Pax Technologica | Book review: ‘The Great Tech Game’ by Anirudh Suri

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The centrality of technology in shaping the human trajectory in the long cycle of history is cast in stone and this tenet is more than evident in mankind’s evolution story from the shards of antiquity to the modern era. Perhaps what is not as widely comprehended is the correlation between technology, geo-economics, geo-politics and the fate of nations, and this is a niche that the volume under review seeks to address with vigour and panache.

Author Anirudh Suri is an entrepreneur in the technology sector and clearly has an abiding interest in, as well as commendable grasp 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 review a wide 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; setting the rules of the Great Tech game (the title of the book); and the changing face of society and humanity. These subjects are contextualised against the backdrop of a complex, dynamic and perhaps dangerous wave of technological advances that have acquired an autonomy of their own.

Suri is well equipped to address this vast 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 of a ride in the technology sector fit into the larger scheme of things?”

The trigger pulse, as it were, was provided by the Galwan clash between India and China, and the author avers that as the two Asian giants “locked horns in battle over the peaks of Ladakh, it was clear to me that the technology sector—of which I had been intimately part for a decade—was more than just a hot new sector”. Asserting that technology is now shaping every aspect of state and society and that despite this reality, “we didn’t quite grasp the scale, depth and breadth of its impact”.

The book unpacks these linkages and connections with admirable lucidity and the different geo-political periods have been 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 quibbling about these labels may be warranted, but the core inference that Suri arrives at is that, “In each era, the shaper or the new technology or trend of the time changed the ‘great game’. New winners and losers emerged each time, and they 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 ruthless application by European powers led to the subjugation of large parts of the world, including the Indian subcontinent.

Ancient history has been deftly outlined going back to 3000 BCE—and the Egyptian and Minoan civilisations and their exploits to control the early trade routes point to the origins of the geo-economic/geopolitical overlap and their symbiotic underpinning.

Control of resources and connectivity was the key to consolidating the empire then—and will be so even now. And as Suri notes: “In today’s world, too, geopolitical tensions and alliances often arise around control of the key flows—of data and expertise in addition to physical goods.”

Extrapolating from the colonial phase of history and the manner in which the state (in this case Great Britain) benefited from and tamed the corporate behemoth (the East Indian Company) and how this combine shapes geo-politics and techno-economic competition to get the better of rivals and competitors, the author cautions that this pattern could repeat itself in relation to the Big Tech firms of today.

In the 21st century, digital and cyber- or space-based technologies have become key drivers of economic vitality and military capability and there is an instructive summary of three major powers and their digital footprint. The 2020 estimate (pre-Covid) of the size of their digital economies (digital broadly defined) is revealing—China at $6 trillion (38.6% of GDP); USA $2 trillion (9.6%); and India $413 billion (7.5%).

Asserting that harnessing the potential of new technologies and acquiring both competence and comprehension of the constituent elements, namely tech manufacturing; digital infrastructure; digital services; and digital trade and commerce is key to the new Great Tech game (GTG), the book has a useful ready reckoner for India.

Urging policy makers to understand the contours of the emerging GTG, Suri makes a strong case for India to “become a tech nation, not just a talent nation…we cannot rely on providing cheap talent to the world.”

However, on current evidence, 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 a scale and depth of detail that is impressive. With 940 endnotes and a 27-page index— and, yes, a font size that is easy on the eye, one would tag this as a highly readable and rewarding volume.

There is a strong case to have this volume translated into major Indian languages and target both policy-makers and young India, so that they obtain an informed perspective of technology as a determinant, and how it can shape the near future, one that looks bleak for reasons ranging from, inter alia—climate change, Covid and the unfolding Ukraine crisis.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies

The Great Tech Game: Shaping Geopolitics and the Destinies of NationsAnirudh SuriHarper CollinsPp 535, Rs 799