How technology has the power to change not only our individual lives, but also the destiny of nations
Technology’s central role in shaping the human trajectory in the long cycle of history is set in stone, and this principle is more than evident in the evolution story of humanity from the shards of antiquity to modern times. What may not be as widely understood is the correlation between technology, geoeconomics, geopolitics, and the fate of nations, and this is a niche that the discussed book tries to tackle with vigor and panache.
Author Anirudh Suri is an entrepreneur in the technology sector and clearly has an abiding interest in and a commendable understanding of history, politics and global affairs. He is also a very diligent and methodical researcher, as this book testifies.
At 535 pages, the book is divided into five broad sections that cover a broad spectrum of domains: insights from the Great Games in history; technology and the new economic destiny of nations; technology and its correlation with geopolitics and the new world order; determining the rules of the Great Tech game (the title of the book); and the changing face of society and humanity. These subjects are contextualized against the background of a complex, dynamic and perhaps dangerous wave of technological progress that has acquired an autonomy of its own.
Suri is well equipped to tackle this huge canvas, given his academic credentials and later stints in the corporate sector (McKinsey), the government of India and in a US think tank (Carnegie). He describes the book as an interrogation of “Where did this crazy spaceship from a tech sector ride fit into the bigger scheme of things?”
The trigger pulse was, as it were, provided by the Galwan clash between India and China, and the author claims that when the two Asian giants “raised their horns in the battle over the peaks of Ladakh, it was clear to me that the technology sector – whose I’ve been a close part of it for ten years – was more than just a hot new industry”. Claiming that technology is now shaping every aspect of state and society and that despite this reality, “we have not fully understood the magnitude, depth and breadth of its impact”.
The book unfolds these connections and connections with admirable clarity, and the various geopolitical periods are listed as Pax Romana, Pax Islamica, Pax Mongolica, Pax Britannica, and Pax Americana. It is added that “we are now living through what could be termed as Pax Technologica”.
Some bickering about these labels may be justified, but the main conclusion Suri comes to is that “in each era, the designer or the new technology or trend of the time changed the ‘great game’. Each time, new winners and losers emerged, and those, in turn, shaped the nature of the great game.” In more recent times, the colonial experience could be interpreted as one where a more astute understanding of technology and its relentless application by European powers led to the subjugation of large parts of the world, including the Indian subcontinent.
Ancient history has been deftly outlined dating back to 3000 BCE – and the Egyptian and Minoan civilizations and their exploits to control the early trade routes point to the origins of the geoeconomic/geopolitical overlap and their symbiotic underpinnings.
Control over resources and connectivity was key to consolidating the empire then – and will be today. And as Suri points out, “In today’s world too, geopolitical tensions and alliances are emerging around control of key flows — of data and expertise alongside physical goods.”
Extrapolating from the colonial phase of history and the way the state (in this case Great Britain) took advantage of and tamed the corporate giant (the East India Company) and how this combination forms geopolitical and techno-economic competition for the better of rivals and competitors, the author cautions that this pattern could repeat itself in relation to today’s Big Tech companies.
In the 21st century, digital and cyber or space technologies have become the primary drivers of economic vitality and military capability, and there is an instructive summary of three superpowers and their digital footprints. The 2020 (pre-Covid) estimate of the size of their digital economies (digitally broadly defined) is revealing: China at $6 trillion (38.6% of GDP); US$2 trillion (9.6%); and India $413 billion (7.5%).
Claiming that exploiting the potential of new technologies and acquiring both competence and understanding of its constituent elements, namely technical manufacturing; digital infrastructure; digital services; and digital trade and commerce is the key to the new Great Tech game (GTG), the book has a handy reckoning for India.
Suri urges policymakers to understand the contours of the emerging GTG and strongly advocates that India “become a technology nation, not just a talent nation… we cannot rely on bringing cheap talent to the world.”
However, based on current data, it appears that India is unable to retain, nurture and motivate its own domestic tech talent, which often seeks more rewarding opportunities in Silicon Valley and its equivalent in other parts of the world.
This is an ambitious book and has an impressive scale and depth of detail. With 940 endnotes and a 27 page index – and, yes, a font size that’s easy to see, you could label this a very readable and rewarding book.
There are strong arguments in favor of having this book translated into the major Indian languages and targeting policy makers and young India alike to give them an informed perspective on technology as a determinant, and how it could shape the near future, one that looks bleak. for reasons ranging from climate change, Covid, and the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, among others.
C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies
The Great Tech Game: Geopolitics and Shaping the Fate of Nations
pp 535, Rs 799