Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. Today, we are so honored and delighted to welcome Dr. Bhaskar Chakravorti to the show. Dr. Chakravorti is the dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, America’s oldest, exclusively graduate school of global affairs.
Soniya Gokhale (01:07):
He’s also the founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context. Bhaskar founded the institute in 2011, with the mission of connecting the world of business with the world, exploring issues at the intersection of business and global context, including geopolitics, government, technology, security, development, the environment, and the human condition.
Soniya Gokhale (01:36):
Bhaskar is also the founder and chair of the Digital Planet Initiative at the Fletcher School, that follows the evolution of 90 countries as they transition from traditional to digitally intensive economies. Most recently, as part of this initiative, he has launched a multi-year initiative, Imagining a Digital Economy For All, or IDEA 2030, which is investigating the role of data, digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and applications as a force for inclusive growth, development, and productivity.
Soniya Gokhale (02:15):
The first year of the research is entirely devoted to the study of the world operating by digital means during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bhaskar, welcome to the show.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (02:30):
Thank you, Soniya. Great to be here and look forward to our chat.
Soniya Gokhale (02:31):
Well, I am so excited to have you here with us. I always like to start out my interviews with guests, most of whom, or many of whom, are from the South Asian diaspora or another country of origin about their immigrant journey to this country. I know that you came to the United States from New Delhi, India, and you have really become a preeminent thought leader in so many areas, but obviously at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. I just want to speak to you a little bit about that and if you could illuminate us on a bit about how you came to find yourself in this country.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (03:07):
Oh, I came to this country like many other people who were, at that point in their lives, in their early 20s. I had done my undergraduate and graduate education in India, I started in Delhi, and then was wondering what next. And what next was a combination of two things. One was desire to become an academic, which meant getting a PhD, and the second was to have an adventure. You put the two things together, and I filled out lots of applications for graduate school. My partner at that time, who became my wife, we applied to grad schools together and we tried to optimize on schools that would give us a full scholarship because we couldn’t afford to come here otherwise, and wanted to come to either the same school or schools that were close enough.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (04:05):
That’s how we figured out where to go and got on a plane, got married two days before we got on a plane, and here we are. It’s been a while since we arrived in this country. We’ve had a long journey since then and it’s been a wonderful journey, very fortunate. And we have two kids who were born in this country and we’ve been here for a long time.
Soniya Gokhale (04:28):
Well, that’s quite a whirlwind. Yes, getting married and then hopping on a plane to come to this country. Well, I want to dive into some digital questions for you. You serve as the chair and founder of the Digital Planet Initiative at the Fletcher School. For listeners who may not be aware, Digital Planet follows the evolution of 90 countries as they transitioned from traditional to digitally intensive economies.
Soniya Gokhale (04:55):
Most recently, and part of this initiative, you launched a multi-year initiative, Imagining a Digital Economy for All, IDEA 2030, which is investigating the role of data, digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and applications as a force for inclusive growth development and productivity. What’s truly notable is that the first year of research is entirely devoted to the study of the world operating by digital means during the COVID 19 pandemic. I think that’s really revolutionary. So, I wanted to hear more from you about this initiative, which again, I think is nothing short of remarkable. And huge kudos to you on launching it, but I also want to point out, you are such a visionary for implementing the first all digital degree program at Tufts and Fletcher.
Soniya Gokhale (05:48):
If you could offer some insights into all this for our listeners, I would very much appreciate it.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (05:53):
Great. Well, thank you for your interest in the Digital Planet. Of course, each one of us is a part of this Digital Planet. We carry a piece of it in our pockets or in our purses or right in front of us and perhaps it’s the first thing we check in the morning and the last thing we look at in the night. I think it’s been a source of endless fascination for me and several of my colleagues in trying to understand how technology is shaping our lives as individuals and as societies.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (06:26):
I first started going down this path to try and better understand whether technology, which is kind of an inevitable force in terms of its grow presence in our lives, whether it’s a multiplier or it’s a divider. It turns out it’s a bit of both, depending on the circumstance and depending on the use that we put technology to. Of course, we also realize that technology is probably the one man-made thing that has penetrate more deeply than practically any other manmade thing across the world. I mean, think about more people have access to a mobile phone than clean drinking water. That is both sad and at the same time, kind of humbling.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (07:11):
Also, it reminds you that perhaps technology could be used for purposes, lifting people out of the poverty or lifting people out of very, very difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. I kind of started down this path almost a decade back. Even prior to that, I’ve been doing a fair amount of work, trying to understand how technology changes lives and livelihoods around the world.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (07:34):
But about a decade back, I started down this path of trying to figure out where different countries and different parts of the world are and different societies are in terms of this journey from a physical a past to a digital future. Of course, I realized that we are at different stages of the journey and while making that journey at different speeds, and that has a profound impact on people’s lives. In early 2020, I launched this initiative that you just mentioned Soniya, which is Imagining a Digital Economy for All, which collapses to a very handy acronym of IDEA.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (08:11):
The notion behind IDEA was trying to figure out this balance between technology as a multiplier and as a divider, and how do we move the needle in the direction of multiplication rather than division? And how do we as responsible citizens, how do we as policy makers in the public sector and how do we as people in the private sector, whether it’s big business or entrepreneurs or investors or technologists themselves help move the needle in the right direction?
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (08:40):
About the same time as we launched it, we had all these plans to study the use of technology in a variety of different contexts, the world went into lockdown. No one asked for a pandemic, but here it was, and we said, “Okay, this is going to be the greatest test, the purest test of the internet in the history of the internet.” We said we’re going to dedicate all our work and all our time and resources to trying to understand how are we, we as a global society, now dealing with this unimaginable condition of putting the world on pause, putting our lives on pause, pulling our children out of school, people stopping going to work or stopping seeing each other, and essentially communing with the screen.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (09:32):
And how is it all working, and where is it working, and where is it not working, and what are the manifestations of the second and third order effects of this very, very unusual state of the human condition? Now, as I look at the arc of almost 21 months and counting as displacing human contact with perhaps all contact through a screen and now some kind of a hybrid modality, and we go back and forth depending on a new variant popping up or a new scare going around somewhere, or a new wave in some part of the world.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (10:06):
I realized that it was not so much a test of the internet. The internet mostly did what it does, which it mostly functioned. We had some jittery calls. I had some problems logging in, or people were unmuted on their Zoom meetings, but mostly the technology held up, which frankly, was a bit surprising given that everybody was trying to do the same thing at the same time. But it turned out more to be the purest test of humans on the internet. In many ways, told us more about ourselves as ordinary citizens or as leaders and everybody else in between in terms of how we operate as global civilization as reflected in digital technology.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (10:52):
I know that’s a lot and I can certainly break that down or dive into any individual aspect of that. But there’s just so much here that we learned about our relationship with each other as mediated by technology. I am also fascinated by the fact that there’s a certain contradiction in our relationship with technology. The more time we spend with technology, the more distrustful we seem to be of technology. So, there’s this inner tension that has certainly come to the surface over the course of this last 20 months.
Soniya Gokhale (11:25):
Well, though that is so incredibly insightful, and yes, I have a question exactly about that coming up, but in reviewing your research and interviews around the topic of a digital economy, I was struck by the fact that a digital economy is not necessarily well defined, understood, or easily measurable, and even more striking is the inequities that exist around the world, or even within countries, as we’ve seen here in the United States and as you outlined, especially during the pandemic.
Soniya Gokhale (11:57):
As you stated in other interviews and op-ed pieces that you’ve authored, rural America bears an appallingly disproportionate share of the burden in missing broadband access. You offer that a huge reason for that is due you to the expense that’s often passed along to internet providers to lay infrastructure through outlying areas where revenue services are spaced farther apart. As a further commentary, it is not just rural America, but also urban households that often lack access to broadband utility because the lack of competent among internet service providers simply makes it unaffordable to these urban consumers.
Soniya Gokhale (12:39):
You also offer a very staggering statistic, and that is that three times as many urban households, as rural households, lack broadband subscriptions in major cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland. I want to pause there and ask you to offer further insights on that fact that digital economy is not evenly distributed around the world or most countries, and that there are digital haves and have nots, which really cut across gender and other demographics. And then I do have a follow up question for you.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (13:13):
Sure, absolutely. It’s not surprising that the digital economy is unevenly spread around the world, right? Because it assumes that you have access to some kind of a digital end product. It could be a phone or a computer or some combination of those things and then you need the connections. Depending on where you live and who you are and how rich you are and what the color of your skin is, you can imagine differential access to these things. So, that isn’t surprising. It’s also isn’t surprising that if you live in a richer country, you’re likely to have a better set of options in terms of what you can do with a digital economy than if you live in a poor part of the world.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (13:54):
I think would be surprising, it certainly was surprising to a lot of people that we talked to, is that even in the richest parts of the world, there are huge disparities. As you mentioned, right here in the United States, so as you had mentioned before, we are studying 90 countries around the world, and we’ve also created a measure of the state of evolution of the digital economies of all 90 countries. The United States actually comes in number two in terms of digital evolution. So, it’s the second most digitally evolved country in the world after Singapore.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (14:27):
That puts it in a very elevated position. Now, even in the second most digitally evolved country in the world, there are huge disparities in terms of people’s usage of that digital economy. There are so many things to unpack here, which would probably come as a bit of a surprise to many of your listeners. Surprise number one is that, if you ask the question, what proportion of Americans are actually using the internet at speeds that could be considered modern day speeds where you can pretty much hold up a Zoom call and somebody else could be watching Netflix in the next room and someone, a third person could be doing their homework over the internet? And kind of like what you expect most households to be able to do, particularly during the course of the pandemic.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (15:25):
It turns out that roughly half of America, half of the American part population is not using the internet at broadband or high speed levels, which is shocking in the second most digitally evolved economy in the world. Then you want to ask the question, okay, why? Why isn’t half of America incapable of or not using the internet at speeds that you would consider to be reasonable ones? It turns out that some of them, because they live in outlying rural areas, and it’s very, very expensive to put out fiber optic lines that carry high speed internet to their homes.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (16:03):
Then for others, they live in parts of the country, certainly urban areas, where there are high speed lines that run next to the homes, but the internet access for the internet service is too expensive and it’s unaffordable. Now, this has some profound consequences in terms of the politics and economics surrounding how we close these gaps. Let me talk about the politics part of it. As you mentioned, one of the things that we found was that there are three times as many urban households that are not using high speed internet as rural households. However, much of the focus of our politicians and of the administration and everyone who talks about how to close the broadband gap, the focus is on the rural areas.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (16:53):
You kind of wonder what’s going on. If three times as many urban households are not getting broadband internet, why are we focusing on the rural areas? Well, it turns out that the rural areas, it’s kind of easier to understand because it’s very expensive to lay all these lines and so on. The urban areas, people are not using the internet at high speeds because it’s too expensive. But then it also is the case that the populations that are living in these broadband deserts in the urban areas are mostly people of color. They are poor inner city households and many of them are just forgotten by the political class.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (17:31):
Many of these folks, they either don’t vote or they’re basically considered to be … They vote for one party, so who cares? Now, in the rural areas, there’s a lot of swing voters. Many of the areas that are likely to get the next tranche of money for broadband access are predominantly white. This broadband divide, the high speed internet divide interestingly correlates with the political divide, both Republicans and Democrats want that rural vote.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (18:05):
And they don’t really care about the poor urban vote. It also has a racial, it maps to a racial divide, which is, that it’s the communities that are black and Hispanic that are being left behind among the urban poor who don’t have access to the internet. This is something that I think very few of us spent a whole lot of time thinking about until this pandemic came along and essentially surfaced these huge differences in terms of our use of the internet and access to the internet.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (18:38):
It’s a sad reality that many of these poor urban households, they don’t have the luxury of flipping open their computers and continue to work on Zoom because many of these folks, if they have jobs, they are frontline workers and they actually have to go out and work in a service occupation or work in construction, or they are also on the front lines of being exposed to the pandemic so they are in very difficult situations without the luxury of being able to use the internet or work.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (19:08):
However, they have kids who’ve been sent home because their schools are closed and those kids have to access the internet on very poor internet connections. It turns out that these kids now have lost almost two years of schooling, partly because schools have sent people home and partly because they have very poor internet connections. So, this internet divide turns out to have manifestations in many forms, a racial form, and a political form, and then exacerbating the inequalities, the other societal and racial inequalities across generations.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (19:44):
I found our relationship with technology and the unevenness of that relationship with technology is almost a litmus test of so many other aspects of our lives that it’s been really an eyeopening for me and my team. Now, I’ll just say one more thing and then perhaps pause because I’ve been talking for a while. The numbers that I was just quoting to you, that half of Americans are not using the internet at broadband speeds, that is shocking. That’s a really shocking statistic. What’s even more shocking is that our government actually doesn’t know that number.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (20:16):
If you go to the Federal Communications Commission, which is the federal authority that is supposed to track this data, it turns out that they actually don’t have any idea as to how many Americans don’t have access to high speed internet. The number that they have on their records is something like 20 million Americans don’t have access to high speed internet. And it turns out that, that number is just grossly wrong. Even the current chair of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, admits that that number is wrong.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (20:48):
The FCC doesn’t even have a map of where these broadband deserts are, which is not only shocking, but it’s also potentially problematic because the Biden administration and Congress have now just pushed through an infrastructure bill, which is now an Infrastructure Act, which puts aside $65 billion to help close the broadband gap. But if you don’t know how many people are not connected to broadband, if you don’t even know where those people are who are unconnected, then how are you actually going to use those $65 billion? And are you going to put it in the right place?
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (21:25):
I’m sorry for piling on so many different issues, but they’re all sitting on top of the uneven access to the internet, which is a reality in which we live right here in the United States. Of course, I’m just talking about the United States. The problems get even more complex as we go to other parts of the world. For instance, if you go to India where both of us have some connections to, the divisions are even wider. In fact, India has the greatest gender gap in terms of access to one of the biggest gender digital gaps that you might find anywhere in the world.
Soniya Gokhale (21:59):
Wow. All of that was just so illuminating, and especially as we hear so much about this infrastructure bill. As you’ve outlined, that’s great, they might pass it, but where do you start? And they don’t have that roadmap. Oh, so illuminating for so many reasons, so thank you for that response. Now, I do want to offer that Tufts Digital Intelligence Index produces two scorecards, as you sort of indicated, digital evolution and digital trust, a concept that you mentioned at the outset of this interview.
Soniya Gokhale (22:32):
Together, you collect and analyze over 358 indicators across 90 countries. The digital evolution scorecard focuses on the competitiveness of the country’s digital economy by looking at their current digital state and their rate digital evolution or momentum towards the digital future. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle as building a digital economy doesn’t guarantee that citizens will come.
Soniya Gokhale (23:01):
That is where the digital trust scorecard comes. You’ve identified that misinformation, cybersecurity, and other issues are really degrading the potential for economic, digital value creation. The second scorecard examines trust in the digital ecosystem amongst citizens in each of the 42 countries. It really should come as no surprise that issues such as cybersecurity and misinformation can really back a digital economy. You describe it by saying, “We are living through an information crisis.” That’s the headline.
Soniya Gokhale (23:38):
The idea of misinformation has become central to the way we think about information. We’ve retreated behind our screens out of the need to socially distance because of COVID. And there’s a crisis where we are concerned about technology playing such an important role in our lives. At the same time, we can’t quite put our finger on what that complaint is. Just this week, Meta Platforms, Inc. said it removed a China-based network of more than 500 Facebook accounts that sought to push a false narrative about the US government’s attempts to blame the COVID 19 pandemic on China.
Soniya Gokhale (24:16):
This complex campaign involved the fake persona of a Swiss biologist who was posting on social media outlets that the US was pressuring the WHO scientists to blame the virus on China. I would like to get your input on this dichotomy and dilemma we find ourselves in as a planet. The pandemic has resulted in embracing digital technology exponentially, and yet our trust in digital ecosystems has plummeted. What’s going on here in your estimation?
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (24:46):
Will do. There’s so much to unpack, right Soniya? In terms of how we think about trust. Part of this is, it’s just fundamental human psychology, which is, when I become so heavily reliant on one thing, and that one thing could be my phone or it could be a combination of my phone, my computer for everything, whether it is for work or for my kids’ schooling or for connecting with friends and family, or to relax at the end of the day and watch the latest episode of Succession. I’m doing it all on this one screen. So, it sort of results in this weird relationship that you end up with being captive to this single device, or set of devices, which is almost a love/hate relationship.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (25:36):
The love part of it is you can’t do without it. I mean, people are obsessed with constantly looking at their phones for all kinds of useful and useless things. But at the same time, there is element of, why am I being held captive by this one screen? Behind the screen, we know that there is a handful of companies that pretty much control most of the apps and most of the products that we are consuming through those screens. That builds up this sense of unease. It’s almost a part of the natural human condition.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (26:12):
Now, going beyond, I’m going to pop psychology, there’s also reality, which is, every time we tap that screen, we know that we are generating this thing called data. We’ve now become aware of the fact that this data is being captured somewhere and then it’s being harvested for purposes that I don’t quite understand. You might have looked at a few shoes for somebody for the holiday season, and then suddenly you find shoes are falling you around on every website.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (26:44):
It’s easy to get spooked by that. It’s not just shoes. All kinds of ways in which you suddenly find your life is being … Somehow you are being watched. So, you write an email and you get a suggestion at the bottom of the email, or somebody sends you an email and you get a suggestion, which is a pretty reasonable response. Thank you. Hey, that was funny. Or an emoji or two, which might be relevant or not be relevant to the content, the email. Then you start wondering, wait a minute, is somebody reading my emails?
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (27:16):
The data that we are generating with every single use of that piece of glass, and actually you don’t even need to put your finger on the piece of glass. Just by having that piece of glass in your pocket or your purse, you’re generating data because that location is being picked up by various location sensitive applications. That is being used as well somewhere. That sense of unease is just being reinforced by our experiences. Then we have this ongoing concern about the quality of the information that I’m getting through the screen.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (27:50):
That quality of information is variable depending on the source and depending on who you are. We know that the last 21 months of the pandemic have been perhaps the most extraordinary event in our individual and collective lives. It’s extraordinary for all kinds of horrendous reasons. People have died, people have had their lives destroyed, their occupations destroyed, and we still live with the shadow of the pandemic over us. Another variant is now making the rounds and everybody’s wondering where we are going from here.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (28:25):
There are all kinds of reasons to be concerned and worried about where we are as a global society. At the same time, we have celebrated some of the greatest successes in human achievement during this success that we can clearly point to, is the fact that we managed to share data exactly the same concerns that we had about data, we managed to share data about fundamental genetic code of this virus very, very quickly. In fact, the machines, the algorithms picked up the presence of the virus long before human beings did. There’s an element of this same technology actually producing some revolutionary insights even before human beings could.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (29:09):
Then the human beings, working with the technology, developed a vaccine in nine months. Never before, in human history, have we produced a vaccine this fast, and frankly, this efficient. If you just follow the clinical trial data and the actual data from our experiences of people who’ve been vaccinated, and you look at the outcomes, we’ve never seen vaccines that have been this effective. We’ve been able to do that with mRNA vaccines, which is a completely new mechanism of action. All kinds of revolutionary things have happened during this period.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (29:46):
I think, despite all that, we are still not out of the pandemic. One of the reasons for that of course, is the swell of misinformation that has surrounded us, has surrounded us through the surge of COVID and it has us through the surge of the vaccines against COVID. I often say that this pandemic is more of … It’s like transdetic or a syndetic, which is, it’s a biological virus and an electronic virus in combination has attacked us. we have a vaccine for the biological one, but we can’t really get out of the biological one because don’t have a vaccine for the electronic virus of misinformation that is all around us. How do we find our way out of that? I think that’s the dilemma that we are collectively and individually trying to work around. Misinformation, of course, is related not just to our problems with vaccinations and the pandemic. Misinformation affects other aspects of our lives, certainly the political discourse has been sallied by the presence of misinformation.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (30:48):
People’s lives have been destroyed because hate-filled speech has been making the rounds here in the United States and in other parts of the world. There’ve been religious violence, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of very bad things that have been triggered by hate speech and misinformation that unfortunately these social media platforms have managed to magnify. Of course, there’s a lot more I can say about this, but let me just take a pause because I’ve been speaking for a while.
Soniya Gokhale (31:18):
No, as I’ve expected from you, amazingly informative response. Wow. Just so much there for all of us to digest, but I want to look at the other side of the coin. Yes, we have seen, as you indicated, some very deleterious effects of misinformation. What’s really interesting is I want to build on that concept of trust and having research for this interview. I think you brought up such a revolutionary idea and concept in previous interviews and op-eds that I want you to expand upon for listeners, and it builds on the notion of digital inclusion and how we use technology and the advent of the “anonymous leader.”
Soniya Gokhale (32:00):
If we consider the social justice protests that seem to flow during the depths of the pandemic, if you ask, and you mentioned this, who is the leader? Was there Mandela? Was there Gandhi? Was that a Martin Luther King Jr. in those movements? The answer is no. The leader was a hashtag. Whether it’s black lives matter or a hashtag that brought people in the streets, maybe it was a particular event. Now, unconscionable injustices definitely occurred whether it was the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, but the leader of these protests, as you’ve illuminated, was anonymous largely.
Soniya Gokhale (32:39):
What you’ve pointed out is that we essentially had groups that converged via an organizing mechanism that is hugely enabled by widespread access to technology. So, you’ve offered that you think technology could potentially change the notion of leadership where we can usher in a new Gandhi, a new Mandela, a new Martin Luther King Jr. But in addition to responding to all that, I want to ask you if one reason that we see these leaderless movements is because we’ve reached a point in our societies where our institutions are so corrosively distrusted, that technology now, and this anonymous leader, have now become sort of a pro part of these social justice movements.
Soniya Gokhale (33:22):
I do want to bring up this podcast. I launched it about a year ago. Who am I? Just a South Asian woman, Indian-American woman in the Midwest, thousands of downloads. Now I do have preeminent thought leaders such as yourself that are really the focus of these interviews. But as you’ve pointed out, it’s this anonymous not known leadership that can really transform society and perhaps usher in a new awareness globally.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (33:51):
Yeah. I think this sort of takes us back, we’ve been talking a lot about the negative impact of digital technology, as in misinformation and some of the other concern. This kind of goes to the other side of the ledger, as I mentioned, technology is both a multiplier and a divider. Let’s talk about the multiplication part of it. Technology has enabled us to start movements, which in ways, that would’ve been unimaginable in different times. There’s a certain pattern built into the leaderless movement or the hashtag as the leader movement that we’ve seen technological platforms, social media platforms having enabled.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (34:31):
You mentioned black lives matter. Of course, black lives matter, the movement has been around for a while and it really gathered steam in 2020. In fact, the summer of 2020, it reached the heights of the awareness that people had about racial injustice. There’s nothing new about racial injustice. It’s been there for generations, but it was really kind of brought to the surface through a combination of cascading events that you mentioned, but then the social media platform were enormously powerful in bringing people out into the streets.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (35:04):
Of course, the technology alone wasn’t enough. There are other factors, other societal factors going on. One certainly is the fact that people were working at home. They were sitting at home. So, they did have both the time to go out into the streets and also in need to connect with the other as human beings. So, there’s a part of the paradox here that is that technology brought us all out into the streets to raise our voices against racial injustice. But part of it was because people were sick of being separated by technology. They wanted to commune with others. That was also a part of what was going on.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (35:43):
I find that really interesting, this phenomenon of technology as enabling a movement and part of it being driven by the fact that people actually wanted to see other people. I think this notion of the leaderless movement, as I mentioned, there’s a bit of a paradoxical aspect to it. Let me explain what I mean by that. I was really struck by a conversation that I had almost, I would say seven or eight years back with a gentleman by the name of Wael Ghonim. Does the name ring a bell to you?
Soniya Gokhale (36:16):
Yes, it does.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (36:19):
Yeah. Wael Ghonim, you may know the name, I may know the name, most people don’t know the name, and most people wouldn’t know who he is. But it turns out that he was an enormously influential figure. He was a mid-level executive at Google working out of Cairo in Egypt. He started a Facebook page in 2010. The Facebook page was called, We Are All Khaled Said. This was to protest the killing of fellow by the name of Khaled Said by the Egyptian dictatorship at that time. That was the start of how hashtag led Facebook page led movement, which we know more popularly as the Arab Spring.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (37:06):
Of course, the Arab Spring started elsewhere in North Africa, but it’s most, kind of the largest event happened in Cairo, particularly in Tahrir Square in Cairo. It was organized over primarily all Facebook and other social media platforms. Wael Ghonim was the person who actually started that first Facebook page which then led to Arab Spring protests. I was talking to Wael about his experience, and what did he learn from that? We’ve already learned from the fact that he … Nobody knows Wael Ghonim. He’s not a Mandela, or a Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or any of the names that would resonate as revolutionaries and people who brought large numbers of people out into a square to protest a dictatorship.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (37:51):
He said that the technology, it was wonderful to bring everybody into Tahrir Square. And he said, “We were all marching in the Square. We all knew you what we didn’t want. We didn’t want the current administration in Egypt.” But he said, “One thing I learned is, as we were marching, I looked to the right and I looked to the left, and the person on the right had one idea about what she wanted to replace the current administration, and the person on the left had a very different idea about what he wanted to replace the current administration.”
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (38:22):
Technology is a powerful force of disequilibrium. It’s a powerful force for taking things down because it’s a very powerful way to bring people together and potentially disrupt and break things up. But then you wonder, is technology good enough to put humpty dumpty back together again? In other words, can you find a new equilibrium? Can you find a good and a better solution to the problem that you have just tried to eliminate? It turns out that, that’s where you actually need the Gandhi or a Mandela to step in because you need that human force, that leadership around which we can cohere and come up with a positive and a constructive resolution to the pieces that are left after you’ve broken up the existing equilibrium.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (39:13):
I think there is an inherent paradox of the leaderless revolutions of technology, which is they’re very good at breaking things up, but then, when you need to come up with a solution that is constructive and sustained over time, you actually need the human intervention. The one risk of relying too much on hashtag movements or leaderless revolutions is that nobody steps up. Everybody becomes a Wael Ghonim. They put up a Facebook page, they create a hashtag, they bring in lots of followers. They have compelling TikTok videos that draw lots of followers, but nobody really steps in the ring and says, “Okay, here I am, Nelson Mandela, and I’m ready to lead you into …” Wherever we are going next.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (40:03):
If we pull back because we expect that technology somehow has taken the space, then we will not find that new equilibrium for every revolutions. Every revolution needs the breaking up of a status quo, but a successful revolution also needs a solution at the other end. I think this is where I wonder where we are going to go with much of the disruption that we saw, say in the summer of 2020, the summer of racial justice protests, of course, people were made aware of the injustices in ways that people hadn’t thought about before, but have we now found a solution to these problems?
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (40:42):
Do we have clear pathways for how, for instance, will companies do better in terms of improving the diversity of their workforce? Will universities and schools become better at changing the syllabi and reflecting the true history of our, not just American civilization, but other civilizations and acknowledge racial injustices? I don’t believe we have made much progress since 2020, and we are pretty much at the same place. This is where I think technology can’t work on its own. We need human intelligence on top of the artificial intelligence of the machines.
Soniya Gokhale (41:20):
Well, those are very, very insightful remarks. A lot there to take in as this entire interview is going to be for listeners, but so incredibly illuminating. Now, what I wanted to offer as well as we are, I can’t believe we’re approaching the end of our time together here, is I do want to focus a bit on China. Because what is fascinating and perhaps not surprising is that your research demonstrates that China really stands out as the country with the most digital momentum, coupled with a solid existing digital base.
Soniya Gokhale (41:52):
I know from reading other interviews, and I’ll quote you directly, “China is moving at a speed that is not only unprecedented, it’s unparalleled anywhere in the world. Just in terms of the sheer velocity and the mass of the movement, there is an ability to scale up in China that is hard to replicate anywhere. There’s a combination of a handful of big tech companies in China that work hand in glove with the state. And the hand has now become an iron fist inside the glove because the state has doubled down on the tech companies.” Very insightful remarks and I just want to hear more about you from this as we come to the end of this amazing interview with you.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (42:35):
Yeah. I think what is happening right now in China, of course China has been fascinating for such a long time, and it is the country to watch for this century and for the foreseeable future because of all the things that you mentioned about China, not just technology related, but the dramatic changes that have had happened in China, particularly since the turn of the century. But most recently, we also know that technology has been a big part of the Chinese story. Just last year, about 40% of the Chinese GDP was in some way, shape, or form connected to their technology industry, their digital industry.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (43:13):
Just like we have the giants here out of Silicon Valley, whether it is Google/Alphabet, or Facebook/Meta, or Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and so on, China has its own giants. In many ways, it’s a parallel universe. You have Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, Huawei, and several others. Those technological players in China have, in many ways, supported by the state because of the firms and the industry that was really rocketing China forward, together with several other sectors.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (43:44):
Now, suddenly, roughly about a year back, the relationship between China’s tech sector and its state, or Chinese big tech and Chinese big state started having a fallout. Of course, there are many complex reasons behind that. One reason that is most self evident is the fact that many of the tech giants in China, they have generated a lot of wealth for a small number of people, particularly the entrepreneurs who founded tech companies, and many of those entrepreneurs have become celebrities of their own and they have a voice of their own.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (44:23):
When you’re running a single party state, as the Communist Party of China does, they would prefer to have only their voice be the primary voice that everybody hears. Everyone is essentially using the same messaging app like WeChat, or they’re all shopping using the platforms of Alibaba or making payments using Alipay. They are also spending more time on the products of the technology industry, and so they’re likely to want to hear the voices of the founders of this tech industry and perhaps follow them more closely.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (44:55):
So, someone like Jack Ma, who was the founder of Alibaba, perhaps a little too big for his britches, and he started making some comments that the Chinese state didn’t take kindly to. There was a big IPO for one of Jack Ma’s companies, the Ant Group, which was planned roughly about a year ago, and that IPO was projected to be the biggest IPO, initial public offering, in the history of IPOs, and it was suddenly canceled. It was canceled by the Chinese state. The next thing you know, that Jack Ma just disappears and no one sees him for a long time.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (45:30):
No one knew whether he’d been kidnapped, whether he had been sent away somewhere, or he was just airbrushed out of existence. Since then, it has been a massive crackdown on Chinese tech across the board. Frankly, puzzling because this is the sector that has carried the Chinese economy for at least 20 years now, if not more. People use their products all over the place. It is central to people’s lives in China, and yet, this industry is in the crosshairs of the Chinese state.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (46:02):
There’s a lot going on here because people are now wondering, what’s the future of the tech industry? A lot of capital, in particular venture capital and private equity money that had been rushing into China because of its dynamic tech sector and all the entrepreneurship that had been happening there, all that froze and people started pulling their money out of China. Frankly, some of that money has gone to places like India, where investors are looking for places to invest.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (46:32):
India’s sort of been a beneficiary of this money coming in. It’s had all kinds of repercussions in the broader global economy. Now, one could speculate on what the reasons for this odd tension between big tech and big state is as far as China is concerned. There are a number of different explanations that one could give. One could say that the tech industry just got too big for its britches as I mentioned. Alternatively, the Chinese state could be following the mantra that the consumer tech industry of China has pretty much reached a certain stage where it can hum along on its own without having these charismatic founders at the helm and really letting the state sort of keep a close eye on the consumer side of tech.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (47:16):
Now, it is the enterprise side of tech or the corporate tech, or tech that supports the industrial military complex of China, tech that is involved with data collection or for military purposes or cyber security, that is the more important part of tech that needs to be supported. The coming generation of technologies are going to rely on data collection, artificial intelligence. A lot of these areas are the ones that are the fastest moving parts of the tech industry. China’s also in a geopolitical global competition with the United States on who can move faster on that front.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (47:54):
The state is leaning more in the direction of this AI-driven, data-driven enterprise tech. The consumer tech has become less important. Maybe this tension is a reflection of consumer tech having fallen out of favor and the state now favoring enterprise tech. That could be going on. A third thing that could be going on is President Xi in China, he’s consolidating his position. There is an important vote that is going to take place next year. And of course, he’s declared himself chairman for life, but this is a way for him to consolidate his power and have him be the center of the political and economic universe.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (48:32):
In many ways, he has accomplished that through this crackdown. A lot to pack in to that one answer, to your excellent question. I’m sorry for going on again for too long. Of course, and with China, you can never go on too long enough because the explanations on the issues there are so complex and nuance and interwoven, and sometimes most of us are taking shots in the dark because the Chinese state is very good at even hiding the reality on the ground.
Soniya Gokhale (49:00):
Well, I would offer that all of the topics that we’ve covered today are just so vastly broad spanning and ever changing. You’ve given listeners and myself so much to think about. We really, truly cannot thank you enough for joining us today, Dr. Bhaskar Chakravorti. I will have a link in the podcast notes as well to the Digital Planet Initiative, as well as the Digital Economy for All, or IDEA 2030, for those that are interested in finding out more. But thank you again and for joining us today.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (49:32):
Absolutely. Thank you, Soniya, for inviting me. I really enjoyed this conversation. I really appreciate your interest in my work, and this was wonderful and great opportunity to share some of these stories with your audience. I’m more than happy to answer any questions that might come up down the road. In the meantime, just the also say that Digital Planet, one of the things we want to do is we want to reach out to people.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (49:57):
As I said, the Digital Planet is a part of all of our lives. I love to hear from everybody on your own experiences with the Digital Planet and what you like and what you don’t like, so feel free to write to me. We are also, we have a conference coming up where we are going to share some of our work. It’s all available on Zoom. It’s all free, open to the public. It’s on December 13th. The details are on the website that you will just, hopefully your link will point to that.
Soniya Gokhale (50:24):
Well, that is so timely. I know I will be participating just based on our interview today and following your career, but my goodness. And we will have you back if you would join us again, because I suspect, in six months time, even a few months time, everything we talked about, the needle will have moved and that’s just the nature of digital. But again, thank you so much, Bhaskar.
Bhaskar Chakravorti Ph.D. (50:45):
Thank you, Soniya. Great chat with you.
Soniya Gokhale (50:47):