Digitalisation adjustments: Obstacles, outlets

Imtiaz A Hussain | Published: September 26, 2019 21:16:34 | Updated: September 29, 2019 22:15:43

Since digitalisation has entered so much into our vocabulary and vocation, the obvious challenges have also bred counter-strategies. As noted in the previous Scopus (September 24, 2019), Farnam Jahanian mentioned four such tracks: fostering entrepreneurship; encouraging collaboration with the private sector; promoting diversity and inclusion; and exploring the nexus between technology and society. All of them assume a symmetrical playing-field, that is, no distinction or nuances prevail between developed countries (DCs) and least developed countries (LDCs), when they really matter.

Whereas Jahanian's arguments actually fit the DC playing-field, as the discussions below shows, LDC benefits can also be coaxed out of the obstacles digitalisation faces, in fact, leaving the net long-term advantage with this bloc. Fostering entrepreneurship does not perfectly blend with Jahanian's second feature of encouraging private enterprise: it also invokes the public sector. After all, one of the leading digitalised countries, China, relies as much on the public sector as the private, and especially with Fourth Industrial Revolution contraptions, like artificial intelligence, which merges both domains through boundary-meltdowns. This is also true of many LDC cases: the obvious robust governmental presence. To be strictly fair, this was also true of the United States and its Third Industrial Revolution warden, SEMATECH (the semi-conductor manufacturing hub established in 1986, but transferring into the Critical Material Council in 2015). Nonetheless, if promoting entrepreneurship becomes a fundamental digitalisation feature, as it is, the slow corrosion of state boundaries must also be accepted, at least implicitly: many software initiation and implementation are not only defiantly at the individual level (which is consistent with the entrepreneurship notion), but must also depend upon either input (low-wage production) or output (marketing) outside and across national boundaries, generating a drift away from governmental connections. Traditional entrepreneurship implicitly assumed a state-based framework, either facilitating policy-making or production infrastructures (such as factory location, highways, and ports).

Collaboration between the public and private sectors, the second Jahanian track, has shifted subtly in developed countries from contestation towards collaboration, but in their LDC counterparts marks the very genesis of production. Political polarisation characterised DC production, with some parties too pro-business, like the Republican in the United States or the Conservatives in Canada/Great Britain, while others carried a heavy pro-labour accent, as the Democrats in the United States, Liberal in Canada, and Labour in Great Britain. With the full-fledged neo-liberal shift, many pro-labour parties shifted towards the political centre, as shown by Bill Clinton's Democrat Party or Tony Blair's Labour. Thus began the public-private collaboration, further catalysed by growing government indebtedness, thus chopping many public sector investments and pro-labour welfare.

For many in the LDC bloc, the story evolved differently. Independence movements carried with them so heavy a dose of nationalism that government monopoly over the production processes remained extraordinarily high and hardly connected to the same ideological partisan western divide. Yet, in few LDC cases were privileged entrepreneurs fully denied investments, usually since they patronised the new nationalistic leaders. From those few evolved many more because nation-building opened investment windows that were quickly consummated. Besides, since LDC sustainability or growth needed foreign assistance, wherever the World Bank stepped in, the mandate to privatise also followed. Even if it did not, the enormous need for infrastructure-building drew the privatisation curtains wider apart. This last development coincided not just with the neo-liberal era but also the shift from the computer-based Third Industrial Revolution to the Fourth, utilising artificial intelligence: digitalisation has entered LDC developmental processes at far earlier stages than for their DC counterparts, predicting a growth-rate far outpacing demographically-haunted DC counterparts.

These independent developments streamline the third Jahanian digitalisation track of promoting diversity and inclusion. With the neo-liberal drive exposing a widening country-specific income-gap within both DC and LDC blocs, this may look a tall order, yet two forces unleashed by the Third and Fourth industrial revolutions and at least two secular movements may be facilitating diversity drives and inclusion imperatives. Both industrial revolutions have sparked individualisation and released boundary-corrosive forces so much through software innovation, dissemination, and public attention that any 'news' in today's media cannot but show increasing information diversity and inclusion, even if they depict the increasing conflicts of the day: from Amazon fires, Brexit, and the Kashmir clampdown to democracy-defending protests, Belt-Road Initiatives, and terrorism.

These forces have been strengthened by both migration and climate-change concerns: huge swathes of a bi-national population silently grow behind the noise-making reactions against the latest boatload, or from those reactions culminating in border walls; and delta-protecting plans continue undeterred behind all the coastal erosion propagation and migratory costs. Perhaps the latest Rohingya influx into Bangladesh captures all these symptoms, concerns, and household knowledge right across the world.

Though all of these four forces have their reactionary dimensions, such as populism spreading like wildfire across the European continent and gathering momentum on yonder Atlantic shores, defiant diversity and inclusionary demands have also resisted them powerfully, evident in such campaigns as the 'Me-too' movement. The emergence of grassroots groups and their connections across national boundaries, as in the case of Greta Thunberg's climate-based mobilisation, exposes enormous future potential because of digital dependence.

In turn, these three tracks cannot but expose how technology and society have been getting more intertwined than ever before: what   assembly-line began in some countries a century ago, has blossomed manifold from reconfiguring factory-building communities (that is, the technological 'hardware' range) to encompassing the entire world through 'software'-built plans, programmes and policies, if not expanding the availabilities of consumer goods and more efficient production methods. It is inconceivable that a community exists without Internet today, and the promises the Internet holds is pushing even the most ill-trained citizen to pick up a digital trick or two along the way: no longer can 'illiteracy' cast a denigrating reputation since even the most uneducated persons have emerged capable of handling (and manhandling) Internet possibilities.

It is perhaps the 'unfolding' nature of these developments that shifts the advantage to the LDC bloc more than the DC counterpart: not only expanding population, that too of a larger proportion both at younger and more ensconced on the upward-mobility cusp than their parents or grandparents were, but also carrying a far larger menu of 'future' options to choose from; not only a wider world to explore, but also with many more technological tools to do it with. If the DC advantage is in how high it has climbed technologically, the LDC counterparts must be found in the breadth of that technological spread. This may be the LDC cutting-edge as we slide deeper into the 21st Century.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.



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