January 2, 2022SakalInformation Agegeopolitics

Geopolitics of the Information Age

It will be the objective of this column to discuss with you, dear reader, the geopolitics of the Information Age, and to chart the best course for India during this yuganta.

Mint This is the unedited English draft of from my Marathi column in Sakal that appears every month.

In history and mythology, the end of an Age (yuganta) has always been treated with fear, misgiving and sometimes outright terror. This is because the transition from one era to another almost always involves uncertainty. Many questions confront those living through such times. Will those who have power, wealth and status continue to do so? Will the values, norms and laws of society change? Indeed, will what we consider right and wrong remain as such or get blown away in the winds of change? And finally, will our lives, livelihoods and property be safe, our yogakshema assured?

Such questions have been far from the minds of a generation of Indians who have taken social harmony, economic growth and upward mobility for granted. In fact, despite the wars with Pakistan, China and the horrors of Partition, generations of Indians have been largely spared the trauma of all-consuming violence that Europe, East Asia and North America witnessed in the past century. That is why it is important for us to pay greater attention to the developments in the outside world: an unprecendented new Age has emerged, and presents us with immense challenges which must first be overcome if we are to exploit the opportunities it brings.

The United States remains the biggest global power by far. Yes, China has made impressive strides over the past 35 years, but Xi Jinping has reversed Deng Xiaoping’s winning formula and placed a question mark on its global prospects. More than Beijing catching up, the US has suffered a crisis of confidence since the Obama and Trump years, and is yet to recover from it. It will be foolish to write off the US as a fading superstar and hail China as the super power of the future. Even so, at the current moment at least, liberal democracy, free markets and globalisation — US-backed ideas that shaped international affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union — are being contested. This shift in the global balance of power, along with resulting changes to international political, economic and cultural norms, is the big story of our times. It is certainly a yuganta, but not the biggest one.

The biggest story of our times is the rapid transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. It might have taken thousands of years for humanity to move from hunting and gathering into the Agricultural Age. The Industrial Age began in Western Europe around three hundred years ago, but it took over two centuries for the rest of the world to catch up. The Information Age began 30-40 years ago, but has enveloped the world within the lifetime of a generation. Over 60% of the world’s population has been touched by the internet, and all of it is affected by it directly or indirectly. Not only has information created its own industries, it continues to transform every conceivable old industry. Fortunes of nations, companies and individuals have been made in creation and creative destruction. The consequences of such a sudden societal change will unfold over our lifetimes, and affect India’s relations with the world.

Let us be clear about one thing: India is not a major cyber power. Yes, we have a big IT industry that is a major contributor to our economy, and creates employment for millions of people. Indeed, it is big for us. It does not mean we are big global players. In fact, much of our competitive advantage is in human resources, which needs an open global economy to flourish. A grounded way to see ourselves in the Information Age is that India has the potential to be a major global power if it makes the right policy choices at home and in international relations. For this we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are already IT superpowers”.

If there is a lot of work to be done on the economic side of the Information Age, the challenges confronting India on the political side are immediate. As headlines and controversies of the past few years show, it is possible today to seriously influence the politics of another country through propaganda on social media. Information operations” can be used to shape public debates, swing elections, incite violence and create alternative realities’. While our armed forces have shown themselves capable of defending aggression at our physical borders, India’s psychological and cognitive borders are unprotected. An adversary can easily exploit our polarised society to destabilise our foreign policy. To defend ourselves in this world, we need to strengthen social harmony, economic growth and national unity. But take a look around you — do you see our politics, culture and media doing this?

It will be the objective of this column to discuss with you, dear reader, the geopolitics of the Information Age, and to chart the best course for India during this yuganta.

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