India can help nurture a new BRICS-driven Digital Order for the world

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Sometime during the turn of the recently bygone century, some academics began announcing the demise of post-modernism. Since then, various labels have been used to describe the thought paradigm aspiring to replace it. These have ranged  from the rather unimaginative post-postmodernism to meta-modernism. Alan Kirby has suggested the rather deprecating “pseudo-modernism” (a la pseudo-secular) but preferred to use  the weightier description ‘digimodernism’ in his 2009 book, Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture, where he described how the paradigm was being shaped under the overwhelming pressure of new technologies in the digital world and the social forces being unleashed by them. In a subsequent paper, he went on to announce definitively that postmodernism was not only dead and buried but that it was buried somewhere in the rubble of the twin towers on 9/11.

9/11 happened in 2001. That also was the year when the term BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) came to be born as an investment banker’s acronym — a jumble of letters, strung together on the basis of GDP forecasts run on simulated computer models.

When the countries denoted by these alphabets began actually grouping together rather tentatively, the barbs were predictable; BRIC countries are so different — in terms of resources, in terms of their values and goals. What could possibly hold them together? South Africa joined in and BRIC became BRICS. The only thing they all seem to have in common, it was mockingly said, is the BRICS membership.

However, for those who question the logical coherence of BRICS, here lies the rub.

BRICS was unquestionably a product of meta-modern times. It was and remains a grand experiment in world politics: an experiment in the global politics of power that could only have happened in the 21st century.

Indeed, for BRICS, which began as an investment banker’s acronym, it is in a way fitting that the changing paradigm of meta-modernism is best represented by the explosion of economic activity both riding on and powering the wings of this change. The digital world brought about an unprecedented transformation in the way products were conceived and designed, where they were manufactured, using whose labour and whose resources. Then brick-and-mortar retailing began to be turned upside down. Now the next wave of change is set to transform manufacturing processes and business models, as customers and markets are being re-defined. And in that process of re-definition, the world is set to transform not just labour markets but impact both society and governance.

BRICS needs to stand together as a coherent entity because they need to surf and ride the wave of this transformation – not to do this would mean being overwhelmed by it. As a grouping which in no small part owes both its origins as well as its future success to the new paradigm shift that is being wrought upon the world order, staying ahead of the curve is critical in order to reap the benefits of the gains in productivity, global competitiveness and capacity to innovate that are set to be unleashed by the new wave of transformation.

What is the nature of this change?

Organisations – and this includes nations, states, companies, institutions – are losing boundaries as people interact, relate, question, and co-operate beyond their defined and preset organisational boundaries. This may have its own pitfalls but it also presents an unprecedented opportunity to expand human capacity and capability, creating new and inclusive platforms which bring new voices to debates, and which are making the unheard heard for the first time. These very ideas, new voices breathing fresh life into outmoded narratives and scripting new narratives which merely by the fact of their participation in the old, are modulated to underpin the BRICS agenda.

The complexity of global negotiations today is such that shifting coalitions will perpetually form and reform on various matters ranging from trade and security, finance and and IPR to climate action. They will be in constant flux, whether driven by geopolitics or pragmatic self-interest. Consequently any grouping of countries, including BRICS, will continue to find some common, but also a lot of uncommon ground.

Against this backdrop, BRICS provides a unique overarching opportunity for cooperation and understanding, spurred by mutual economic gain or in recognition of the emergence of new global power relationships as an alternative to the traditional power structures that have so far scripted and dominated the world order. It has created a space in which diverse sovereignties, political contexts and cultures can coincide and coexist pragmatically, work together for a robust trade and economic regime, create a new architecture of financial institutions, and most importantly imagine new models of outreach and governance.

A BRICSian digital agenda

Ultimately, the focus of digital BRICS is not restricted to just trade and technology. Rather, it will use these for the larger primary objective of unprecedented social and economic transformation of the billion plus that are as yet excluded.

The vast majority of new internet users that are waiting to be connected are mainly in Asia and Africa. They would be the ones who look to BRICS countries to maintain the openness, resilience, security and stability of the digital realm. More importantly they will look to BRICS to devise business models and practices through which the benefits of connectivity, in the realms health, education or governance can be accessed by all, right down to the bottom of the pyramid.  Technology is at a stage where even having access to health or education, getting one’s produce the best prices in the market or having equality of opportunity is increasingly going to hinge upon whether one is digitally connected or not. Opportunity itself becomes a function of whether that connection is on a basic 2G handheld mobile device or on a smart phone using broadband. Therefore it is important to bridge the digital divide, because this is a divide that, if not handled properly, can both widen and deepen with every shift in technology

Consequently, if the digital divide has to be bridged, and bridged across the world, it is for the BRICS countries to take leadership and shape the global agenda with a billion new entrants in mind. How can they work to ensure a level playing field, and ensure that access remains equitable and affordable? Without the universality of access, their new open governance systems can never be inclusive. How can they create modes of accessibility that can help unlock the potential of the unconnected next billion?

As India takes over the BRICS presidency, it aims to develop responsive, inclusive and collective solutions. Given the importance that the Government of India gives to its Digital India initiative, there can be no better way to put this in to practice than a Digital BRICS.

On the diplomatic front, the BRICS countries need to collectively discuss the grouping’s convergences on internet governance and cyber norms, and perhaps even offer a consolidated position. Without being weighed down by a debate on multilateralism versus multi-stakeholderism, BRICS should aim for the low-hanging fruit. In particular, there is shared enthusiasm to develop the private sector in their respective digital economies. To help e-tailing giants and digital start-ups expand their operations transnationally, the private sector must be supported by an ecosystem of regulations and norms that can be common across BRICS economies. Similarly, BRICS regulators should exchange notes on data protection standards, to ensure that the rights of internet users are protected.

Even if many of the BRICS countries remain separated by distance in the physical world, the digital realm is one where they can virtually strive to be contiguous and continuous – identifying processes and protocols for harmonisation, aligned together for the possibilities of seamless trade, development, and a growth that is universally inclusive.

This commentary first appeared in The Wire. ORF hosted the first international conference on Digital BRICS recently in New Delhi, in association with the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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