This year, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) aim to complete a Consolidated Strategy on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). From Singapore’s Smart Nation and Indonesia’s national artificial intelligence (AI) strategy to Thailand 4.0 and Malaysia 5.0, Southeast Asia’s governments – individually and collectively – are bullish on the transformative potential of technology. On the ground, strong demand and equally striking investment potential are giving credence and support to these bold policies and visions.
Even against the backdrop of a pandemic-induced global economic contraction, some 310 million people or 70 percent of all consumers in Southeast Asia were expected to go digital by the end of 2020, surpassing forecasts for 2025. With the region adding 40 million new Internet users last year alone, the digital economy in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam reached US$100 billion in 2020. It is projected to triple by 2025. And while regional unicorns, those startups valued at US$1 billion or more, took a hit during the Covid-19 lockdowns, particularly in the travel sector, there are early signs of revival and interest from extra-regional unicorns looking to expand.
The immediacy of these commercial imperatives, along with Southeast Asia’s long-standing digitalization-for-development agenda, means that government and business deliberations about the role of technology have typically prioritized economic considerations, though for different reasons. This focus is apparent in the numerous recommendations for how countries could mitigate the impact on labor of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), how variances in data transfer regimes should be resolved, or how micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) could be most effectively integrated into the digital economy. These are important questions, of course, but they cover only narrow, sectoral implications of technology’s imprint on the region.
If ASEAN genuinely wants to advance inclusive and equitable development as well as a politically cohesive and “socially responsible society”, it must peer beyond the economic lens and critically reflect on some fundamental concerns.
First, the power and politics of technology. Today, two-thirds of the global population live in Asia. China and India account for the bulk of that figure. The biggest country in ASEAN, Indonesia, is the world’s fourth most populous nation. By the turn of the century, 90 per cent of the people on the planet are expected to live outside Europe and North America. If most people will be living in the Global South – Southeast Asia, included – and these regions represent the fastest growing markets for digital products and services, then it seems reasonable to expect that these consumers will determine how technology will change their lives. It would also be fair to expect the governance structures of technology – the norms, rules, and international legal frameworks – to reflect the perspectives, expectations and value-systems of this majority.
As it stands, it is the privileged “tech bros” in the English-speaking corridors of Silicon Valley that code much of the digital world and dominate its architecture. Platform and social media titans such as Google and Facebook – rife with controversial algorithms – have not only pioneered a profitable industry of surveillance capitalism but also “a global architecture of behavior modification”, as Harvard Business School social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff put it. Big Data, funneled by the private sector not only for monetization but also more insidious purposes when done in collusion with intelligence agencies, entrenches the specter of Big Brother and lays the basis for technological hegemony. Data extraction, the charge goes, is the new colonialism.
But the Global South is not always or not only a geographical construct. If framed more elastically as a metaphor for oppression caused by capitalism and colonialism on the global level, it would include marginalized or minority societies in countries north and south of the equator. It would also account for South-South exploitation through the export of surveillance technology. Like the Western firms that came before them, a Chinese corporate presence now spans the digital architecture of space (navigation satellite system), cyberspace (network, hardware and software applications), and sea (international submarine communication cables). As Southeast Asia finds itself once again in the crosshairs of great-power competition, it will have to be mindful of entrapment in either the empire of business or the business of empire.