1984, revisited

J Mulraj | Updated on July 03, 2020

In 1949, George Orwell wrote a futuristic book 1984 which described the world divided into three large blocs, viz Americas (North/South America, Australia/NZ and Great Britain), Oceania (most of Europe and a large part of Russia) and East Asia (China, half of India, Mongolia) and the rest of the world as neutral regions. At any time two of the blocs would team up to fight a war over the neutral regions but it would be inconclusive.

The tag line in the book was ‘Big Brother is Watching You’, depicting the ability of the state to everyone.

The book takes a giant leap in time, 71 years later, and the world seems to be moving towards an Orwellian dystopia. Modern face-reading surveillance technology makes it possible for ‘Big Brother’ to be ‘Watching You’ at all times, and in the battle of individual freedoms versus state security, the former is usually sacrificed. Similarities from the book can be related to the recent aggressive behaviour of China against several countries (India, Australia, Japan, countries in the South China Sea, Canada, not forgetting Taiwan and Hong Kong) and its monetary clout with several countries which are a part of its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative).

The current global leader, USA, would need to counter the growing clout of the challenger, China, with the support of coalition partners. Unfortunately, President Trump has alienated several of his erstwhile allies. Also, if Trump fails to win the upcoming elections in November, the mantle will fall on Joe Biden, who may, for his own reasons, be unwilling to face China. So the world will face uncertainty and turmoil in Q4. This uncertainty is threatening to move into the realm of technology and economic progress. The economic world has been preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, whose foundation includes new technologies like 5G telecommunication, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.

Now all emerging technologies need a consensus of standards to be adopted by all players. If the standards are different, the benefit to consumers using the technologies is greatly reduced.

Geopolitics is making adoption of standards difficult. The US FCC (Federal Communications Commission) had issued final orders declaring Huawei and ZTE, both Chinese firms and leaders in 5G technology, as being national security threats. Huawei owns about one-third of the patents pertaining to 5G, so its participation in developing standards is necessary and unavoidable.

As per an article in Financial Times, the UK has restricted Huawei in supplying telecom gear to 35 per cent of UK requirement, which has encouraged Japanese NEC to pitch for a greater share. Europe’s Nokia and Ericsson are also gainers.

Why is 5G necessary? Because it makes possible things such as autonomous vehicles, the IoT (where machines communicate with each other), remote surgeries et al.

Autonomous vehicles, are safer, and when combined with shared services, would help reduce private car ownership and free up public spaces for other necessities.

Like a house of cards, the world has become co-dependent . Disengaging would be painful. India has, in the wake of the Galwan attack, banned the use of 59 Chinese apps. Some, like TikTok, have over 30 per cent Indian users, which would surely impact its valuations. As pointed out in the July 1 Lex Column in the Financial Times, India is the world’s largest vaccine producer (over 50 per cent global market share) and supplies 20 per cent of the pharmaceutical needs globally. Yet, two-thirds of its raw materials to make the pharmaceuticals come from China.

Perhaps world leaders, particularly US and China, will see how conflicts would hurt their own self interests and will learn the benefits of sober co-operation. Not doing so endangers lives, our economic future and the advent of a new wave of Industrial Revolution.

The writer is India Head- Finance, Asia/Haymarket. The views are personal

Published on July 03, 2020

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