Sunday, January 17, 2021

Mastering Chaos: Governance in the Digital Age

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Chaos maybe the permanent feature of our reality but the unprecedented level of chaos that we have witnessed in the last 15 years caught us unprepared. This is especially true at the policy level where inertia is deeply imbedded both, at the structural and agency level. The result? We have globally plunged into a slippery domain of non-strategic and non-instrumental policy-making, unable and unwilling to fully fathom and embrace the pace of this chaos. It is almost as if the policy system is exhausted and functioning on the day-to-day basis waking up every morning finding a new target to chase which by the nightfall is irrelevant.

This chaos will have both winners and losers based upon how the nations and its leaders maneuver around and master the chaos. But how do we define chaos? It is by definition a complex environment driven by unpredictability and random occurrences where at one hand even small change in the input could topple over the system and on the other hand even a large input has no effect on the system. Let’s start with the could-be losers first.

The most damning effect of this policy shift is evident with frustrated public in several democracies around the world electing demagogues as leaders that then foolishly use this chaos to arbitrarily redefine the geography, human rights and nationhood as a way to appropriate blame and reignite nationalism around the “other”. We witnessed that during the four years of President Trump’s rule. We are also continuing to witness the same with PM Modi’s regime in India that has not only occupied IIOJK (Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir) but has regressed India into the largest exporter of hate and fake news around the world.

Read more: Russia sees US democracy ‘limping’ after Capitol stormed

What is worse is that such tactics are remnants of the early 20th century that brought the international system to its collapse (twice) only to now return in the 21st century under the garb of ‘decolonization’ rhetoric.

India’s crumbling narrative

Only a decade back, it was almost unimaginable that India would find itself in this dark place globally where its perception would shift so radically. For example, in our recent study at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), we crunched 4.5 million articles from The New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian to run the sentiment analysis on India and Pakistan.

Without a surprise, India’s coverage post-2014 nosedived with much of the international narrative on the country pivoted around Hindutva, Islam, and deaths – a reflection to the Indian reality on ground that was for a very long time cloaked with the glimmer of Bollywood. Surprisingly, however, the same study demonstrated that post-2018, the perception of Pakistan internationally improved substantially with much of the narrative on the country was around foreign relations, media, and elections.

Read more: The rise of Hindutva is a threat to regional security, Pakistan tells OIC

The study begs a question, which has become very relevant in the digital age: reality creates perception or perception creates the reality? There is no better case than that of India under PM Modi to demystify this paradox. For instance, PM Modi merely took that cloak off revealing an image of India that the Western powers are finding hard to digest in the last many years. This is because India for the Western powers served as the poster child of functioning democracy in the global south.

Now with Modi’s brazen tactics to flame ethno-religious extremism, curb human and minority rights, and export terrorism to neighboring countries, the Western powers are finding themselves in a tough spot: to call out India is to essentially call out themselves and destabilize the global neoliberal project. PM Modi has been smart to identify this underbelly of Western powers that are too deeply invested in the Indian project. This has given PM Modi extraordinary room to enforce undemocratic ideologies and methods while the Western powers look away. This is almost an identical pre-World War II situation with France and Britain appeasement of Nazi Germany as it silently annexed Rhineland and Austria.

Denial, it was then and denial it is now, for Western powers the lesson is obvious: denial is the fertile ground for extremism to grow and chaos to seep in. This chaos that we see today, however, is not out of nowhere and is driven exponentially by the forces of data and digital. The digitalization has unsettled the global policy leadership, making them look inwards while making redundant centuries-old governance practices, diplomatic protocols, war strategies and narrative building techniques.

Read more: Hindutva mindset, stubbornness kindle chaos & conflict: FM Qureshi

More importantly, it has tested the centrality of the State as a governing authority questioning its very logic and purpose in the new age presenting domestic as the new frontier of the national security threat to even some of the most stable democracies in the world. Part of this chaos is also directly linked to data.

For instance, just recently during the Cold War years, sting operations were run to collect one piece of intelligence from across the Berlin Wall. Fast forward to the 21st century, the problem within the policy sector is not the lack of data but instead that of too much data which the government is unable to use effectively because of the lack of capacity. The private firms or entities that are able to build capacity to use that data are now overpowering the State through events like Brexit, Black Lives Matter and many other civil society movements gripping the State.

Another good example of power slipping out of the hands of the traditional State is in the context of monopoly on national narrative. For instance, there was a time not too long ago when there was only one TV channel in Pakistan – that too owned by the State. Then came the liberalization of media in the early 2000s with private media houses mushrooming all over the country, reducing the state monopoly on narrative. The private TV channels monopoly was, however, short-lived with digital media companies like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp devolving the monopoly on broadcasting and narratives to the public.

Read more: Pakistani Media: Freedom of Expression or Chaos Mongers

Therefore, in only 25 years we moved from one state-owned broadcasting to hundreds of privately owned broadcasting to now millions of individual broadcasters with no editorial policy or red-lines but as important if not more than setting the national narratives.

Victors of Chaos

It will be those nations and leaders that abstain from conceptualizing chaos as an enemy and instead will embrace it as a fluid state of change. In other words, chaos could be a great friend to those that can master the uncertainty and lead it in the right direction. But to master uncertainty requires a high degree of Adaptability Quotient (AQ).

In the previous decades, it was the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of the nation or and individual that mattered. In the recent past, the Emotional Quotient (EQ) became the new standard. However, in the age of chaos and uncertainty that our world is undergoing especially with technology changing at an ever-increasing rate, Adaptability Quotient (AQ) is the new standard that will determine the future rise and fall of nations and individuals. In this new age where chaos rules, governance requires a complete overhaul of both, the mindset and practice of policy using data and digital to unlock the true national potential.

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Moreover, for a country like Pakistan that was never really able to formalize its governance structures and institutions, or become an integral part of the global economy, adaptability is an easy journey. This is because Pakistan possesses a high AQ due to severe governance crisis including petrol/gas shortages, terrorism and many other issues that have inflicted the country over the last few decades. This has then already prepared the country to turn the tables on growth and prosperity by harnessing the power of data, digital and principles of uncertainty in policy.

It is also this very AQ that can help predict the incoming troubles for both the Western countries and those Eastern countries like India that has majorly invested itself with the Western economies. Given enough data and appropriate framework, future is easily predictable and almost scriptable. At the data and digital juncture where our global society stands today, we may be able to pinpoint with good accuracy the rise and fall of nations for the next 100 years. It is by looking at only two variables: who is asking the right questions and who is adapting faster.

Dr. Hussain Nadim is the Executive Director (C&R) at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). He has done his PhD in Government from the University of Sydney. He has served as the Project Director of Peace and Development Unit at Ministry of Planning, Development & Reforms, Government of Pakistan. He was a Scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC and Adjunct Fellow at International Center for Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King’s College London.

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