As we enter the new decade, it is critical that nations and communities be able to realise the transformative potential of emerging technologies, in a way that balances short-term growth and long-term consequence.
This article is part of the series — India and the World in 2021.
The proliferation of emerging technologies will create new power asymmetries. From the virtual pathways along which data flows, and the physical infrastructure upon which the internet functions, down to the very minerals that go into our devices, patterns of power undergird them all. The 2020s will be marked by the struggle of communities and nations to navigate these dynamics, and even as a handful of powers project themselves as “world leaders,” many see these technologies as an opportunity for smaller economies to leapfrog to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Yet, reality, as always, is not so straightforward. Technology-linked flows run along channels that have already been dug. This is especially true as new and emerging technologies become increasingly salient for people, economies, societies, and governments, as we are forced to go online for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19.
Take, for instance, cloud services; they have emerged as yet another domain of geopolitical contest. The not-so-nebulous cloud is hosted in physical servers around the world and is dominated by a handful of cloud service providers (CSPs). Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Alibaba Cloud and Google Cloud together accounted for 76 percent of the global cloud market share in 2019.<1> As ordinary consumers, we may experience this virtual oligopoly most during outages: on 25 November 2020, an AWS outage took down thousands of cloud-based apps and services; on 19-20 August 2020, a six-hour Google Cloud outage hit users in India, US, Australia, Japan, Malaysia and large parts of Europe. One report succinctly captures the implications of this oligopoly: “The decisions these giants take about what technology to buy, build, and operate shapes the technical environment for an increasing number of government and sensitive corporate entities.” The environment, in this case the technology and protocol choices of CSPs headquartered in two countries, has an inordinate sway over users from distant jurisdictions.
A more egregious example of extractive, asymmetric relations around emerging technologies is that of minerals. From rare earth elements like europium and yttrium, which are used in the manufacture of electronic displays; to nickel, cobalt and lithium, which go into 5G hardware, and rechargeable batteries for electronics and electronic vehicles — minerals are an essential raw material for the 4IR. Global consumption of rare earths is expected to double over the next decade, bolstered by growth in consumer electronics as well as “green technologies” like electric vehicles (EVs). Global demand for lithium and cobalt is expected to reach triple its 2017 levels by 2025, again driven by EVs and consumer electronics. Many of these are also “conflict minerals,” mined in environmentally damaging ways using forced labour. The mining of nickel in Indonesia, the world’s largest supplier, has been linked to deforestation and the degradation of marine biomes. Rare earth elements (REE) mining generates radioactive waste, which can cause long-term damage to the health of miners and local populations. REE mining in China, for example, has contaminated surrounding water supplies and soil, and even with clean-up processes now in progress, the environment could take a century to recover. Congo is the world’s leading producer of cobalt, accounting for 60 percent of the global supply. Rampant child labour has been well-documented by human rights organisations for over half a decade, yet as recently as December 2019, several tech giants including Microsoft, Dell, Google, Tesla and Apple, and mining companies Glencore (UK) and Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt (China) were sued for “aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children.”
All this is not to say that extractive sectors, whether they be built on data or on minerals, do not bring considerable economic benefits to the supplying nations. They do, however, pigeonhole developing and underdeveloped countries into the same roles in global trade — physical and now digital — that they hope to grow out of in the 4IR: that of resource suppliers, and of technology takers. Yes, we are already witnessing some stirrings of discontent with this state of affairs. “Digital colonialism,” “cyber sovereignty” et al are all narrative devices centred around some form of power rejig: the assertion of state power in cyberspace, re-housing data within jurisdictional borders, localisation of production, and so on. Yet these narratives, with the added sheen of chrome, could do with a deeper examination of the extractive relations that have already been built. The language of national security is certainly compelling, built as it is on a heady cocktail of national pride and fear. However, what must be emphasised is inclusive digital growth premised on a) ensuring that nations and communities possess the skills, education, and infrastructure to thrive in the new economy; and b) not perpetuating extractive dynamics, i.e., not disproportionately exploiting certain nations and communities while benefits accrue only to a handful of actors.
The burden of change should not lie solely with the exploited either. Tech giants cannot claim ignorance of the fact that they benefit from resources generated at the cost of individuals and nations. Stakeholder capitalism, for instance, is gaining ground as “woke” shareholders, employees and customers demand change and call out unscrupulous practices. Perhaps it is time to implement what the European Investment Bank is doing for clean energy — gradually withdrawing investment in fossil fuels — in the technology space as well. Making the right noises through empty commitments to diversity, inclusion and sustainability must give way to efforts to empower communities at all stages of the global supply chain.
As we enter the new decade, it is critical that nations and communities be able to realise the transformative potential of emerging technologies, in a way that balances short-term growth and long-term consequence. The global pathways that will mark the 4IR highway are already being built; how do nations ensure they are not simply superimposed on existing ones?
<1> These numbers refer to Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) cloud services only. For SaaS cloud services, refer to: https://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=US46646419
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Trisha Ray is a Resident Fellowwith the GeoTech CenterRead More +