Event ReportsPublished on Jul 05, 2019
Reverberations of post-colonial themes of finding ‘voice’ fuse with the leapfrog of technology for cooperation in the emerging world on achieving sustainable development goals - a report from the Conference on Technology, Innovation and Society at Tangier in June 2019.
Technodemocracy at Tangier

From the time the colonial became the post-colonial, it has been concerned with the issue of finding voice – who speaks for the post-colonial, and how, are fundamental questions of the changing world order.

In decades past, this debate has been structured around philology, the control of epistemology, the construction of historiography and the projection of teleology - as Gayatri Spivak asked, can the subaltern speak?

This search is now fusing with a strategic leapfrog: emerging powers are bringing forth techno-democratic visions of empowerment which, as India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told the Observer Research Foundation, are seeding new ideas of cooperation between developing nations to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

In his 2018 monograph Architecture of a Technodemocracy, the American politician Jason Hanania used the term ‘techno-democracy’ to explain how technology could assist in the decentralisation of a democratic order which is today seen as hijacked by the elite.

This idea of the insightful use of democracy is particularly relevant in postcolonial nations in the process of accessing ‘voice’. This is attained through a range of methods – from streamlining and making information more independent to providing healthcare solutions that use technology to access remote locations. It is also created by democratizing the ‘feedback loops between the real and virtual’ realm that ORF President Samir Saran talks about. The key idea is to make governance real by using the virtual.

Africa and India will be at the forefront of this change. India has more than 600 million internet users; Africa has another 500 million. And these numbers are rising exponentially every year. Different countries in Africa naturally have different needs from cyberspace, but with a comparable population to India – both around 1.3 billion – and similar developmental challenges, an exciting horizon of tech exchange beckons. If Kenya’s M-Pesa showed the way in money transfer via mobile phone, the next wave is being led by India’s Unified Payment Interface, which has already processed transactions worth more than one trillion Indian rupees.

But it is not growth and development alone that will be implicated by emerging technologies. They are also seeping into our political systems like never before. A rough yardstick to highlight this trend is the social media followings our politicians enjoy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has more than 48 million Twitter followers. Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan has a Twitter following larger than the German chancellor and the British prime minister put together.Countries from Asia and Africa will have to learn how to manage the social friction that will inevitably arise as millions more migrate to the digital world. Given the democratic potential of new communications technologies, however,this is a task they should look forward to eagerly.

Of course, technologies have served not only those who wish to empower democracy but also those who are its greatest obstacles. Terrorism, for instance, argues David Scharia, Chief of Branch at The United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), used to be a low-tech activity. That is until a new digital version emerged where only a trail of tech-enabled messages connects ideology to foot-solider and has thrown us into the world of the ‘lone wolf’ terror attack. In a world fraught, still, with questions of sovereignty amidst contested borders and many-a postcolonial nation still stabilizing their sovereign domains, conversations about the use and abuse of technology grow ever more pertinent.

If assailants are giving new voice to resentments old and new, states and institutions must defend the rights and liberties of citizens, in turn, by using technology.

This will be no easy task. The technologies that we are developing today are more intrusive and intelligent than ever before. Facial recognition, predictive policing, autonomous weapons: technologies that were once only in the realm of science fiction are rapidly becoming reality. The American singer Taylor Swift, pointed out Megan Lamberth of the Centre for a New American Security, once used facial recognition technology to screen out stalkers at one of her performances. In the age of surveillance on demand, open societies must invest in the institutions and values that promote freedoms.

There will not always be a consensus on such values. Especially, given that the world of the internet is turning into the world of splinternet. China is manipulating the internet to only allow what fits its context, Russia now wants to do the same, and countries, including India are arguing (correctly) for the need for data localization to ensure they are able to retain a semblance of sovereignty even in ether. Who will find voice, and how, and who will be restricted, in what manner, argued ORF Chairman Sunjoy Joshi depends on context. Context distinguishes safety from secession; defense from oppression.

This friction over how we use technologies has also begun implicating the stability of the international system. Indeed, the former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran has recently argued that technology will be cause of the next Cold War. If only certain countries have absolute data hegemony over others and control the tech-commons, is it only a matter of time until we see the ‘first use’ of digital weapons to inflict assured destruction on the civilian and strategic assets of its rivals? These are questions which are only beginning to surface--and states are progressively realising the disruptions, challenges and opportunities that the next generation of technological advancement is unpacking.

If the world was unprepared, as Scharia pointed out, when ISIS used technology to mobilise seemingly unconnected attacks around the world, so is it today as reports of a Chines tech-enabled social behavior evaluation system makes news. In a world struggling with the ethics of conflict itself, technology has opened new lines of query on right and wrong. As Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill, Chair of the Group of Governmental Experts of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, pointed out, lethal autonomous weapons systems best exemplify the debates over ethics and responsivity This kind of technology has grave implications of the rules of warfare and the idea of the sovereign nation-state.

The central myth of technology is that it is ‘borderless’ – and the central tenet, at least of the Westphalian state, is that nothing matters more than national interest, and without territorial integrity there is no nation whose interest can be accurately or efficiently determined.

The constructivist challenge to this argument – and indeed the techno-ethical pushback as it were – is the anthropological position espoused by David Gellner who has argued that it is as important for a challenge to be ‘critical and constructivist’ about national and colonial boundaries as it is to be about ethnic and other social boundaries. Freedom of the Self and the freedom within, and without, the state, in a sense, are both equally important queries of democracy.

The question is – who can conduct this act of criticality? And to what extent would the citizen be empowered, and by who? Now, more than ever, greater debate is required on the purpose of digital technology. What were the original promises of freedom of this technology and how can it be fulfilled? As Ingrid Brudvig, an anthropologist working with the Web Foundation, put it: “The political economy of the internet should be a concern now more than ever, as the openness and decentralization on which the web was founded comes under threat by various factors.”

This freedom can both be enhanced, and dramatically reduced, by technology. And the frameworks that are put in place today, in these early years of the next leap of technology, will be instrumental in decided between the two.

As always, some of the most uplifting responses to technological change would perhaps be found in stories. Stories of the kind that Nigel Mugamu publishes to re-tell the story of Zimbabwe, which, as he says, has “become one man, (Robert) Mugabe (the former president who was in in power from 1987-2017)”. Mugamu founded 263chat, a premier digital news platform in Zimbabwe, and he is committed to telling the stories that the world has barely knows about his country – and telling them with more democratic questioning than had been possible in the country for a long time.

This yearning to tell new stories, and old stories, in new ways underpins the post-colonial journey of accessing voice. It is reflected in the fledging Afghan Film council, whose head, Sahraa Karimi, wants to break free of the stereotypical images and stories that are told about Afghanistan. She wants Afghans to tell their stories, their way. It abounds in the competition that Cameroon wants to give to Nigeria, the leader in the world of African cinema; and it resides in the 1,000 digital short films that India’s Bharat Bala uses to present India’s history, culture and, most importantly, its dialogue with the world to a whole new audience, in a whole new way.

The narrative of globalization challenged by growing nativism around the world has spread swiftly in the last few years. But it is perhaps easily ignored that many of the subalterns who are finding voice in this upsurge do not necessarily want to close the doors and stop the show. In fact, they might merely seek to tell the story in their own voice. And emerging technologies will be their megaphone.

This report was written by Hindol Sengupta, Senior Fellow, ORF

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