Fate in a chip | Deccan Herald
As you travel through India today, you will find remnants of all the previous Great Games. Less than an hour from Delhi, you find yourself in the middle of the great Indo-Gangetic plains. Fields of wheat, rice, mustard, sugar cane and various other crops line the banks of these rivers. This fertile agricultural belt along with the plains of the Indus formed the cradle of the ancient civilization of northern India. These river civilizations had great success at the Great Agri Game.
Amid wheat and sugar cane fields lies Khurja, a small town known for its pottery. Legends of the origins of the city differ, but it is one of the oldest centers of glazed pottery in India. Close your eyes and you could be transported to the 15th century, when a city like Khurja would be an integral trade link on the Silk Roads that cross the Eurasian landmass. India’s handicrafts and handicrafts have made it a valuable nexus in the big game of commerce.
Interspersed with farmhouses and artisan centers are signs of India’s bid for the next big game, industrialization. The same Ganga-Yamuna Doab is dotted with factories for the manufacture of refined sugar and various forms of machinery and equipment. Ghaziabad and Noida are major hubs for small and medium factories, as is Okhla.
The signs of the transition to the digital economy are now equally evident. Just half an hour south of Delhi, suburban Gurgaon is lined with corporate offices and representatives of India’s growing digital economy. Gurgaon is the face of India’s new and vibrant economy.
All of these signs of history – and all of the Great Games we have seen over the past millennia – co-exist within an hour’s radius of central Delhi, the seat of India’s government.
Just as commerce, industrialization and capitalism have done in previous eras, technology will now increasingly shape the economic destinies of nations. Technology is no longer just one sector among others, but a force that permeates and changes all sectors of the economy.
Indeed, the digital economy, driven by its rapid growth, is rapidly replacing the industrial economy. Technology companies – not industrial-age companies – are grabbing much of the value chain or the share of consumer and business wallets. Technology enables the creation of new markets, creating new demand and supply where none existed before. Marketplaces and technology platforms enable more efficient matching of supply and demand. Newly emerging tech ecosystems often become the catalysts for economic growth and disruption across multiple sectors of the economy.
However, the changing structure of the economy has also raised many important questions about the implications. The digital economy is growing rapidly, but market dominance by a few technology platforms is leading to an unprecedented concentration of wealth among a few companies and individuals. The tech sector has become the preferred route for upward economic and social mobility, but growing economic disparity has raised questions about whether the wealth of Big Tech companies will translate into wealth for nations and societies. Technology is leading to the creation of new types of jobs and a transformed vision of the future of work. Yet, as it has done historically, technology also leads to structural unemployment.
Understanding the key drivers of these complexities will be key to identifying the answers and succeeding in the digital economy. If having Internet users is a necessary prerequisite to participate in the digital economy, it is certainly not enough to become a great digital power. As a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggests, success (and prosperity) in the digital economy will not be determined by the number of mobile phones and internet connections, but rather by ownership of the infrastructure, technologies , code and data.
Many emerging digital economies such as India are sadly focused on congratulating themselves on their growing numbers of internet or smartphone users. When India boasts of being the second or third largest Internet market for smartphones, it is important to remember that India was also the largest colony controlled by colonial powers a few hundred years ago. It was the “crown jewel” of the British empire, just like today where it prides itself as the “crown jewel” of technological empires.
Instead, the real conversation and analysis should focus on questions such as: who builds and benefits from digital infrastructure? Who has the ability to cut off digital access to certain regions? Who owns the technology behind most of today’s technological advancements? Who owns the immense amount of data generated every second and the information that can be derived from it? Who derives or extracts the most value from new digital value chains?
Is digital colonialism inevitable?
Several countries – especially those whose digital economies are dominated by big foreign tech companies – have expressed concerns about “digital colonialism” as a modern avatar of the exploitative colonization of the past. Within this larger idea of digital colonialism is the idea of “data colonialism”.
In many ways, data grabbing is the new form of land grabbing. Imagine many centuries ago when human beings, upon discovering the land, claimed it because it was considered unoccupied (the British era concept of terra nullius basically referred to it). According to data experts, today’s tech companies are currently engaged in data-driven wealth grabbing or virtual land grabbing.
This dates back to European colonial times when European trading companies were able to establish trade monopolies and eventually political and economic control in their colonies. Consequently, they were able to extract large amounts of wealth from their colonies, in the form of natural resources, commodities, and favorable trade, to transfer to their home territories.
But digital colonialism is by no means an inevitable reality. Many, but not all, nation states today have a different level of agency, strength, focus on independence and sovereignty, and understanding of history. Nation states like India are battling against the growing influence of Big Tech and have a wide array of tools for their fight.
Governments, society and citizens must play an active role in ensuring fair competition, risk mitigation and the protection of people’s fundamental rights. Governments that create better policies and frameworks for data governance could lead the way in developing more open and fair data protocols. India’s initiatives in this regard are again an interesting example. Its unique identity-based public data infrastructure and national open digital ecosystems (NODEs) could provide an alternative and more equitable model of data ownership and use.
This time around, a combination of factors could work to prevent digital or data colonialism. The rivalry between Big Tech companies could see some companies take a tougher stance against extractive relationships, which could then become the expectation and the norm across the industry. Similarly, the socio-political movements that arise to fight against the rise of inequalities could seize this cause.
Other emerging technologies such as blockchain and web3 could form the backbone of other data management structures that do not lend themselves to extractive relationships. There are indeed other ways to leverage technology to build a better world than what we have been able to do in previous eras of industrialization, colonization, capitalism, mass agriculture and mercantilist trade. .
What should the game plan be?
There are many strategies countries like India can adopt to succeed in the Great Tech Game and not get caught in the fear of digital colonialism. As the structure of the economy changes drastically, India needs to reorient itself to become digitally competitive. It cannot just be industrial policies and strategies; it also needs to think deeply about its technology policies and digital strategies. The country needs to focus on the Great Tech Game, not just the old economic game of industrialization.
A “Make in India” program, for example, must therefore be complemented by a “Digital India” or “Code in India” program. At the same time, India must become a technology nation, not just a talent nation. It needs to move from a simple workforce arbitrage strategy to a technology arbitrage strategy. It cannot just continue to gamble on its cheap engineering manpower, but must also gamble on ownership of unique and innovative technology. The country needs to develop a culture – and a well-funded ecosystem – of basic science and technology research and build core technological intellectual property across all sectors.
The infrastructure and digital public goods being developed in India, also known as the Indian stack, could potentially be a game-changer. The IndiaStack could be the digital operating system (much like Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android) on which an app marketplace could be built by Indian and global businesses and entrepreneurs. If China exports hard digital infrastructure globally, India could very well export soft public digital infrastructure globally.
The nation must also keep an unqualified focus on the future. Even as it finds niches within existing technology markets, it must proactively seek to build a solid foundation for leadership in the next big set of transformative technologies, whether it be climate tech or biotechnology or others.
A strategy to participate in the Great Tech Game can help the country climb into the “big league” of tech nations over the next few decades and transform the socio-economic prospects of more than a billion Indians. The lack of competition, on the other hand, will have equally serious negative consequences.
The author is a technology venture capitalist and entrepreneur and previously served as a policy advisor and management consultant. A graduate of the Wharton School and the Harvard Kennedy School, he has written extensively on foreign policy, geopolitics, national security, technology and entrepreneurship. He recently wrote “The Great Tech Game” published by HarperCollins.