Author: Dr. Samir Saran

Writer, commentator, analyst and a food junkie

The myth of the liberal order is caught between shifts in domestic attitudes and the balance of global power

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As we approach the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is clear that the international liberal order is facing a moment of crisis. The political, economic and security fundamentals that underpinned it are invalid, with no consensus on others. Globalization is now being confronted by economic nationalism. Attempts are being made to close open borders. Strongmen politicians are leveraging multiple grievances—real and perceived— to legitimize populist rule. And international norms and institutions appear less relevant to managing the global commons. There is a sense that the global order is once again becoming more Westphalian—that the gains of interdependence are being undone. There is a visible reassertion of sovereignty—from democracies and otherwise. And above all, there is an uncertainty about what this century has in store for our societies.

Within the punditry that seeks to understand why the world is as it is today, the overwhelming sentiment is that popular and populist leaders have undermined what was a well-meaning and well functioning international order. We intend to correct this narrative. From our perspective, the world has fundamentally been defined by the spirit of Darwinism: the ‘survival of the fittest’. The processes of global governance merely legitimized what was otherwise coercive state diplomacy. It provided a means to amass and maintain power and wealth without the use of military force. As our book will show, the crisis of global governance is, in many ways, a comeuppance for the custodians of the post-1945 world order. The story of decline does not begin with populist leaders trampling on an existing world order—although they certainly are. These leaders are the product of the contradictions that have always defined the liberal order.

Before we detail this any further, it is useful to set the context. Where are we now? For one thing, the guarantors that once evangelized the liberal international order are themselves being swept away by the undercurrents of these shifts. American elites remain dismayed that the US elected Donald Trump—an individual with no interest in global partnerships or liberal posturing. European elites are mortified by the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the National Rally, Viktor Orbán, and others who represent values ostensibly antithetical to those of the European Union (EU). Those who would stand for globalization and multilateral values, on the other hand, are struggling for relevance. Macron is fighting a wave of popular discontent over his ‘business friendly policies’, while Angela Merkel will have demitted office after fighting a losing battle against a populist resurgence in the EU. From the perspective of Western elites, the norms, institutions and partnerships that were so carefully crafted in the post-war period can no longer sustain their peace, freedoms or security. On the contrary, it is these very ideals that are seemingly the root cause of the problem. The wave of popular anger in the transatlantic community is directed at free movement and open borders; towards globalization and the volatility of interdependence; and towards the elites in politics, business, academia, and media that support these policies. Local identity and sovereignty—both of which the international liberal order was thought to have subsumed—are reasserting themselves everywhere.

The wave of popular anger in the transatlantic community is directed at free movement and open borders; towards globalization and the volatility of interdependence; and towards the elites in politics, business, academia, and media that support these policies.

This domestic turbulence has also shaken the security foundations of the international liberal order—the transatlantic and transpacific partnerships of the United States. A core diplomatic mantra of the Trump administration appears to be irreverence for all that was revered. His administration has adopted economic and security policies that are bordering on hostile towards the EU and Japan. It has been relentless in compelling both to ‘pay more for their own defence’. More than this, Trump has also been willing to raise military tensions in these regions—with Iran in West Asia, and North Korea in East Asia. His willingness to use unilateral force and pressure in lieu of multilateral negotiations has caused much anguish in Europe, Japan and South Korea. More consequentially, perhaps, Trump has been more than willing to undermine the institutional frameworks of the global order—namely the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). He sees both organizations as captured by actors inimical to American interests that infringe on the absolute sovereignty of the US.

Amidst this turbulence in the West, there is also a resurgence of the East. The old empires and civilizations of Asia, especially China and India, are beginning to impress upon the world their size and weight. China, undoubtedly, is leading this charge. While the West is thinking local, China is going global. In 2017, President Xi emerged as the unlikeliest defender of globalization, stating, in a very statesmanlike fashion, that the international community ‘should adapt to and guide economic globalization, cushion its negative impacts and deliver its benefits for all countries’. More important, the Middle Kingdom is investing in infrastructure projects across Asia and Europe in an unprecedented effort to connect the two continents. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a multi-billion dollar geopolitical and geoeconomic thrust that will see China emerge as the chief arbiter of an Eurasian political, economic and security arrangement. In doing so, Beijing is steadily undermining the efficacy and legitimacy of the post-war alliance arrangements. In Europe, the China-led 17+1 arrangement is eroding the EU’s influence over its eastern borders. China’s aggressive naval build-up in the South China Sea (SCS) is displacing American military power in the Pacific, and sowing discord among the member states of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its investments in G7 nations like Italy have divided and derailed any potential Western response.

 Amidst this turbulence in the West, there is also a resurgence of the East. The old empires and civilizations of Asia, especially China and India, are beginning to impress upon the world their size and weight.

Equally significantly, China’s rise is being accompanied by an alternative proposition for global governance. Remember, China bears an enduring grudge against those who profess to lead the international order. China’s political histories are stories about humiliation, subjugation and suffering at the hands of outsiders. There is some disagreement in international affairs literature about exactly what change, and how much of it, China actually seeks. This line of thinking, however, misses the point. China is large enough that the influence of its domestic arrangements will be felt organically in other parts of the world. Beijing has only grown more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad under the presidency of Xi Jinping. And China is certainly exporting bits and pieces of this model. The most obvious manifestation is surveillance technologies that China’s massive technology companies are selling in developing countries around the world. China’s propositions are certainly international; they are infused, however, with Chinese characteristics. It is a proponent of globalization—but a morphed version that prioritizes state-led capitalism with the People’s Republic of China in command. Beijing favours international institutions, but seeks to subvert their original purpose. In the UN, for example, China has attempted to introduce human rights language that privileges and protects state interpretations, as opposed to more universal (read, in Chinese eyes, Western) international values.

The myth of the liberal order is caught between these shifts in domestic attitudes and the balance of global power. And it is crumbling under these pressures because it is unsuited to balancing internationalism and sovereignty, or to managing a more multipolar international system. Many write and speak about the international liberal order with rose-tinted glasses and a sense of nostalgia. This could not be further from the truth. It was hardly international— premised as it was on America’s system of post-war alliances. While it did guarantee sovereign equality, it is difficult to argue that decision-making authority was sufficiently diffused. Instead, important institutions were run by the largest and most powerful countries. The fabled Washington Consensus, meanwhile, privileged the commercial interests of a handful of geographies, often to the detriment of emerging economies, the environment, and the blue-collar worker. Nor was this order truly ‘orderly’. If institutions could realistically impose limits on the unilateral actions of all countries, we would not have seen disastrous Western interventions in the Middle East. Perhaps, the only legitimate claim the international liberal order can truly have is to liberalism itself. It certainly helped that the victors of World War II were all open, democratic societies—even though much of the world was not. With the original guarantors of this order themselves in disarray, it is understandable why its resilience is fraying. The idea of global governance, then, was ultimately a consensus-building framework for the global political, economic and security elite. As a popular right-wing Indian commentator tweeted, ‘The entitled elites don’t believe in the survival of the fittest but the survival of the fatuous, frivolous and the feckless.’ In other words, pedigree, privilege and personal networks have defined who is at the high table—and more important, who isn’t. This may be a Trumpian statement to make—but as our chapters on development and cyberspace will show, both twentieth and twentieth-first century debates have been monopolized by small but vocal and influential communities. The backlash we are seeing today is driven by a groundswell of grassroots opposition to many of its central tenets and philosophies.

If institutions could realistically impose limits on the unilateral actions of all countries, we would not have seen disastrous Western interventions in the Middle East.

Where, then, does the world go from here? We look to India for answers and alternatives. It is not lost on us that it might seem opportunistic for two Indians to make a case for Indian leadership. But the appeal is too strong to ignore. A soon-to-be relatively wealthy, democratic, multicultural state with an instinct that privileges multilateralism and rules-based order, is the perfect antidote to the increasingly parochial and unilateral mood defining global politics. The rules-based order is shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time, such as international law, regional security arrangements, trade agreements, immigration protocols, and cultural arrangements. Its identity as an Asian power gives it a sense of responsibility to ideate and execute equitable global rules that protect the interests of the marginalized. And its civilizational philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—the whole world is one family—have tempered its willingness to use force as a means to achieve its political interests. This is not to say that India itself is insulated from the disruptions underway around the world. We see strident nationalism increasingly defining the Indian political space as well. Nor is an Indian ‘rise’ inevitable—inequality remains persistent and social risks and economic mismanagement, as well as the risk of divisive politics, continue to daunt the nation. However, providing solutions for the world at large is a fine motivation for Indians to get our house in order. And India’s phenomenal transformation over the past seven decades gives us much to be optimistic about. Of course, we are conscious that Indian leadership is not an end in itself, but a means. The twenty-first century requires this new ethic in order to revive the legitimacy and efficacy of global governance. The rise of India must catalyse methods for governance that are more inclusive, democratic and equitable than before and its own national experience must temper the mercantilism embedded in today’s market-led growth and development models to one where markets are made to serve humankind. It may be time for a New Delhi Consensus, which is not a metaphor for Indian exceptionalism but a call for a more inclusive and participatory world order. This is the most pressing Indian imperative.

 The rise of India must catalyse methods for governance that are more inclusive, democratic and equitable than before and its own national experience must temper the mercantilism embedded in today’s market-led growth and development models to one where markets are made to serve humankind. It may be time for a New Delhi Consensus, which is not a metaphor for Indian exceptionalism but a call for a more inclusive and participatory world order. This is the most pressing Indian imperative. 

A new, fractured global order is upon us. India’s response must evolve accordingly

As political ideologies fail to provide purpose and meaning to individuals, they are increasingly finding refuge in identity and religion. The thin line separating church and state is collapsing rapidly.

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The international community will stumble into the third decade of this century amidst much uncertainty and anxiety about the future. There is a sense that the gains of the past century are being undone, that grievances — real or perceived — are being manipulated by “strongmen leaders” who have gained currency across the world, and that subsequent generations are likely to be worse off than their ancestors. Many blame our current predicament on these leaders, who are seen to have undermined the norms and institutions that their predecessors were instrumental in establishing. Yet these populist figures are not drivers of change; they reflect it.

How did we get here? It is increasingly clear to communities and countries that the distribution of agency in the international system is inequitable and no longer reflects contemporary realities. It is this anger and disappointment, directed against globalisation, that has powered the rise of these strongmen and women.

While the project of economic integration has successfully reduced inequality among countries, its domestic consequences were given insufficient consideration by those evangelising the old global economic order. Should exclusionary economics and the rise of nationalism really surprise us when 10 per cent of the global population controls 84 per cent of its wealth? As the fourth industrial revolution continues to accelerate the demise of manufacturing and implicate organised labour, a deep sense of economic insecurity is fuelling perverse socio-political developments around the world.

While the project of economic integration has successfully reduced inequality among countries, its domestic consequences were given insufficient consideration by those evangelising the old global economic order

The affected individual has found an ally in digital technologies. Ordinary people now possess a loud megaphone to communicate with each other and with the state, sometimes supporting the establishment, and often undermining it. From the Arab Spring at the turn of the past decade to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, digital technologies have erased the asymmetry between the voice of those in power and those governed. This understanding of digital technologies is now being reassessed as well. The very tools that allow communities to mobilise are fast becoming instruments to subdue and control them. Today’s technologies, defined by ubiquitous surveillance and algorithmic decision making, are concentrating wealth and power into the few hands capable of designing and deploying them. The coming decade will inevitably witness a new tussle between agency and control.

Taken together, the anxieties around technology, globalisation and representation have left democracies around the world struggling to contain discord and discontent. Once characterised by the rule of elite institutions arranged around a set of established principles, democracy’s immediate future is being recast by the changing mood on the streets that is challenging many old norms and values. We are all struggling to define this moment. Scholars and scientists are certainly trying, describing the political climate in democracies variously as illiberal, authoritarian, partial or empty. However it is theorised, it is clear that the texture of democracy will undergo a dramatic shift in the time it takes to fully appreciate the limitations of today’s political projects.

As political ideologies fail to provide purpose and meaning to individuals, they are increasingly finding refuge in identity and religion. The thin line separating church and state is collapsing rapidly. Dislocated from the factory floor and distant from the corridors of power, individuals who once organised themselves under an imagined state of cosmopolitanism are now rallying around a far narrower, tribal sense of self, often located in specificities of place, religion and ethnicity.

Dislocated from the factory floor and distant from the corridors of power, individuals who once organised themselves under an imagined state of cosmopolitanism are now rallying around a far narrower, tribal sense of self, often located in specificities of place, religion and ethnicity.

This fracturing of the political-economic consensus has diminished the international community’s capacity for collective action. The most crucial failure perhaps relates to mitigating climate change. The 2020s are certain to be a crucial decade for climate action and politics. Once a priority only for scientists and activists, the impact of climate change is now more visible and more devastating than any time in history. Consider, for instance, that climate refugees now outnumber those fleeing conflict or looking for economic opportunity. Individuals, businesses and states remain at war with their environment and constrained by short-term thinking in their limited efforts to end this conflict.

When the world is struggling to manage the most pressing existential risk, is it any surprise that other international regimes are equally gridlocked? Twentieth-century rules relating to trade, connectivity, innovation, peace and security have all become forums for the application of perverse unilateral state behaviour. Instead of searching for shared interests that can make these regimes fit for purpose in the 21st century, states are locked into an increasingly destructive zero-sum race.

In these challenging times, defined by what we characterise in our new book as the “New World Disorder”, we cannot overstress how important it is for us in New Delhi to rethink the paradigms that are challenging our world order. Today, the need is for India’s reflexive and discrete responses to these challenges to evolve into the creation of a coalition of like-minded leaders who will use their individual and institutional capacities to respond to the demands of global governance in the 21st century.

This century will take shape in an era of strong leaders, strong corporations and strong communities. It will be an era where cooperation is sporadic, where contest is frequent and consensus is elusive. We hope that India will find the courage to take fresh new initiatives to catalyse a new consensus for our world.


Navigating the Digitisation of Geopolitics

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From the steam engine to penicillin to the atom bomb, the development and deployment of frontier technologies have always been intimately tied to geopolitical disruptions. Those disruptions often manifest as a race towards the acquisition of new technologies – or diplomatic elbowing to consolidate gains from scientific breakthroughs and keep these out of reach of challengers. Tensions fuelled by digital technologies are the most recent manifestation of this historical trend. Yet, today’s technologies, due to the breadth of their reach and the democratization of their ownership, are having a unique influence on the geopolitical landscape.

The differences of digital

Across the three previous industrial revolutions, innovations upended existing balance‑of‑power arrangements. The steam engine and gunpowder facilitated Europe’s colonial ambitions. Using technology, Europe was able to marginalize the cultural relevance of Asia and Africa and contain them within the amorphous formulation of the “Third World”. And the atom bomb helped end World War II, leading to the rise of the United States and creating space and demand for the international liberal order.

Whether it is the emerging contest over trade and technology between the United States and China, disputes between platforms and labour over the terms of employment or disagreement over the regimes managing international data flows that are carriers of intelligence, value and wealth, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is similarly leading to a new period of contest and churn. And, as in the past, a new world order will inevitably result. Nevertheless, four crucial differences set apart digital technologies and the disruption they herald.

The development and deployment of frontier technologies have always been intimately tied to geopolitical disruptions

First, few other technologies have diffused so pervasively across all aspects of human life in the same manner as digitization. Most importantly, none created an external, mediated – or “virtual” – reality, in the way that digital technologies have. As digital spaces mature, the “distance” between the real and the virtual is rapidly collapsing. The virtual world has real world consequences. The “#MeToo” mobilizations on social media catalysed agitations on the street. Digital campaigns across Europe, America and Asia influenced political outcomes of the realm. The 2019 events in Hong Kong SAR offer another example. While protesters deftly leveraged communications technologies to grow their (physical) protests, Beijing responded with heavy‑handed influence operations on Western social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, meant to advance its own message at home and abroad.

The distinction between biological, digital and virtual will blur further with advances in technologies like brain‑machine interfaces and virtual reality. This will create new surface areas for the application of statecraft. Neat distinctions between the liberal international order, and its presumably illiberal counterpart, will be difficult to draw. After all, the virtual world – as the earlier examples show – has no rules of the road that separate the good from the bad.

Second, geopolitics in the 20th century (and earlier) was almost always concerned with the state. The state was the only unit capable of exercising influence and enforcing outcomes in international politics. Take the example of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which became the fulcrum of American power – thanks to its surveillance and intelligence‑gathering capabilities – especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The US government denied India access to GPS data that its military sought during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Digital technologies of a more recent vintage, however, have undermined the state’s monopoly over the affairs of citizens and resources. Geopolitics in the digital era will increasingly be shaped by a plethora of actors, including large technology platforms, sub‑state actors, non‑state actors, digitally mobilized communities and even influential or vocal individuals.

Consider the following developments: content on social media has fuelled violence across Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Chinese companies are selling surveillance tools to governments across the developing word. Online propaganda created by the Islamic State fuelled bombings in Brussels in 2016. The #MeToo community created a global political movement, organically picking up allies without need for negotiations, backroom deals or diplomatic roundtables. These may appear disconnected events. However, they all point to the increasing relevance of non‑state actors in influencing key events – events that may support or undermine state interests or international regimes.

Third, the scale and velocity of technology‑driven events are unprecedented. A decade ago, the conversation about social media and communication technologies centred on their emancipatory potential, as in Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution and the 2010‑2012 Arab Spring. However, this narrative has shifted dramatically: digital technologies are seen as national security vulnerabilities, or even as tools for authoritarian governments to control and subdue large populations. Put differently, the multiple technologies and political processes that are converging have created an environment of unknown variables. It is nearly impossible to predict which technology, or combinations thereof, will produce what type of political consequence or security risk.

Finally, digital technologies have created a “platform planet”. The aggregation of individual identities, mobilization of political voices, determinants of economic growth and provision of national security were earlier processes conducted under national regimes. Today, many of these processes have migrated to the digital and virtual arenas. The Westphalian state will soon co‑exist and be implicated by the amorphous “cloud state”, which exists beyond its geography. In this territory, domestic debates are not limited to citizens, and economic opportunities are dependent on the
architecture of the cloud rather than trade regimes.

Geopolitics in the digital era will increasingly be shaped by a plethora of actors

As a result, the “platform‑ization” of statecraft is visible. In other words, states understand that geopolitical gain will come from the “globalization” of their own technological systems and attendant standards, products, rules, social norms and technical infrastructure. China’s digital governance propositions, for instance, will vastly differ from those of the United States. It should surprise no one that the standard‑setting Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers decided, in May 2019, to ban Huawei researchers from publishing in its journals. The move was in
response to the US government’s blacklisting of Huawei from its supply chains, and in deference to the European Union leveraging the General Data Protection Regulation to advance its own cyberspace rules. Other powers like Russia, India and Indonesia are exerting their own interests.

The consequence of these processes, however, has been the increased fragmentation of cyberspace. The platform states are likely to be less interoperable than ever before. The “decoupling” under way between the American and Chinese technological systems is only a precursor of what is likely to come. Other jurisdictions and geographies will be implicated in messy, complex ways that will not resemble a conventional struggle between “superpowers”.

Managing the digital landscape

Collectively, these four trends will help shape the geopolitics of our era even as communities and countries struggle to negotiate a new relationship within national boundaries among the state, enterprises and citizens. Creating and managing global regimes for this new world will require states to anticipate risks to domestic institutions and processes, maintain economic interdependence, identify strategic vulnerabilities and national security challenges, and develop international norms and institutions.

Because the Fourth Industrial Revolution is unfolding as the global landscape becomes increasingly multipolar, no single state will possess the political capital to enforce its own interests. Just like the G20 was incubated to manage the global economy in a multipolar world, there is need for a new digital collective, perhaps a “D20” comprised of the largest digital economies and technology companies. It should function as a steering mechanism of sorts, managing the implications of digital technologies while more formal institutions mature.

The international community must also create mechanisms to facilitate “platform interoperability”. Global stability has always been a function of interdependence – the economic and political matrix of relationships that states enter into. If the fragmentation of our global technological system continues, competition, even confrontation, and instability are inevitable. Arriving at a functional mechanism to allow national technological systems to talk to one another, despite technical, political or social differences, will be crucial.

Informal and normative international rule‑making processes must support both these imperatives. The treaty system functioned effectively in the bipolar and unipolar world of the 20th century. It is no template for the future. In the short term, it is also unlikely that states will be able to achieve a convergence of interests on digital issues. Instead, the international community must work towards standardization in core economic and security operations, while allowing states the flexibility to manage the social and political consequences of emerging technologies domestically. This  may be a suboptimal arrangement, but it is likely to be a more effective one.

There is need for a new digital collective, perhaps a “D20” comprised of the largest digital economies and technology companies

The “emerging technologies” discussed today are mostly those that have matured from internet‑related breakthroughs in the late 20th century. The international community is only beginning to respond to the set of challenges they have raised. What lies ahead? The next few decades will see even more rapid advance in technologies, with some that place the human body at the frontier of innovation, and even a new arena of geopolitical contest. The intervening period will test the world’s ability to learn the right lessons from the tensions that require resolution today – and apply them to build 21st‑century arrangements.


This essay originally appeared in The Shaping a Multiconceptual World

Battle for Clean Air is the best climate mitigation strategy

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The turn of the decade expectedly brings no respite for societies that have been at war with the environment for centuries. Instances of bushfires, storms, floods and other extreme weather patterns continue to wreak havoc. The last 10 years were the warmest in all of human history. We know that earlier predictions about climate tipping points—the moment in time where a climate cataclysm is likely—were optimistic. As it turns out, we are fast running out of time. This is a global trend which implicates everyone and requires collective action.

The most damaging indictment of our failure is the images of entire cities gasping for breath as fuel emissions, construction dust, commercial businesses and farm waste residue create toxic ambient conditions that are severely undermining the right to breathe. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution is the leading cause of nearly 7 million premature deaths every year. Even worse—air pollution is an intergenerational killer. 90 percent of all children around the world breathe polluted air and 600,000 die before they turn 15 every year. A recent study by the Centre for Science and Environment in Rajasthan found that one infant mortality takes place every three minutes due to Lower Respiratory Tract infection caused by air pollution. These are staggering statistics that must serve as a wakeup call for government’s businesses and communities. Apathy is not a policy option.

The 2020s must be the decade when the international community finally delivers on the promises of sustainable growth of which right to clean air must be an integral objective. This is easier said than done. It is not certain that we will make the right decisions. Climate change and air pollution are “wicked” public policy challenges. There are multiple interrelated casual factors—from the planets own environmental systems to anthropogenic causes—that are driving our societies and ecology to a crisis. These challenges require leadership resolve and innovative responses.

It is time to acknowledge that complex systems require structural solutions that focus on multiple actors, institutions and processes. There is no silver bullet that can clear this smog that chokes. Ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution over two centuries ago, human societies have consciously accepted the trade-off between growth and the environment. We need new models that can create millions of jobs, drive the economy and eradicate poverty without necessarily sacrificing our environment. Single-minded focus on macroeconomic indicators cannot continue to define our political-economic consensus.

It is time to invest in leadership that cuts across ideologies and identities. This might be a difficult task in today’s polarized and parochial times—but common enemies have always catalyzed new partnerships and alliances. The battle against climate change and air pollution might just be the cause that societies can rally around. The answer ultimately lies in political will and incentive. The commitment to clean air must become an electoral issue—our politicians and leaders must be compelled to fight for votes on a platform that supports the right to breathe.

At the Raisina Dialogue this year, incubating a global green new deal is a crucial priority for ORF and its partners. Securing the right to breathe will be the theme of one of our opening dinners—and it will bring together lawmakers, business leaders and civil society practitioners to debate and discuss how best to achieve this. Over the following two days, the Raisina Dialogue will debate how the development agenda can be de-securitized and reclaimed by local communities; how the international community can support progress towards achieving universal health coverage (UHC); how global governance can respond humanely to climate change induced migration; and how states can leverage the 4IR to rediscover linkages between the economy and environment.

We hope that these conversations strengthen the green transformations that our world so desperately needs. We have already taken the initial steps: At the Raisina Dialogue, ORF will launch a study led by Jayant Sinha, MP which draws on success stories from Germany, UK and California to provide a compelling case for why green transitions make for good economics and politics. It is time to strengthen this process. From e-mobility to renewable energy sources, a new green design should be at the core of our urban agenda. It is time also to operationalize climate smart agriculture rather than relegate it to a buzzword. There is an inherent collateral co-benefit in doing all of this: A political and economic agenda that prioritizes the right to breathe will inevitably catalyse the systemic change urgently needed to mitigate the clear present danger posed by global warming.

How Xi Jinping, whose father was expelled from Communist Party, became China’s ‘Dada’ Xi

When Xi took over as general secretary of Communist Party in 2012, western media portrayed him as a ‘compromise candidate’ with little qualification to run China.

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Ahead of the eighteenth Party Congress in 2012, it was increasingly clear that Xi Jinping—who had been vice president since 2008—would take charge as general secretary of the Party. This was perhaps surprising if one considers Xi’s own past. When Xi was nine years old, his father, Xi Zhongxun, former head of the Communist Party’s propaganda division, was expelled by Chairman Mao because of his disloyalty. Until then, Xi had grown up a ‘princeling’ in ‘Zhongnanhai’, the enclave of influential Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders. This was part of a sweeping ‘Cultural Revolution’ launched by Mao with the ostensible goal of purging Chinese tradition and Western capitalism to promote and preserve communist China. During the Cultural Revolution, when Xi was fifteen, his father was sent to prison and Xi was one of the nearly thirty million ‘sent-down youth’ who were forced to work in the Chinese countryside for ‘re-education’ as part of Mao’s ‘Down to the Countryside’ movement. He ended up in a remote village of the Shaanxi province where, Chinese state media often claims, he lived in a cave dwelling for nearly seven years. According to Xi himself, these seven years were transformative. ‘When I arrived at the Yellow Earth at fifteen, I was anxious and confused,’ wrote Xi in 1998, by which time he was a rising star in the Communist Party. ‘When I left the Yellow Earth at twenty-two, my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence.’ Over twenty-five years, Xi rose through the ranks of the party leadership by performing well and keeping his disagreements to himself. His early career began in the northern province of Hebei, a relatively poor region, but he transferred quickly to the wealthier provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. These regions were vital to Deng’s ‘opening up’ policy, which saw China integrate with the global economy, and they would be important to Xi’s career. It was here that Xi would learn about globalization and market reforms. Because of his known anti-corruption credentials, Xi was soon whisked off to Shanghai in 2007, which was then in the midst of a corruption scandal. He dealt with the matter so effectively that he was catapulted to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) central leadership that very year, and quickly became vice president of the country in 2008. Xi rose up the ranks as a clean, pragmatic, and pro-growth leader. According to a cable leaked by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a well-connected Embassy contact referred to Xi, who was then a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and Vice President, as ‘exceptionally ambitious’, ‘confident’ and ‘focused’, and stated that Xi has had his ‘eye on the prize’ from early adulthood. ‘Unlike many youth who made up for lost time by having fun [after the Cultural Revolution],’ the cable added, ‘Xi chose to survive by becoming redder than the red.’ It was these qualities that would come to define general secretary Xi.

The China dream

When Xi did take over as general secretary in November 2012, the expectations from his government were limited, and Xi himself remained somewhat of an enigma. Local newspapers painted him as a leader connected with the masses, who was ‘amiable and easygoing.’ The Western media portrayed him as a ‘compromise candidate’; as someone who had little real qualification to run China other than the fact that he belonged to the ‘princeling’ class and had few detractors. Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister, wrote in 2012 that Xi was likely to have the same goals as all other Chinese governments since the Mao era: ‘to sustain the political pre-eminence of the CCP within the country.’ There were signs that Xi himself was averse to being seen as overly ambitious. In an interview in the year 2000, Xi said, ‘You always want to do something new in the first year, but it must be on the foundations of your predecessor. It is a relay race. You have to receive the baton properly, then run well with it yourself.’ However, the twelve years following that interview had apparently changed Xi’s worldview quite significantly. One of Xi’s first public appearances as head of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was his visit to the National Museum of China in Beijing along with the new Politburo Standing Committee on 29 November 2012. Once there, he stood in front of a prominent art display titled ‘The Road to Rejuvenation’. This display sits beside another famous showcase: ‘The Century of Humiliation.’ The story this display tells is one that every Chinese student learns early on in their education: In the mid-nineteenth century, China was humiliated by a series of outsiders, beginning with Britain, and then Japan. ‘The Road to Rejuvenation,’ on the other hand, narrates the victory of the Communist Party and its ideology—marking a return to the prosperity of the Chinese nation. It was here, at the end of the visit, that Xi Jinping spoke of the ‘China Dream’— otherwise known as the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Xi described the China Dream as achieving the ‘Two Centenaries’. First, the economic goal of China becoming a ‘moderately well-off society’ by 2020, the hundredth anniversary of the CCP; and second, the goal of becoming a fully developed nation by 2049, the hundredth anniversary of the PRC.

Rise of ‘Dada’ Xi

To ensure that China could again find its rightful place in the world, Xi would have to undertake several structural reforms. Given that Xi’s economic or political views were never widely published, opinions on his possible policy choices would vary widely. One op-ed for the The New York Times went so far as to argue that Xi would ‘spearhead a resurgence of economic reform…and probably some political easing as well.’ While this may seem naïve in retrospect, Xi himself sent some positive signals. One of his first visits as head of the Communist Party was to Shenzhen in South China, which was once a remote fishing village and is now a thriving industrial region. The city is widely considered a shining symbol of China’s embrace of market reforms. Here, he called on the country to ‘tackle tough issues’ and ‘break free from the barriers of vested interest.’ The symbolism was not lost on anyone: Shenzhen was part of Deng Xiaoping’s famous 1992 ‘Southern Tour’, which sought to rally support for market-based reforms following the tumult of Tiananmen Square. Many believed that Xi was signalling a willingness to undertake the economic reforms that his predecessors did not have the political courage to manage. On political reform, Xi once again gave reason for optimism. In December 2012, Xi declared that ‘no organization or individual shall enjoy privileges beyond the constitution.’ He was giving voice to the popular angst against corruption that had plagued the Communist Party, a fact that even Chinese leaders were publicly acknowledging. In 2012, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published an anti-corruption bluebook, noting that corruption in China touches ‘virtually all corners of society, from the economic, political and judicial fields to the social, cultural and educational ones.’ Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2012 ranked China as the eightieth most corrupt country out of 176. In January 2013, Xi Jinping publicly pledged to tackle this challenge by prosecuting both ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’—in other words, high-ranking party officials and lowly bureaucrats alike. Xi understood perfectly well that corruption was undermining the legitimacy of the Party, and he was driven to change this reality. More importantly, some argue that the anti-corruption narrative was also a useful tool to purge political rivals. Xi’s ascent to the top job took place against the backdrop of corruption and espionage charges against Bo Xilai, the former governor and Communist Party chief of Chongqing province, who had been in line for an appointment to the National Standing Committee. Soon after, Xinhua reported that Jiang Jiemin, the powerful head of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), had been removed from office on suspicion of serious disciplinary violations—Chinese doublespeak for corruption. The official whose purge received most attention was Zhou Yongkang, the ninth most important member of the Chinese government and the country’s chief of security and intelligence until his retirement. Not surprisingly, what all these men had in common was their challenge to Xi’s power. By the end of 2012, Xi had purged thousands of party officials and acquired some extremely powerful positions for himself, including head of the Party and the military. In March 2013, he would also emerge as President of the Chinese state—merely a title, considering that he had already installed himself as head of several bodies overseeing the economy, military, internal security, foreign policy, internet governance, and so on. The Chinese press had taken to calling him ‘Dada’ Xi—or uncle Xi. This was a sign of exceptional reverence for any Chinese leader and an indication of Xi’s consolidation of power.


This commentary originally appeared in The Print

Two elections, diverse results, five lessons

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As the toxic smog envelopes much of North India and New Delhi and its sister cities in the region choke, it may be a useful moment to look through the haze generated by the recently concluded state elections. There are five significant takeaways from the Maharashtra and Haryana election results — takeaways that implicate how we should think about the politics of India going forward.

First, it may be time to stop blaming technology for poor politics. If nothing else, these elections should be seen as redemption for the electronic voting machines that electoral losers have constantly blamed for their losses. Yes, India should continue to strengthen the security around EVMs (air-gap approach is simply not enough) and scale up the use of voter-verified paper audit trails or VVPATs. But a discourse that delegitimises EVMs, and thus the entire democratic process, can no longer have any validity or be given any oxygen. As we move to more fluid forms of referendums in the future, technology platforms and personal devices will be indispensable.

Second, state elections are precisely that — elections in and about states. Voters in India have consistently demonstrated great maturity in responding to local leaders and local issues at the hustings. This was clear even during the general elections earlier this year, where many voters in Odisha clearly voted for Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik at the state level and for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the national level. Governance in India has clearly shifted to the states, and the real politics of development and delivery is being played out there. It is these leaders who are being held accountable for the basic services that governments are supposed to provide. National leadership may set the broad narrative, but it is state leaders who deliver — whether on schemes or on votes. National parties that will do well in the states will rely on local leaders and performance.

Third, the Congress should be wary of drawing the wrong lessons from its better-than-expected showing in Haryana and the fact that it has not been decimated in Maharashtra. The sturdiness of the party’s grassroots in these states shows that the ‘Rahul Factor’ was not the major determinant of the party’s apparent revival in the 2018 state elections prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Rahul Gandhi may not have hindered, but he did not help either – the local leaders were the single most important factor.

But that does not mean in turn that the party should decide that the ‘old guard’ is its only possible alternative. The clique around Sonia Gandhi is no more likely to turn the party around than the clique around Rahul Gandhi. It is too much to expect unelectable leaders to manage a party that is supposed to relate to the voter on the ground. And in both instances that is what the malaise in the Congress apparatus seems to be. Their only hope in the days ahead is to be able to groom and incubate local leadership that can credibly offer an attractive proposition to the voters. In a sense, that would mean reverting to the previous system of regional satraps that served the Congress well before Rajiv Gandhi did away with that political legacy.

Fourth, even if the big-O ‘Opposition’ is missing in India, it is clear there is a market for small-o ‘opposition’. Indian democracy has never been at its most stable when there was no alternative. The Congress, structurally weak, has still managed to garner protest votes in large enough numbers to put up a fight. Frankly, it would have been even closer but for ‘Brand Modi’ that today is beyond that of any other political figure in independent India. If BJP wants to become that ‘big-tent’ party that is relevant across the length and breadth of the country, it will do well to invest in a new and diverse group of local and regional leaders and help them emerge. Maharashtra has proven the usefulness of this approach.

A last point. The BJP needs to be cautious on expending excessive political capital by way of Modi’s charisma and popularity in state elections of which a series are coming up in the next couple of years. Often a simple majority is enough in the states and there is no merit in aiming for humongous majorities, thereby raising popular as well as cadre expectations of spectacular electoral performance, from panchayats to assemblies each time. Linked to this is the increasing tendency of the BJP to field dubious candidates and denying tickets to deserving ones. Maharashtra shows the first is fraught with danger; Haryana shows the second is not a good idea in the cut-throat world of electoral politics.

Mature economies expect politicians to respond to the demands of voters — and it is clear that voters want accountability. The electorate has thrown down the gauntlet, will a leader arise to pick it up?

Digital Debates — CyFy Journal 2019

Digital Debates — CyFy Journal 2019

Digital Debates is an attempt to highlight perspectives, diagnoses and solutions for the future of our digital world that are not necessarily rooted in technology. 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.

Welcome to the age of the platform nation

Industrial Revolution, Efficiency, production, GDP, 4IR, inequality, digital societies, ownership, mass services, sharing economy, McKinsey, replacement, progress, productivity, labour, consumption, innovation, feasibility, IPR, onboarding
Source: Concordia

Since the First Industrial Revolution, growth and welfare have depended upon increasing the efficiency of production. Specialization, manufacturing, electricity and the computer all increased productivity, GDP – and thereby wages and national welfare. Higher wages did not just spur consumption of more goods and services, but also meant bigger national budgets through tax collection. A virtuous circle of prosperity was created. Some gained more than others, creating persistent inter-generational inequality; but, in absolute terms, economic means were enhanced across all major population segments. (Except, of course, for those places that were colonized and subject to deliberate exclusion from such gains.)

This relationship – between productive efficiency and economic growth and wages – is now breaking down in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Digital technology is creating digital societies; mass services are replacing mass manufacturing as the source of welfare enhancement; and shared assets are supplanting exclusive asset ownership.

Providing the same final utility to a consumer requires the production of fewer manufactured goods. The sharing economy, meanwhile, means previously under-utilized assets are being more productive. When India’s economy hits $5 trillion (perhaps five-to-seven years from now), it will at most have about 50 cars per 1,000 private individuals (it is 22 cars today). Japan, which is a $5 trillion economy today, has close to 600 cars for 1,000 people. McKinsey has forecast that India will overtake Japan in total car demand in 2021. But this figure does not reveal demand for new vehicles in per capita terms. In spite of the large gap in private car ownership, private ride sharing and other mobility service options will narrow the transport experience between the residents of Japan and India.

Divergence in the automotive sector is particularly telling. In the 20th century, mass assembly-line production created efficient producers with consequently higher incomes – a feature of what came to be called “Fordism”. In the 21st century, individuals and economies are reaping welfare gains from being more efficient consumers. Consumption efficiency is replacing production efficiency – a trend we can call “Uberism”.

In the 21st century, individuals and economies are reaping welfare gains from being more efficient consumers. Consumption efficiency is replacing production efficiency – a trend we can call “Uberism”.

The changes accompanying this shift from “Fordism” to “Uberism” are difficult to see in economic metrics. The more efficient use of assets, the shift from traditional manufacturing to innovative mass services, or the provision of greater utility through fewer goods and less physical activity, may appear on the national accounts as value destruction or stagnation rather than as GDP growth. Yet welfare gains in the future are likely to do just that: appear, when observed through the economic frameworks of the past, like slower and lower growth.

This implies that three major trends need to be theorized and engaged with by economists and political scientists:

First, a replacement is needed for GDP (as we define it now) as a measure for economic progress. Governments and policy-makers chasing GDP growth in an age where welfare enhancement may not be reflected in GDP will not be serving their citizens well. Their policy emphasis will be on objectives that are irrelevant to the 4IR. Barring a few sectors (food production is remarkably resilient to the shared economy, but certainly subject to efficiency gains) and finished goods (personal communications devices being one of the exceptions), a consumption basket biased towards the drivers of production-led growth is now an incorrect marker for proper economic assessments.

Second, a new theory of productivity, labor and consumption is needed. Earlier economic strength came from creating per-unit value; but increasingly what matters is overall valuation. The strength of corporations or enterprises is already being negotiated in these newer terms, but national balance sheets continue to plod along old paths. Compare, for example, ExxonMobil and Apple. In 2007, boosted by then-unprecedented increases in the price of oil, ExxonMobil first breached a market valuation of $500 billion. That year, its revenue was $400 billion. In other words, the revenue generated by Exxon at those levels was much higher than the revenue of Apple at a $1 trillion market capitalization. But investors believe in the future of platforms, and have come to a consensus about the importance of placing value on factors external to a network itself. Platform economies are validated by the number of persons on the platform and not through plain vanilla per-unit production and sales processes of the past. The intrinsic value attached to the on-boarding of an individual or a billion of them onto a platform, or more broadly a “service ecosystem” (say a Facebook, Google or even Aadhaar) is captured by stock markets, but not by GDP assessments.

An inevitable consequence of this process will be a re-evaluation of the economic and political feasibility of current intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes. Today “onboarding” (getting users to sign on to platforms, services, operating software etc.) prevails over “gatekeeping” (charging IPR fees for use/user access). So are today’s IPRs useful when it comes to creating value for countries and citizens in Industry 4.0? This means the nature, definition and pricing of “innovation” itself might have to change: the happenings around Android and iOS are already offering some pointers to the future.

Finally, this discussion would be incomplete without delving briefly into the need for a new theory of social organization. Political and social arrangements that revolve around citizens’ identities as workers are unfit for today’s digital societies of today. The reconfiguration of the workplace (from factory floor to handheld device, for example) and of the nature of work itself, as discussed earlier implies deep changes to political structures and social support networks. Can trade unions stay relevant in this new era? What is the relevance today of party politics that developed out of First Industrial Revolution class conflict, deriving their raison d’etre from the working classes on the one hand and business owners on the other?


This article originally appeared in The World Economic Forum

Our ‘in’secure futures

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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.


CyFy 2019: Chair’s note

The real world is now complemented and implicated by the virtual world. This is a new domain altogether, and its governance is not bound by traditional rules and constraints.

CyFy, CyFy 2019, Samir Saran, Arab Spring, dataveillance, emancipatory
Photolabs@ORF

We meet for the 9th edition of CyFy in interesting times. The assumptions that have underpinned digital technologies since the inception of CyFy in 2013 have changed dramatically. There were two competing narratives then about the future of cyberspace and its relationship with society: the emancipatory potential of digital technology, as witnessed by episodes such as the Arab Spring, and the worrying implications of government abuse of internet platforms for surveillance, evidenced in the Snowden revelations. Eight editions later, six in New Delhi and two in Morocco, it is clear which way the pendulum has swung.

The democratic ideal of cyberspace has given way to concerns around privacy, concentration of wealth, and national security. The very platforms that enabled new forms of expression and supported new social coalitions have inadvertently created a sprawling apparatus for surveillance and exploitative control. The ubiquitous availability of data has allowed a plethora of actors to generate granular information about behavioural preferences—making the fickle human mind ever more vulnerable to influence and polarised thinking.

This is now the new normal. Two decades ago, the refrain — eloquently phrased by Prof Larry Lessig — was “code is law.” Today, it is more appropriate to say that code is life. Opaque algorithms, fuelled by what the Indian Supreme Court calls ‘dataveillance’, define the interactions of individuals and communities and their relationship with industry and the state. The boardrooms that develop these algorithms, meanwhile, remain answerable only to their shareholders (if at all), often at the expense of their customers and users. Frameworks for accountability in the digital age — whether from sovereigns or technology companies — have yet to emerge.

States have also taken note of these new tensions. Given the vast social and strategic implications of digital technologies, their evolution in the coming decade will undeniably be shaped by the strong arm and long reach of the state. Governments have instinctively spiralled themselves into a zero-sum race to lead in the development and deployment of these technologies. As a consequence, the internet is less global, less secure and less free than it has ever been at any time since its widespread adoption.

Taken together, these new realities have produced disorder in technological and social systems globally. Malicious actors have aggregated on social media to produce a fractured information environment, malicious actors have weaponised data and algorithms, while states are intent on erasing private spaces and exerting sovereign control over global flows of information. Two decades into the 21st century, the structural forces being driven by digital technologies appear to be leading us into a more polarized and fractured world.

All consequential evolutions in technologies have required societies to create new arrangements. In this, the past cannot help us. The velocity of change and disruption underway today is unprecedented. The real world is now complemented and implicated by the virtual world. This is a new domain altogether, and its governance is not bound by traditional rules and constraints. The 25 conversations we have curated at CyFy 2019 are designed to acknowledge this new reality and to outline pragmatic solutions for this networked world.

Over 130 speakers and delegates from nearly 40 countries, including 10 cyber-ambassadors and government representatives, will spend the next three days in New Delhi to join us for this crucial effort.  As always, we strive to create new coalitions and norms that can address comprehensively the problems of our digital world. We are grateful to our partners, speakers and delegates for joining us to debate these important issues. I am confident that the ideas we hear at CyFy 2019 will inevitably lead to a new consensus for our tech futures.