Four watershed events since 2020 — a short period, but with apologies to Lenin, decades have happened in this time — have established India’s credentials as one of the last major bulwarks of a rules-based order, open and fair trade and economic arrangements, and the rule of law. These are critical elements if we are to build a new world order that is balanced, inclusive and fair.
The first event was the capitulation of western powers in Afghanistan. The triumph of the Taliban was not a victory by just war but the defeat of a people by deceit. Liberals around the world were kept in the dark as a Faustian bargain was struck by major powers that sought expediency over ethical diplomacy. Today, American supporters of the infamous Doha Agreement — ironically called the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan — express concern about Afghan women. Their hypocrisy is naked and jarring. The Doha deal could never have turned out any differently. India kept a principled distance from that pernicious deal. Appreciating fully the true nature of a prospective Taliban regime, it continued to seek an elected and pluralist government in Kabul. India was a lone voice. Yet it did not compromise. Today, India continues to support the people of Afghanistan without recognising the regime that tyrannises it.
American supporters of the infamous Doha Agreement — ironically called the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan — express concern about Afghan women.
The second is the war in Ukraine. The measures and countermeasures by Russia and Ukraine have resulted in bloodshed and mayhem, ultimately perpetuating the conflict. India’s position of principled independence, while advocating cessation of violence and pursuit of diplomacy, is recognised as the only meaningful way forward. The Indian stance has resonated across the G20 and beyond. The G20 Bali Leaders’ Declaration echoes Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s approach when it speaks of the “need to uphold ….. the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability”, the importance of “peaceful resolutions of conflicts”, and the vital role of “diplomacy and dialogue”. Furthermore, India has consistently argued for respect for sovereignty and investigation of crimes against humanity, including those possibly committed by the Russian army.
Third, in the technology domain, India has long championed an open, free and fair digital order. However, with the United States (US) pressing for narrow benefits for Silicon Valley in the past decade, India was reluctant to endorse instruments that sought free data flow without sufficient accountability from actors responsible for storing and transporting such data. Much to the US’s chagrin, India appeared to restrict cross-border data flows, sought regulation of non-personal data and contested monopolies, and restricted cartelisation attempts of the US’s payments and e-commerce companies. It made no secret of its distrust. Having dispelled coercive pressure to enter into digital handshakes on unfavourable terms or sovereign commitments on a future digital services tax, India has now eased its stand on data localisation. The reason: There is no longer any pressure from the US because even domestic actors in America want greater regulation and accountability from Big Tech. India is exploring sharing data with “trusted geographies” while seeking surgical data protection for specific sectors. An inclusive, equitable internet remains a core priority.
With the United States (US) pressing for narrow benefits for Silicon Valley in the past decade, India was reluctant to endorse instruments that sought free data flow without sufficient accountability from actors responsible for storing and transporting such data.
The year 2021 signalled India’s fourth landmark moment. At the 26th round of the Conference of the Parties (COP26), India demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the planet by announcing its goal of reaching net-zero by 2070. It voluntarily imposed on itself a timeline for climate action, although its emissions per capita were well under two tonnes – about one-eighth those of the US. PM Modi’s Panchamrita road map for 2070 includes interim targets for boosting non-fossil energy capacity, using renewables, and reducing carbon emissions and the economy’s carbon intensity. PM Modi also later launched India’s LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) Mission. He emerged as one the earliest world leaders to state candidly that climate action would require changes to individual lifestyles, taking steps to initiate those changes. By contrast, an international survey of 10 countries, including the US, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — published to coincide with COP26 — found few citizens willing to make significant lifestyle sacrifices. In fact, 46% of respondents believed there was no real need for them to do so. Take the facile but heated domestic debate around a potential ban on gas stoves in the US. Even as US diplomats have long championed “clean cookstoves” for the developing world, it appears there is little interest in following good climate practices at home.
India’s natural influence as a democracy and sincere interlocutor that can engage the political spectrum of nations gives it unique moral authority. Indeed, 21st century multilateralism needs more Indias. The G20 — with its mix of developing and developed countries — offers the perfect platform for India to infuse partner nations with foundational ideas. The world has much to learn on putting humanity first, adopting a pro-planet orientation, promoting peace, and placing equity and inclusion at the heart of internationalism. With its ethos of One Earth, One Family, One Future, India could show the way.
On 30 December 2020, an EU Press Release proudly declared “Leaders concluded in principle the negotiations on the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).” The conclusion — at least of this stage of the negotiations (the agreement will still have to withstand the scrutiny of the European Parliament) — has already spawned a cottage industry of commentaries.
The great and the good, particularly from the fields of Economics and Law, are having quite a time pondering and speculating over the (rather limited) detail that is available. Academic chatter is bubbling away on a range of issues: On what the agreement could mean for issues of Level Playing Field; how the terms that the EU has secured for itself compare with the US-China Phase 1 agreement (note that even though the EU-China deal is on investment while the US-China was on trade, there are some overlaps on issues like Forced Technology Transfer); how enforceable would social and environmental clauses turn out to be that the EU is touting as a major win; and so on and so forth? But much of this punditry, while tantalisingly delicious in the technocratic safety bubble that it lives in, reminds us of Nero fiddling as Rome burns. This is not the time to be bean-counting economic gains and losses. The abyss, which the EU has been gazing so greedily into, is staring back its Medusa stare.
There is much that is wrong with the deal, which we could point to, in both process and implications.
We could look askance upon the remarkable haste with which the European Union — normally a lumbering, complicated, and bureaucratic machine — has pushed this deal through. Or we could suggest that the Zaubertrank at work now be made the official beverage for the bureaucracy in Brussels.
We could raise an eyebrow at the fact that the final negotiations took place at what is usually expected to be the quietest time of the year: Holiday closures, understaffed newspaper offices, and tired citizens desperately trying to catch a breath or two in the period that is so sweetly described in German as “zwischen den Jahren” (the quiet time in between the years). Our raised eyebrows could perhaps rise further still if we turned our attention to the fact that people across Europe are caught in a surging second wave of the coronavirus pandemic (on the day that the deal was signed, Germany reached a new and depressing record of daily deaths due to COVID-19). And we could applaud that neither the pandemic nor the holiday despair could prevent this ‘systemic rivalry’ from being recast.
We could question not only the timing of the EU-China party, but also the choice of protagonists: In what capacity was President Macron present at this meeting? The impression that screenshots of the meeting give is that the two largest economies of Europe — Germany and France — are in the driver’s seat; all the attention that the union claims to give to representation and accountability for its remaining 25 members (to be reduced to 24 with Britain exiting on 31 December) is little more than lip-service.
We could even — if we were thus inclined — point out politely that we are not convinced by the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen’s, claim that the “Agreement will uphold our interests and promotes our core values. It provides us a lever to eradicate forced labour.” The clauses, at least as they are reported in the EU’s Press release, are weak. They are, in fact, so weak, that one might almost want to graffiti LOLOL (Laugh Out Loud On Labour standards) all over it, were it not for the tragic and horrendous human rights violations that are reported in Xinjiang.
We could raise all these issues, and more along such lines. But they still would not get us to the crux of a matter that is deeply political.
The abyss stares back
International trade and investment — for all the conceits that many economists and lawyers seem to have about these issues — are inherently political. And they have become even more political in the context of China’s rise: Not only because of the use and abuse of multilateral rules by non-market economies (which is what defenders of CAI tend to focus on), but also because of the fundamental difference in values that should define the goals of multilateral cooperation. Contra the inclination of technocrats to reduce values to labour and environmental standards, values include first-order principles of democracy, liberalism, pluralism, and more. And international trade and investment, especially in a world where interdependence can be weaponised, have become just too important to be left in disciplinary silos or technocratic bubbles. CAI is not “just” a matter of investment, or even standards; it is a matter that has potentially serious security implications. It begins to dramatically alter who we are as a society, community and people.
China has, perhaps, more than ever in 2020, given Europe ample evidence of these differences. It has threatened and bullied democratic Australia for having the gumption to push for an enquiry on the origins of the pandemic. Its new security law has all but abolished the promise of “one country two systems” for Hong Kong. Its adventurism in the neighbouring seas has increased. Its border conflict with India has escalated to a new level. Its increasing use of “wolf-warrior diplomacy” has even given up the pretence of sweet talk on many issues that most democracies hold dear.
Despite all these clear provocations, the EU has done little to update its strategy. It has — almost religiously — continued to repeat its mantra of 2019: It sees China as its partner, competitor, and rival. This, in fact, was nothing but fence-setting — and with the conclusion of the CAI negotiation, the EU has signalled to its own people, its allies, and indeed to China, which side of the fence it prefers.
The CAI — despite von der Leyen’s claim that it will help the EU defend multilateralism — is not multilateral at all. It is a bilateral deal with an authoritarian power that seems to have a very different understanding of multilateralism. It comes at an especially ill-opportune time. It signals to China that the EU now, not only turns a blind eye to, but actually rewards its increasingly aggressive behaviour. It suggests that the EU has scarce regard for its closest ally — the United States — which, under the incoming Biden administration, had clearly revealed that it would like to work together on China. It does not reassure other democracies — such as Australia, Japan, and India — and it also undermines the potential for alliances with like-minded players. And the deal is a slap in the face of multilateralism: It shows how, for all its talk in favour of reforming multilateralism, the EU actually attaches greater worth to a bilateral deal with a country that has contributed significantly to the breaking of the system.
In the 1990s, many were determined to embrace the “middle kingdom” and integrate it with the multilateral trading arrangement. The argument was that this would make China more like ‘us’. Tragically, many in the EU today are more like China instead. This agreement marks the move of the Union from ‘values’ to “valuations” and from ideals to trade.
Importantly, these are all choices that the EU has made. They cannot be fobbed off on China. China has simply gamed a round of Realpolitik rather effectively. Europe, in contrast, has weakened its own hand, given short shrift to its own values, and undermined the position of its friends and allies.
We will see the rise of a New World Order driven by national interest, reliability of partners, and of course, economic factors. India has to use a “Gated Globalisation” framework to negotiate this change.
The COVID-19 vaccines are coming. And along with this sanjivani comes a new age of geopolitics. The vaccines are varied, with different pricing points and affordability. Nations have secured their vaccine supplies from countries and companies they trust, often by forging new alliances. The scepticism over the vaccines from China and Russia shows that trust is the operating word in the post-pandemic era — and it is not limited to the choice of vaccines.
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, a multipolar world awaits us. The US and China — rivals for the top slot till the pandemic hit the world — will now have to contend with traditional and rising powers like the UK, France, India and Brazil. Each country will engage with others selectively, not in every arena. We will see the rise of a New World Order driven by national interest, reliability of partners, and of course, economic factors. India has to use a “Gated Globalisation” framework to negotiate this change.
The security landscape will continue to drive partnerships, but these will no longer be omnibus alliances. India is locked in a confrontation with China in the Himalayas. The US and its traditional allies are ramping up their presence in the Western Pacific. A new Great Game is underway in the Indo-Pacific where the Quad is emerging. The Middle East is in a deep churn as Israel and Arabs discover Abrahamic commonalities. Europe is caught in a struggle to retain its values amid the diversity it has acquired over the years.
The Gated Globalisation framework requires that India should protect its interests in these unsettled times. Strong fences are necessary, but so is the creation of new partnerships (like the Quad) based on trust and common interests. Gated Globalisation has no place for parlour games like “non-alignment”; it will test the tensile strength of “strategic autonomy”. The need for a new coalition was felt after Doklam and has become a necessity post-Ladakh: India needs friends in deed.
The Gated Globalisation framework requires that India should protect its interests in these unsettled times. Strong fences are necessary, but so is the creation of new partnerships (like the Quad) based on trust and common interests
Beyond security, like everybody else, India has to make partnership choices on trade, capital flows and the movement of labour. The WTO’s multilateral trading arrangements have frayed beyond repair. Whether it is RCEP in the Indo-Pacific, the new version of NAFTA called USMCA, or the reconfigured EU, countries will have to decide whether they belong inside these gated trading arrangements. India has chosen to stay out of RCEP and the UK has left the EU.
By imposing restrictions on trade with China, India faces restrictions on capital flows. But this does not preclude enhanced capital flows from new partners. To prevent inflow of illicit funds, India has barred capital from poorly-regulated jurisdictions. India’s capital account for investment is largely open while its current account is carefully managed. Similarly, while restricting debt flows, India is open for equity flows from friendly countries. Other nations have similar policies. By managing capital flows in this manner, countries have enabled tighter financial relationships within their gated communities while shutting out those who are inimical to their interests.
India’s global diaspora is now over 30 million and sends more through remittances ($80 billion per year) than foreign capital inflows. The pandemic-enforced work-from-home may see the creation of new pools of skilled workers, living in virtual gated communities, further enhancing income from jobs physically located elsewhere. Moreover, the Indian diaspora is now increasingly impacting policy in countries like the US, UK and Australia where it has contributed politicians and technocrats, innovators and influencers, billionaires and cricket captains.
The pandemic-enforced work-from-home may see the creation of new pools of skilled workers, living in virtual gated communities, further enhancing income from jobs physically located elsewhere
Finally, technology flows and standards will also define gated communities. The internet is already split between China and everyone else. The Great Firewall of China has shut out many of the big tech players like Google, Facebook and Netflix. Instead, China has its Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. With the advent of 5G technology, this split will get deeper and wider over issues of trust and integrity.
The EU-crafted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an excellent example of Gated Globalisation. The EU has set the terms of engagement; those who do not comply will be kept out. The Indian law on data protection that is currently being discussed follows a similar sovereign route. However, it remains to be seen whether these norms can checkmate China’s massive digital surveillance apparatus.
There are other emerging arenas that will likely become the focus of big power competition. China has moved in all possible directions to develop its global strategies. It has linked its national security interests with its Belt-and-Road Initiative and its debt programmes. It is offering a package deal of 5G technology with new telecom networks. China has learnt well from the US.
Amid these rapidly changing post-pandemic realities, India has to be swift in identifying partners whom it can trust and who will help protect and further its national interests. Ambiguity, lethargy and posturing will not do.
s we step into a year of uncertainties after a disruptive year of the pandemic, there is only one universal certitude: 2021 will witness the increasing adoption of technology as innovation gathers extraordinary speed. Clearly, our digital future is exciting, but it is hazy too. There are galactic black holes; and even that which is visible is overwhelming.
Despite acknowledging the need for critical discourse, our pace of enquiry, examination and action has been lethargic and out of step with the motivations of coders hardwiring our future through soft interventions. They are changing economies, societies, politics and, indeed, the very nature of humanity at an astonishing speed and with far-reaching consequences.
Nations that effectively respond to the advent of the Digital Era will be in the vanguard of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and will emerge stronger as the 21st century approaches high noon. Others will suffer the adverse consequences of the coming digital disruptions.
At the turn of the decade, Delhi hosted a stellar set of thinkers and speakers at the annual CyFy conference organised by the Observer Research Foundation, which focused on technology, security and society. Here are nine takeaways from the debates and discussions that threw up a kaleidoscope of scintillating ideas.
1. CHINA’S DIGITAL VICTORY PARADE
hat the US accomplished in the 20th century, China has set out to achieve in the 21st. The first takeaway from the CyFy debates is that China’s surge will continue, and it will profoundly change the world order. The US and its partners are witnessing the inexorable rise of an authoritarian digital power with the COVID-19 pandemic emboldening
THE US AND ITS PARTNERS ARE WITNESSING THE INEXORABLE RISE OF AN AUTHORITARIAN DIGITAL POWER… CHINA’S SURGE WILL CONTINUE, AND IT WILL PROFOUNDLY CHANGE THE WORLD ORDER.
Beijing to tighten its surveillance and suppression networks—bolstered by big data, facial recognition, et al.
The China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a defence contractor, for instance, pitches such future applications as detecting ‘abnormal behaviour’ on surveillance cameras or among online streamers. These applications intimate such detections to law enforcement agencies.[i] Several regimes around the world are attracted to these Chinese offerings, which enable them to control their citizens.
Meanwhile, the old Atlantic Consensus is in total disarray. Europe is intent upon carving out its niche in emerging technologies while promoting new technology champions to challenge American tech dominance. After taking over the European Union presidency, Germany has called for the expansion of digital sovereignty as the leitmotif of EU’s digital policy.[ii] A new Digital Services Act may fundamentally alter intermediary liability and mark a new milestone in digital rights and freedoms.[iii]
Across the Atlantic, the US has made its fear of China Tech apparent but is yet to initiate a coherent effort to build an influential digital alliance as a sustained response to China’s relentless digital expansionism. Which brings us to the central geopolitical question: Can the US and Atlantic nations, currently marred by divisions and domestic disquiet, get their act together to respond to this emergence? Authoritarian tech is at the gates: Does the West have the resolve to respond? Will a new Administration in Washington, DC herald a new and meaningful approach? Or will America continue to turn inwards?
China will not offer any negotiated space. Beijing’s offer will be binary, so will be the outcomes. It is, therefore, imperative for a club of technology-savvy countries to come together if liberalism is to be preserved in our digital century.
2. END OF MULTILATERALISM AND THE RISE OF CLUBS OF STATES
o say that the international order is failing and floundering is not to state anything startlingly new; it’s only to underscore the bleakness of the global reality. However, like the proverbial silver lining, there is a degree of optimism around the role and centrality of smaller groupings. Regional partnerships, alliances of democracies, and plurilateral arrangements between nations with focused engagements and specific purpose platforms are seen to be important in these turbulent times. This is best exemplified by Australia, India and Japan—who with an eye towards China and propelled by their shared interest in a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory and transparent trade regime—are banding together for a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative.[iv]
These small groupings, built around shared but limited objectives, are dying multilateralism’s lifeline. The Year of the Pandemic and its resultant disruptions have left the world with few options. One of them is to begin rebuilding multilateralism with smaller groups of countries with aligned interests. Hopefully, over time, this will lead to an efficient, inclusive international order.
India, Japan and Australia have taken on the responsibility abdicated by the US of building a resilient, vibrant, secure technology network in the Indo-Pacific. The role of the EU, ASEAN (more difficult due to deep divisions) and democracies in the Indo-Pacific in defending and strengthening norms and laws associated with technology and politics was elaborated loudly and clearly at CyFy.
States matter and the leadership of individual nations will have to drive the global arrangements that will best serve this century. While dialogue with geopolitical adversaries remains critical, meaningless consensus-driven multilateral approaches are not viable in a world fundamentally fractured along political, economic and ideological fault lines. We need action, not pious declarations. Given the pace at which emerging technologies are evolving, organisations like the UN are too slow, unwieldy and politically compromised to have any significant impact.
3. GLITCH IN GLOBALISATION
n the post-COVID-19 era, globalisation as we have known it will be in tatters, yet decoupling will be more difficult than before. There is a simplistic assumption that you can decouple your digital world from the real world. This is not so. If you exclude entities from your digital platforms, it will be difficult to sustain traditional trade in goods and services with them. Commerce and connectivity of the future will have a different texture.
As economic growth, national identities and digital technologies collide, “Gated Globalisation” will be the new mantra. With interdependence no longer fashionable, supply chains will be shaped by rising national security concerns. Increasingly, cross-border flows of data, human capital and emerging technologies are viewed as vulnerabilities. A focus on autonomy and indigenous capabilities has accompanied growing incidents of cross-border cyber operations and cyberattacks.
Commerce may be conditioned on norms along the lines of what the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) seeks to do with the digital economy. The Blue Dot Network and supply chain initiatives may all end up creating layers of permissions and permits that will create toll plazas on digital freeways. The digital domain was built on the assumption of hyper interconnectedness. Will it be able to grow with mushrooming policy barriers?
4. UNCHARTED TERRITORY: BETWEEN TECHNOLOGY AND STATE
new and fascinating dynamic is rapidly emerging between democracies and technologies, raising an interesting question: If a democratic state tames technologies, can democracy survive? This question has been posed by Marietje Schaake, the International Policy Director at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center.[v] Technology is being co-opted into a ‘techno-nationalist’ narrative: The melding of a country’s national interest with its technological capabilities while excluding ‘others’. This techno-nationalist narrative often emanates from tech giants who are increasingly speaking in the state’s protectionist language. Mark Zuckerberg’s written statement ahead of US Congressional anti-trust hearings was couched in the language of protecting the core American values of openness and fairness, as opposed
IF A DEMOCRATIC STATE TAMES TECHNOLOGIES, CAN DEMOCRACY SURVIVE? THE COROLLARY TO THAT IS EQUALLY TRUE AND PROMPTS ANOTHER QUESTION: CAN DEMOCRACIES SURVIVE IF THEY DO NOT REGULATE TECHNOLOGIES?
The corollary to that is equally true and prompts another question: Can democracies survive if they do not regulate technologies? The isolating and polarising effects of social media, for instance, have already resulted in a slew of analysts chanting the dirge for democracy.[vii] The answers to these questions are unclear, but it is certainly true that the protection of the public sphere, the integrity of political regimes, and the robustness of conversations must be common aspirations should we want democracy to survive and strengthen.
Be it regulations, education, incentives, ethics or norms, we will have to dig deeper into our toolbox to come up with answers that would allow this to happen. Currently, the negative impacts of technology on our evolving and fractured societies are threatening to overwhelm its promise and potential. Can a new regulatory compact emerge that negotiates the digital ethics for corporations, communities and governments? This decade will witness an unspoken contest over writing this new code of ethics. It remains to be seen whose code will prevail and, more importantly, for what purpose.
5. UNACCOUNTABLE TECH AND CORPORATE BOARDROOMS
e cannot overlook the changes that the relationship between big companies, technology and societies has undergone. If successive anti-trust actions in the US, EU, Australia, India and elsewhere are any indication,[viii] accountable boardrooms are now an expectation and will soon be a reality; the shape it will take will be defined by the debates taking place around the world. We can be certain that in the coming years, corporate governance is not going to be the same.
Large companies, having dominance and influence, will need to be more responsive to the communities they serve. The blueprint of new corporate governance cannot but be influenced by the needs of the locality; the nature of the framework will have to be contextual and culturally sensitive. Since mammoth corporations determine our very agency and choice, it is part of their fiduciary duty to ensure that the interests of the company and the community are ethically aligned.
Outside corporate boardrooms, we cannot ignore the role of coders or programmers in Bengaluru, Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and other tech hubs. As we become increasingly reliant on software, can we let coders be the new cowboys of the Wild West without any accountability? As we get further entangled in the intricate web of algorithms, it has become clear that we need to demystify them. No more black box responses, no more unaccountable algorithms. What we need are programmers who are held responsible for the impact their codes make on people’s lives. We need algorithms that are not only transparent but also seen to be so.
6. THE PANDEMIC & DIGITAL SOCIETIES
he pandemic has made us reassess our approach to life and behaviour. We consume, we communicate, and we integrate using technology. Nearly a year on, COVID-19 has not only furthered technology’s invasion of our lives but also brought to the fore new realities, especially regarding privacy. The deepening concern over privacy is intertwined with the change in the ownership of data. The pandemic provided the pretext to alter the role played by big corporations and the control of the state over technological devices, products and services.[ix]
The digitalisation of our day-to-day lives may enable an unprecedented level of personalised oversight over individual behaviour. In its mildest form, this can be ‘libertarian paternalism’, a nudging predicated on the belief that individual choices are rarely made on the basis of complete information and are instead a product of psychological biases. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘gamification’ of citizenship under this new paradigm would be the ultimate realisation of the Hobbesian social contract, whereby the Leviathan would be entrenched in every aspect of citizens’ lives.
In order to retain the ownership of data and individual autonomy, all these changes must be accompanied by the strengthening of our resolve to defend individual choice, freedom and rights by formulating adequate laws that would ensure that the values we create serve us, the people.
7. REWRITING THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
he world needs a new social contract—a digital social contract. The pandemic has thrown the old workplace order into a state of flux, thereby, reopening the debate surrounding the provision of the three Ps: Paycheck, protection and purpose to individuals. The equivalent of 475 million full-time jobs vanished in the second quarter of 2020[x] and many others found themselves without health insurance and other benefits typically linked to work contracts at the greatest time of their need. To ‘build back better’, the new order is being shaped by new terms of contract and employment, concepts of social protection and minimum wage for all, and the altered role of the state, big tech and individuals. The global shift towards virtual workspaces also provides an opportunity to induct a more diverse work force, especially individuals from historically marginalised communities. However, we need to take note of the challenges that might accompany these changes—such as ensuring safe, inclusive digital workspaces, keeping pace with ever-changing technology, meeting the demand for human skills, and coping with the displacement of jobs. As we move to a more ‘virtual first’ work environment, we need to make sure that nobody is left behind.
Meaningful engagement with vulnerable communities necessarily involves outreach by governments as well as large technology firms, both of whom have benefited from the data of these communities. It is, therefore, the responsibility of both to build bridges with the communities that would be most vulnerable to the disruptive impact of the technologies they build and benefit from. We must take advantage of this moment to forge technology that will be in service of humanity—taking ‘people-centered innovation’ from a buzzword to actual practice.
8. OUTLASTING THE VIRUS: INFODEMIC AND I
n intense battle is being waged against the Infodemic, which is running parallel to the battle against the Pandemic. Misinformation, the darkest shade of grey in the Chrome Age, is now being used to destabilise businesses and political systems, and dissolve the social cohesion shared by individuals. “Misinformation costs lives”,[xi] and the Infodemic has led to uncountable preventable deaths.
NO SINGLE AGENT CAN EVER ENSURE THE INTEGRITY OF THE GLOBAL INFORMATION SYSTEM. THE ANSWER, THEREFORE, LIES IN THE COMING TOGETHER OF ALL THE THREE IMPORTANT ACTORS—THE STATE, BIG TECH AND THE PUBLIC.
No amount of digital distancing is helping curb the spread of fake news. This emergence of a highly polarised information system should be effectively countered by a new guarantor of the public domain. No single agent can ever ensure the integrity of the global information system. The answer, therefore, lies in the coming together of all the three important actors—the state, big tech and the public.
The state should help denounce disinformation and simultaneously promote high quality content. Big tech can devise algorithms to filter out such misinformation, curtail the financial incentive acquired through it and display a higher sense of responsibility. Indeed, if platforms can display the same energy and responsiveness they did during the US elections in other jurisdictions, we may have some hope for a tenable solution.
Finally, the public should expand their information base by incorporating different sources of information, reading before posting on social media, and exposing and reporting fake news. It is only through the realisation of collective responsibility that we can hope to find a ‘vaccine’ for the Infodemic.
9. #TECHFORGOOD – A RAY OF HOPE
n a gloomy landscape of various shades of grey, we are at last beginning to see some light and some white. The emergence of a technology moment where communities are beginning to find their voices and change the course of their future, provides a glimmer of hope. Across the world, especially in Asia and Africa, people are discovering, nurturing and shaping new aspirations and goals for themselves by using technology. The African Union highlighted the need to diversify, develop and assert ownership over its digital society and economy.[xii] Community data has transformed from a fringe idea to a mainstream policy debate, receiving a nod, for instance, in India’s Non-Personal Data Governance Framework.[xiii]
Even as the pandemic upended our lives, we saw governments deploying technology for the greater social good; we saw businesses respond to it with extreme ingenuity; and we also saw women seizing this moment and retaining agency.
The post-pandemic era offers us an opportunity to build a more diverse and inclusive digital order. We can, and must, redefine diversity and support minorities and women to play a key role as a new world emerges from the debris of the war on COVID-19. The world today once again stands on the cusp of history. It cannot afford to fail in laying a new foundation which is free of the of the frailties of the past.