensibly to exercise their freedoms, the more vulnerable they are to rights abuses — by private actors, their own sovereign, or even a foreign one. This has created a new type of insecurity, one where individuals are “simultaneously under attack and being weaponised” –as Nikhil Pahwa argues–by the influence of digital technologies on their social lives. Tanuj Bhojwani offers a provocative rebuttal to Pahwa, suggesting the notion of unfettered individual agency over digital networks is nothing but a “techno-utopia”. However, he agrees that the framing of platforms as “mere marketplaces” is problematic.

Concurrently, digital technologies have also altered the relationship between labour, capital and productivity. For much of the past century, a nation’s Gross Domestic Product — the sum total of goods and services produced — was considered an accurate picture of its economic, indeed political, health. This will not be a reliable metric for the digital economy, which will likely be characterised by incremental or marginal innovation, diffused supply chains and the “gig” economy that runs on shared resources — all, in turn, fuelled by the aggregation of data. There is great uncertainty about how to quantify the relationship between these independent variables, how they will affect development outcomes and what this implies for livelihoods in advanced and emerging markets. The essays under the theme of ‘Livelihood’ capture perfectly the nuances of this debate. While Winston Ma’s piece speaks to the potential of digital technologies in bridging 20th century development divides, Aditi Kumar responds by clinically dissecting the inequities inherent in digital workforces of the 21st century. Astha Kapoor and Sarayu Natarajan argue India in particular is becoming a “hot bed for micro-tasks” in the digital economy — especially in areas like data labelling — which could ‘invisibilise’ labour and further exclude those at the margin. They too emphasise a shift away from “static notions” of productivity and a more rounded view of “well-being”.

Whatever be the causal pathways, personal, political and economic insecurity has created a backlash against established forms of governance in domestic regimes. The dynamic between the individual, private platforms and the state is constantly in flux, prompting institutions of government to play catch-up. The social contract between the citizen and state is being usurped by private, digital platforms, who through their privacy policies confer on the individual rights that governments are reluctant to endorse. Conversely, they have begun to exercise “eminent domain” over the property of the individual in the digital age: data. In short, there is wide overlap between the functions of a platform and the state — of regulating speech, providing social protections, creating employment opportunities and ensuring national security. Rules and norms to govern these interactions are yet to fully mature, leading to uncertainty in the social contract and, as James Lewis points out, a crisis in the legitimacy of domestic norms and institutions.

The flux in domestic regimes is reflective of the churn in the international order. Connectivity between nations and mutual gains from trade, according to conventional wisdom, was expected to heighten the stakes for war or even limited conflict. Digital connectivity, however has created a new set of tensions.

The flux in domestic regimes is reflective of the churn in the international order. Connectivity between nations and mutual gains from trade, according to conventional wisdom, was expected to heighten the stakes for war or even limited conflict. Digital connectivity, however has created a new set of tensions. Digital spaces are effectively a “system of systems”, from cell towers and routers, to platforms and applications. Taken together, they reflect the digital interactions of entire nations, sans the neat segregation of boundaries which has been the edifice of 20th century politics. This infrastructure is not neutral; instead, as Arindrajit Basu argues, it is political. Cyberspace is not merely a reflection of geopolitics in the “offline” world, but has rendered it even more chaotic by adding vectors of political contest: 5G, influence operations, the Dark Net…the list is long. Isolation is no longer a feasible strategy. Dennis Broeders refers to our times as an era of “unpeace” — a time of both messy interdependence, and of friction and conflict. To be sure, history offers precedents — think of continental Europe before the first World War — but the arena is different this time, and poses a new set of challenges. Anushka Kaushik’s lucid exposition of the attribution dilemma in cyberspace exemplifies the problem: without actors to blame, who is responsible for the malaises of the digital age?

Our authors seem secularly skeptical of prospects to navigate these problems. Nevertheless, we remain optimists. The faultlines emerging today across communities and states are not a factor of digital technologies, but of problems that predate their global popularity. As Philip Reiner notes, “insecurity always has, and always will persist, in varying degrees of flux.” Disruptions exacerbated by digital technologies are an opportunity to re-conceive and adopt templates for domestic and international governance that are responsive and agile — but also rooted in ideas that were paid lip service in the last century: equity and sustainable development.

‘Digital Debates’ is an attempt to do just this — to highlight perspectives, diagnoses and solutions for the future of our digital world that are not necessarily rooted in technology. We are grateful to our authors for having fulfilled their mandates splendidly. By design or sheer circumstance, contributors to Digital Debates this year have not only dwelled on the many tensions agitating cyberspace, they have also argued that the political, social or economic realignments triggered by this medium may ultimately settle into a new normal.

Perhaps the most important of these realignments is the coming to terms of democracies with the introduction of digital technologies in our public sphere. We have, in a manner of speaking, entered a post-internet world. Previous evolutions in media and production technologies(such as the radio or the steam engine) dramatically altered the demands and methods of governance. It is not unexpected that a similar moment is upon us today. Despite present concerns around polarisation and inequality, it was comforting for us to see that each of our pieces on the theme ‘society’ were unanimous in their belief that our democracies possessed the ability to self-correct. Mihir S. Sharma argues that the problems plaguing digital governance has to be treated on its own merit. Whether the management of digital spaces is democratic is, he writes, a separate question from whether they promote democracy. Terri Chapman responds to that poser, calling for greater “explainability” in algorithmic decision-making.

Perhaps the most important of these realignments is the coming to terms of democracies with the introduction of digital technologies in our public sphere. We have, in a manner of speaking, entered a post-internet world.

A course correction is indeed being embraced by, or forced upon technology platforms. Whether it is protests against military contracts with governments, allegations of bias and partisanship, or disquiet at their sheer monopolistic power, the governance and ethics of technology platforms are being questioned more severely than ever before. Paula Kift recognises that this new backlash stems from an “internal rift” (irreconcilable, perhaps?) between ideals and business practices. Consequently, we see boardrooms responding to popular concerns. New ethics and oversight practices, institutional cooperation with the state, and new user controls are all evolving to create — or atleast, attempt to — accountable and transparent regimes for the technology industry.

Processes and conduits of globalisation are also under pressure to respond more effectively to local communities or interests. In the 20th century, economic connectivity was a process moulded by a small set of state and private actors. Digital spaces have undermined this monopoly, allowing individuals and communities to agitate for representative global economic decision making. Civil society coalitions that challenged the provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and its negotiation in secrecy, were lent a fillip by the internet, lending them instant access to allies and like-minded partners in distant lands. Most crucially, we see such digital disruption playing out in the development sector — where innovations from Asia and Africa are creating platform-based solutions for the next six billion. Their technological pathways to development and policy frameworks will be digital-first by design, and perhaps capable of providing the templates the world so desperately needs.

And finally, our contributors also recognised the character of our international community has changed in the digital world. Lydia Kostopoulous reminds us of the complexity of this new moment: where digital spaces are pervasive, but also interact with and operate within sovereign boundaries, each with their own political contexts. Resolving this contradiction will require efforts that are capable of bridging the disconnect between 19th century Westphalian understandings and the realities of a 21st century digital world. It is our hope that CyFy will be a platform to discover such solutions. We express our sincere thanks to contributors to this volume for setting the stage for the two days of debates and discussions that follow.


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