What Gives?

What Are You Smoking?

Written By Chitra Subramaniam | Mumbai | Published:

The real-time machine is imagination. It can neither be conquered nor curbed and therein lies the challenge of the 21st century where competition between man and machine to dominate will be fought and fraught with uncertainties and hitherto unknown risks. We are certainly not moving towards a brave new world, but are we retreating into pigeonholes of suspicion and fear? If anyone can tell me what the next two years or even one will mean to the comity of nations and their relationships within and outside and the growth of communities and people, I’d ask them what they are smoking.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak at the Raisina Dialogue* in New Delhi. The topic was: Trust in Tech: A New Framework for Digital Security and Prosperity. The participants included a cybersecurity expert, the head of Jigsaw in the United States (US) and a retail banking head in Europe in charge of security (Société Générale). “Is the digital realm an Impossible Triangle, where national security, privacy, and economic growth are impossible to be served equally” was the question on the table. I have lived through the era of telephones to iPhones passing through fax machines and an early user of the web (one of the first few women in Switzerland).

During three days of meetings and discussions with policymakers, politicians, members of the armed forces, media, and foreign policy experts the one question that recurred was – does anyone know where the world is headed? The corollary to that question is if people are unsure, then the foundation upon which they stood and pontificated must be examined and examined very closely. Technology is not the reason the world is in a mess. Human beings have arrived here all by themselves and must now find their way out – just like when they left the caves to see what lies ahead. It was as dangerous then as now, technology or no technology.

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I believe there are two types of human beings in the world today - the BC and the AC to mean before computers and after computers. Technology by itself is not a menace.

Human error and human greed, megalomania and selfish behaviour by people and nations have brought us to a situation where trust has not only evaporated, but it has left fear in its wake. As multilateral systems, dodder and nation states get either hemmed in or even redefined, as the United States (US) withdraws from Afghanistan and as China makes forays into all spheres of economic activity and Europe remains mum, who is the new boss on the bloc? Will it be corporations or governments, communities or citizens’ collectives? There is a new cold war on, isn’t it and no one of any stature or experience is willing to call it that.

There are no easy answers as succinctly summed up by the Raisina Dialogue banner – new geometries, fluid partnerships, and uncertain outcomes. “In a world buffeted by multiple headwinds, it appears that we are experiencing a dearth of progressive leadership. How can individuals and institutions rise above the political divides that are inhibiting a new consensus,” asked Samir Saran President Observer Research Foundation (ORF) which organises the Raisina Dialogue.

The consensus is a word that has fallen off the high tables of governments worldwide. It has been replaced by fear. Fear of trade wars, fear of China and the US, fear of domestic upheavals, fear of radicalisation, fear of poverty and disease, fear of hunger, fear of the radical shift in the government in Brazil and fear of what next in Syria – fear is the new black. Unfortunately, in an unjust world, all is put into one big basket without much reflection. There is deep fear and uncertainty over the traditional trading blocs be it the G 7, G 20, ASEAN, or the European Union (EU). The relationship between the EU and the US is at its 70 – year low. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a marathon annual press conference in December 2018 laying out where he thought the world was headed. Europe responded with silence, China just took note and US President Donald Trump tweeted.

Nowhere are these upheavals felt more acutely as in international trade that has a direct impact on everything from goods and services to finances and people. There are nothing technical trade talks. They are political from the word go and India is among the least prepared to protect itself from becoming a fringe player in the global value chain.

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As I listened and engaged, the one question I asked myself often was this. Is India, the world’s largest democracy just a venue, a firewall against China that many strong nations fear? Is India only a market where countries can sell their goods and services and engage in massive dumping? Is the world playing lip service to India and if so, why is New Delhi allowing it?

A few pointers should make India sit up in worry. Ten of the world’s top twenty container ports are based in China. Experts break the global merchandise trade that is placed at some US$ 16 trillion into small (30 percent value) and big baskets (70 percent value). You guessed it right – India belongs in the former category and 70 per cent of that is trading in diamonds, meat, rice etc. This is certainly not the stuff that makes a country of 1.3 billion strong and reliable.

I started this piece by the word trust in technology. Hope we will never come to a situation when we will ask ourselves if technology trusts us. Trust is the holy grail of all relationships whether they are between people or nations. Today, India is a US$ 2.8 trillion economy clipping along at seven per cent growth rate. If this can be maintained, the country’s per capita GDP can reach US$ 500 setting India on a course to becoming a US$ five trillion economy by 2025. The ifs and buts can be removed only if trust is built and people are taken into confidence and governments focus on job creation and more job creation. Some 600 million people are expected to migrate to India’s cities by 2035 – where are the services for them? I’ve said this before and will repeat it till I am blue in the face – what is the point in Make in India, when making in India for Indians is not top priority?

The bridge to the possible (chasing the fourth industrial revolution, for example) must not destroy the very foundations upon which other bridges that have got India moving. The courage to jump off a cliff without nets must not mock at the knowledge base that has cleared the paths till now. Destroy what must go and preserve what must be because it is roots that set people free. Free from fear, free from uncertainty and certainly free from seeking new knowledge whether it is in the realm of artificial intelligence or carpentry.

The knowledge that eludes the pages of the Mahabharata may not be found elsewhere, Saran writes. It is one of India’s oldest texts where a battlefield is a venue for grand teachings and conversations and from where new geometries and alliances emerge. The message is clear. Anybody who doesn’t understand why knowledge must challenge, question, re-do, rethink and redefine and just not copy paste is smoking something very strong.

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