The Indian Stack goes global

August 22, 2023

The digital age has introduced a pivotal debate between centralized and decentralized systems. Centralized systems, controlled by single entities, offer the advantage of streamlined operations and seamless user experiences. In contrast, decentralized systems distribute control across multiple nodes or participants, emphasizing individual autonomy and resilience against single points of failure. The European Union (EU) and the United States (US) hold distinct positions in this discourse. The EU, with its stringent data protection regulations and push for digital strategic autonomy, leans towards decentralized models that prioritize user privacy and data sovereignty. Its Rhine model of digital capitalism underscores the significance of multi-stakeholder approaches and civil society's role in overseeing public digital services. Conversely, the US, home to most of the dominant Big Tech companies in the West, mirrors a centralized model driven by private interests and industry stakeholders. China, too, boasts a centralized ecosystem, but it's orchestrated top-down by public institutions with strategic rather than purely economic interests.

In the international geo-strategic arena, India is now emerging as a significant player. While it has developed centralized public infrastructures like Aadhaar, its approach to digital identity and payments is modular and open-source. This not only aligns with Europe's commitment to data protection but also presents a potential middle ground between the centralized models of the US and China. As India prepares to export its Stack, understanding its approach offers insights into a trajectory that harmonizes the advantages of both centralized and decentralized systems. It also aids in grasping the geopolitics of the digital landscape in the upcoming years.

Recently, the Philippines and Morocco built a unique identifier system based on India’s Aadhaar technology infrastructure. This solution is part of a software suite known as the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP), which consists of a digital identity system (Aadhaar), a digital payment platform (Unified Payments Interface, UPI), and a digital locker system (DigiLocker). This suite has revolutionized daily life in India, particularly for the less affluent, by simplifying digital payments, providing digital identities, automating welfare subsidies, reducing corruption, and making the disbursement of emergency funds easier. This innovation could bring significant benefits to India’s IT industry, such as development and maintenance contracts.

However, there's also a geopolitical angle: By exporting this digital infrastructure model, the Indian government aims to enhance its global technological influence, targeting digital leadership in the global south. India hopes to position itself "as a neutral third force between the transactional West and an authoritarian China." Additionally, other countries, including Ethiopia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and Togo, are utilizing or testing technologies and services from the India Stack. Intriguingly, India’s open-source approach aligns with Europe's commitment to data protection and open data initiatives.

In this potential alignment, both Europe and India could foster collaboration in several domains. To begin with, the development and promotion of open-source software platforms that prioritize user privacy and data sovereignty could help both regions achieve more self-reliance and strategic autonomy in the digital sphere. Europe's commitment to data protection and its Data Act aligns well with the need for safe and secure public digital infrastructure, such as India's. Second, India and Europe could join forces in providing technical assistance and capacity-building in developing countries, aiding these nations in building their own 'national stacks'—secure, interoperable digital public infrastructure. This could, in turn, promote a decentralized, self-reliant global digital ecosystem, taking advantage of the open-source nature of Web3 innovations. This could lead to increased earning capacity for local entrepreneurs and a break from the so-called ‘platform feudalism,’ where foreign platforms reap all the profits. Lastly, as global standards for digital identities, payments, data ownership, and data sharing become geopolitically interesting and technologically feasible for other countries to adopt, this could stimulate innovation in areas that require global collaboration and data, such as climate change, combatting terrorism, and resource allocation to transnational problems (e.g., poverty due to failed harvests). Therefore, India and Europe can offer a compelling, open-source, and self-reliant alternative to American and Chinese Big Tech platforms, contributing to a more diverse, resilient, and democratic global digital ecosystem.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

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1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

Pim Korsten has a background in continental philosophy and macroeconomics. At the thinktank, he primarily focuses on research, consultancy projects, and writing articles related to technology, politics, and the economy. He has a keen interest in the philosophy of history and economics, metamodernism, and cultural anthropology.

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