The recent revelation that India intends to oppose the extension of a global ban on cross-border e-commerce duties at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) raises critical questions about the intersection of technology, commerce, and international relations.
Evgeny Morozov in his book, To Save Everything, Click Here, states the obvious. The technological solutionism is the romantic utopia of our age. He cautions us against a techno-utopian pipedream. We should instead rely on empirical rationality in our thinking. Is Morozov, a Belarus-born American writer, spreading techno-panic? He is not the only one to talk about the claptrap of techno-solutionism. Digital is now political, after all.
Today gamification, gamestyle moves and rewards have become the new instruments of politics. Many leaders now treat politics as a start-up and have been successful too by incorporating game features into their campaign strategies. Gamification is an emerging practice in numerous fields like education, healthcare, wellness and politics. Although it is an effective mechanism to engage people on social issues, gamification can also be used for manipulating collective action towards illegitimate ends.
Gamified practices are being used in politics by leaders and parties to spread political messages and gain votes during elections. Before the European elections in 2019, Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s far-right League, created a campaign “Vinci Salvini” whereby the fastest users to like and share his posts gained points. The incentives included a prize of a phone call from Salvini, a selfie posted on the official Facebook page, or a private meeting with the leader. The aim was to give him more visibility.
It won’t be farfetched to imagine such gamified campaigns will be used in Indian elections. Watch for 2024. Bill Gates and other tech billionaires believe technology provides all the answers. Some political leaders also subscribe to a similar view. Gates believes humanity belongs online. Elon Musk said when he made his offer to buy Twitter that it was about “the future of civilisation”, not making money. He also claimed that he was for making it “a trusted platform for democracy”.
Nothing could be farther from the truth and more farcical. We are led to believe that a technological solution for many of our ills is the way forward to make great progress and to solve complex problems. Why do we fall for such follies? Evan Selinger of Rochester Institute of Technology offers three explanations. First, techno-solutionism is psychologically reassuring. Second, it is financially enticing, a silver bullet for the world struggling for resources. Third, it reinforces optimism about innovation.
The world has moved from “polycrisis” to “permacrisis.” It is a crisis that can only be managed, not resolved. French philosopher Edgar Morin believes that humanity now resides within a network of interlocking systems. Any crisis in one of those systems will engender a crisis in all the others. One would be naïve to believe that technology alone can solve our problems. Technology is an enabler and it is a tool. Governance works better when it combines compassion for the poor and the underdogs.
That policy works best which balances hard heads with soft hearts. Globally, governance is increasingly moving beyond governments. Citizens in their thousands are seeking to create a path with, against and beyond the state. A contrary trend is the technocratic-managerial governance. What James Burnham and George Orwell called “managerialism” is seen as a right solution. Bureaucrats don’t govern, they are expected by their political masters to be “techno-fixers.” Sadly, techno-solutionism is fast becoming a hardened creed that brooks no opposition.
No doubt, the digital revolution has helped in many ways. Digitisation has helped reduce the gap between citizens and state institutions in some respects. But democracy of voters is far from becoming a democracy of citizens. Internet is a blunt instrument to solve complex societal problems. Far from being a cure-all, it may actually aggravate some maladies, such as the concentration of economic power and the rich-poor divide. As Pablo Picasso said, “computers are useless. They only give you answers.” What is worrisome is the gamification of the mind.
It seeks to create a “new man” who can fit into the money and machine of the rich and powerful. It is a simplistic view of social progress. Israeli public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari argues that technology might make billions of people economically irrelevant. As they lose their economic value, he further argues, they might also come to lose their political power. The digital public square undermines trust in institutional authority. It hollows out localism and attenuates electoral politics.
Today, corporations, schools and governments use games and gamification as tools for profit and coercion. We now live in a digital democracy where deliberations take place on social media that is gamified to reward. Andrew Keen in his book Internet is not the answer dismisses the claim that it’s a technology that liberates, informs and empowers people. Technology may be the coal and steel of our time.
But it is not a one -click solution. Technology should connect people and then immediately disappear like a tactful matchmaker. We talk about digital democracy but can we ignore digital autocracy? Today, truth has become inconvenient to the triumphalist victory lap of digital autocrats. When the internet was introduced, the tech giants fetishised open access and knowledge-sharing. Data is now the sword of the 21st century. Those who wield big data are the new Samurais.
All of the great data technology advancements fall short of expectations as data is also redundant, misplaced, undefined, reused and misused. Today, big tech and companies who “own the fastest computers with the most access to everyone’s information” hold disproportionate economic power. It has led economies into recession, imperilled personal privacy, and hollowed out the middle class.
We have to modify technology, or else it will modify us. To South Korean-born philosopher Byung-chul Han, the smartphone is “a tool of domination. It acts like a rosary.” Technology of domination “generates totems that are used for subjugation.” Tech giants have ensured that digital prison becomes a digital comfort zone.
With full digitisation of humanity, we will have much to grieve while Jeff Besoz and Elon Musk will be busy colonising outer space and the Peter Thiels and Larry Pages of the world will be searching for ways to live forever. We desire our own domination. As one analyst puts it, “in Hegelian terms, we have escaped the master-slave dialectic by becoming both master and slave in one.”
(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)