Technopolitics in the Data Age: The State’s Way or the I-way?
9 July 2023
Technopolitics understands technology and politics as a co-constitutive process, each influencing and being influenced by the other. Data and digitalisation today are at the core of this process. As with most things capable of influencing power outcomes at a systemic level, a tussle for regulating the digital revolution is presently underway. Whether a top-down approach controlled by states and big business or a bottom-up, individual-centric approach of data transparency and privacy wins out could be the defining issue of the 21st Century.
Technology can be explicitly understood as an integral component of the global system. Not only does it shape global affairs, but it is also shaped by society’s political, military, economic and cultural changes. Technology’s consequences have frequently been mixed. On the one hand, it has been an enabler in developing the global economic system; on the other hand, it has multiplied the scale of conflicts. Globalisation has contributed to an increased pace of technological diffusion. This has harnessed innovations in different areas and facilitated new forms of the North-South divide. Digitalisation is one such case in point. Although it has contributed to improved communication, increased connectivity and transparency, higher agility, and lowered operational cost, it has also rendered a digital divide between information haves and have-nots.
The internet has dramatically revolutionised global communication by making it more digitised. It is estimated that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day. With the advent of Big Data, the unprecedented availability of data and access to data infrastructures have made digitalisation more aggressive. States and non-state actors have recognised the potential that data holds for their respective businesses. The impact of Big data and the computational opportunities afforded to statistical techniques such as data mining, machine learning, and predictive modelling have made the quantification of social life more effortless. This process is referred to as datafication.
Datafication and Technopolitics
Datafication is the “process of rendering into data, aspects of the world not previously quantified. This means not just demographic or profile data, but also behavioural metadata.” Just like technology, datafication harbours mixed consequences for civic engagement. While it contributes to ease of administration and surveillance by governments and corporates, it also offers advocates and citizens novel prospects for social change. Technopolitics can best understand this sociotechnical engagement with data. Technopolitics helps us understand the complexity of integrating new technologies into the power dynamics among political actors. It improves the traditional ways of administration by including more actors in the political agora.
Technopolitics has been defined as “hybrids of technical systems and political practices that produce new forms of power and agency.” This hybrid further transforms into concrete policy positions and material outcomes. This definition understands technology and politics as a co-constitutive process. This concept can be bifurcated into two approaches – the centralised and the decentralised. In the centralised technopolitics practices, the decision-makers or the government increases its power in new technologies to enhance the efficacy and efficiency of the established modes of administration. The state tries to maintain stability using new technologies in this top-down approach. On the other hand, in distributed technopolitics practices, information is co-produced and shared by an individual through overlapping networks. This bottom-up approach is also referred to as democratic technopolitics.
Centralised Technopolitics, the State’s Way
From a centralised technopolitics approach, data is used by governments and corporations for the stability of their regimes and profitability. Global technology companies and IT companies play a significant role in amassing data used by the states in their pursuit of surveillance. The Snowden disclosures provided insights into the joint working of state-corporate surveillance in the United States based on the collection of online activities. The leaks illustrated the bulk collection and analysis of metadata by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Data surveillance has become increasingly invasive with the proliferation of emerging technologies. Snowden’s revelations also brought into the limelight the question of the personal data privacy of citizens in developed democratic countries.
Still, this pales in comparison to practices exhibited in authoritarian regimes such as China. State authorities in China have long been controlling the data of their domestic population, primarily to suppress dissent and manage their citizens. The digital enclosure system used by authorities in China’s Xinjiang province has effectively turned smartphones of Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui ethnic groups into tracking devices. The system that began with the introduction of 2G cellular networks in the province has now provided state authorities and technocrats the ability to watch and control the movements and behaviour of the people in an increasingly intrusive way. A built-in GPS tracking system and an automated biometric system assess patterns of movements. The state authorities have also embarked on constructing a “safe city” system in the county-level town of Shawan to make individuals registered in the towns searchable.
The system is supported by Face++, a core product of a Beijing-based company named Megvii. This system tracks a wide range of human behaviour such as financial behaviour, migration behaviour, communication behaviour, consumer behaviour, administrative violations and driving behaviour. A digital portrait of each individual is built by amassing all of this data, which further helps determine their typical behaviour and association with others in the community. Every resident in the Xinjiang region has submitted their biometric data to the authorities for a state public health initiative. The cameras are much denser here and are aggressively supported by checkpoints and data surveillance.
India, on the other hand, has utilised the power of data for good governance. India’s rapid digital expansion has resulted in India-only digital policies. The complementary levels of digital infrastructure also called India Stack, comprises of open protocol-based frameworks. India Stack is the moniker for open application programming interface (API) and digital goods. It aims to unlock the economic primitives of data, identity, and payments at a population scale. The ecosystem has become seamless with digitised mediums like e-Sign, e-KYC, digitised Aadhar information and digital locker. These mediums have converted the entire ecosystem to paperless and presence less. The introduction of the Unified Payment Interface (UPI), a real-time payment system, has further paved the way for financial inclusion in the country. UPI is steadily being accepted internationally to enable seamless cross-border transactions. For instance, Singapore and India have linked their digital payments systems UPI and PayNow, to enable instant and low-cost money flow between the two nations.
Distributed Technopolitics, the ‘I’ Way
In the distributed technopolitics approach, the subversive use of technologies is combined with legal and political tools. Political organisations other than state governments use online platforms and tools to facilitate necessary processes such as idea creation and prioritisation of issues. Progressive individuals and organisations use big data and data infrastructure for social change. This is a manifestation of data activism and technopolitics from the bottom up. This allows citizens to exercise their democratic agency in times of datafication. The Latin American continent has nurtured transnational examples of data activism. Quick access to data infrastructure and availability of funds for data journalism have fostered the emergence of organisations that practice data activism, training and advocacy.
For instance, InfoAmazonia is a network of citizens, journalists and organisations spread across eight countries of the endangered region of Amazon. It is an independent media outlet that generates reports on the status of the Amazon tropical forest, aiming to improve the global public’s perception of issues native to the Amazon region. It has been training campaigners, journalists and communities to employ satellite imagery and collect data related to forest fires, deforestation, water quality level and other activities happening in the forest. This transnational organisation aims to curb wildfires and deforestation in the Amazon by promoting regional data transparency. InfoAmazonia gathers data and publishes maps, which involves coding and recoding information. What was once the state’s exclusive privilege has become the general public’s duty. In other words, it has disrupted the ordinary course of events. As a result, the general public’s association with automated data collection has been fundamentally transformed.
The digital revolution is full of risks and challenges. Data security is one of the significant challenges that governmental and non-governmental organisations face with aggressive digitisation. This digitisation process has moved sensitive data away from core infrastructure to the very edge of the network. Despite this, the levels of encryption remain very low among organisations. This has made data vulnerable to growing attacks day by day. These attacks are commonly carried out by non-state actors leading to disruption in the governance process. In the past few years, Google has been involved in multiple lawsuits over privacy, advertising, intellectual property issues and for products such as YouTube and Google Books. Google has been infamous for multiple data breaches too. The March 2018 data breach was a significant data privacy scandal where the Google+ API exposed the data of over 500,000 users. The bug in Google+ allowed third-party developers to have access to Google+ users’ private data. Such attacks by unauthorised persons or parties jeopardise personal data privacy and have critical implications on a state’s governance and national security.
The Way Ahead
From the above twofold analysis, it is evident that different actors utilise the potential of data to fulfil their respective goals. From a centralised approach, data can be understood as a means to forward the state’s control over its citizens’ data to fulfil its ambitions. On the other hand, by adopting a critical engagement with data, activists challenge the mainstream politics of knowledge by producing counter-expertise and alternative epistemologies. Further, such projects trigger empowering processes when people become witnesses by taking a firm stand and action on a cause. The datafication of the society has led to the conflict of interests between the state and the non-state actors. While the states and corporates vouch for administration, control and surveillance over data, citizens and, more precisely, the data activists advocate for the privacy of their data and a transparent data governance system.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.
Prachi Shree is an alumnus of Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, MAHE. She is currently interning with the National Centre for Good Governance, Government of India. Her research interests revolve around emerging technologies and India’s national security.