May 1, 2023The Intersectioninformation agegeopolitics

We have a historic opportunity to shape the world order of the information age

India has an interest in cooperating with other liberal democracies for information freedom across the planet.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

It is easy to feel disoriented amid the increasingly intense debates over artificial intelligence, semiconductors, energy transition, autonomous vehicles, platforms, genomics, quantum computing and other technological marvels of our times. Over the past six months, technology policy has overtaken China and the Indo-Pacific as the primary topics that foreign visitors to Takshashila want to discuss. Over a  decade ago, I escaped from the tech  policy world into what I thought was the more exciting world of geopolitics and international relations. Today, I find it hard to distinguish the boundaries between those disciplines.

So I thought I should take a step back and distil the really big picture issues to help us think more clearly about what is going on in the world and what we should do about it.

First, we are in the Information Age. By this I mean that we are in an era where society is structured around the production, consumption and effects of information. Information is the predominant driver of economics, politics and culture. In earlier eras, it was land, livestock, population, iron and industries that occupied this central position. But information is unlike anything that we have experienced before, because it is a non-zero-sum good. In olden days, a king who grabbed land, cattle or factories from another got it at the expense of the one who lost them. Information can be hidden, controlled or protected, but it is physically possible for both kings to own the same piece of it. The non-zero-sumness has profound implications that we’re yet to fully discover, not least because our instincts are to treat it as if were zero-sum. No, data is not the new oil.

Second, because information is mostly manipulated by technology, the latter has become the source of power. This is why technology permeates every dimension of domestic and international politics. To the extent technology is a form of knowledge, it too is non-zero sum. But because it requires physical things—like routers, lithium or lasers—to work, and these are zero-sum goods, those who have it can be more powerful than those who don’t. This is why countries are pursuing self-reliance and supply-chain assurance in critical technologies. This is also why the US is raising a technology denial regime aimed at containing China’s advances. Technology policy is hard because of this blend of zero-sumness and non-zerosumness; and self-reliance, nearshoring and technology blockades are both good and bad ideas.

Third, the geopolitics of the Information Age is less a contest between  traditional nation-states, or between religious or economic ideologies, but more a competition between ways that societies structure information (and in turn, are structured by it). On one extreme is a free, open and pluralistic information order. Indian epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana are a good example of this. No one controls them. Anyone can retell them. No one is precluded from reading other books. There can be an unlimited number of variants, as there indeed are across the subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Even so, there is an overall narrative that gives our epics their unique identity. On the other extreme is the closed, commanded and immutable order: words of god, written imperial histories and other top-down narratives cannot be amended or changed. They are controlled by the powerful and imposed using force. 

Under free competition, we know that free and open systems quickly prevail over closed ones. If the collapse of the Soviet Union happened too long ago for you to remember, just think why so many Chinese internet users want VPN access to the open internet that people in democracies enjoy as a matter of course. It takes a lot of resources to prop up a closed system. It might appear that China is doing quite well with its command information order, until you try to estimate the opportunity cost of it. If China didn’t expend so much political, financial and human energy on firewalls, censorship and surveillance, it is likely to have been a far richer, more innovative and vibrant society by now.

This is not to say that free and open information systems are a paradise. From what we know of information economics so far, companies can acquire global power, minds can  be manipulated on a massive scale, prejudices can proliferate just as fast as moral progress, and social inequalities can get worse. These are the big policy challenges of our times. We know of these shortcomings in great detail  precisely because information is free and open, which leaves open the door for everyone to try and address them.

The upshot for India is an opportunity to shape the global order for the first time in history. Our civilizational moorings, democratic instincts and technology base allow us to cooperate with societies that have similar information orders to help ensure that the mind is without fear, the head held high and knowledge is free on the entire planet. It is in India’s national interest to play to these strengths.

There are many more The Intersection columns here

Tailpiece: It is a terrible idea for any society to allow its government to determine what is true. A number of societies have come to grief when truth and power are vested in the same hands.

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