What is technology? The question appears so banal as to barely require answering. But the question bears tremendous significance for an understanding of human history and of the turbulent geopolitics of our world. In scope, it extends from the cuneiform scrawls of Bronze Age Sumerian scribes to the complex algorithms of modern AI applications. Technologies shape societies, polities, and economies. They directly impact the lives of millions. And most importantly, technologies affect statecraft.
Consider the relatively limited perspective of military technology. Over the last 500 years, and especially in the last 200 and last 100, the development of sophisticated military technology has been one of the top priorities of any organised polity. Military superiority over adversaries has allowed countries to upend centuries-old dynamics and shape the world to tremendous advantage. Consider, for example, Britain forcing the Qing Dynasty of China to give up attempts to ban opium imports. Or, for example, the US’s development of the atomic bomb, and the arms race that ensued with the USSR to ensure that neither would have a decisive military edge over the other.
Today, attempts to secure a technological edge over adversaries remain a major component of grand strategy. In recent years, the US and China have made serious attempts to deny crucial resources to rivals, to get access to rivals’ innovations, to insulate their technology from rival influence, and to develop technological bases that are protected from their rivals. These dynamics are familiar from a military technology point of view. But today, we see them applied even to ostensibly “civilian” or “peacetime” technological applications, such as being able to develop sophisticated processors or image recognition technologies. Clearly, something has changed in statecraft, and that something has everything to do with technology and the all-pervasive impact it has on human lives. Competition and contestation is not merely in the military domain: the tools and objectives of the state now extend across the entire spectrum of spaces where humans interact with technology. The state is now far, far more than the simple Weberian concept of “a human Gemeinschaft [community] that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” What do states want? How do they go about achieving it? And, most importantly, what does technology have to do with this?
In order to better understand and describe this phenomenon, this document attempts to develop a general understanding of technology as a concept. It does so by developing and applying a definition from David Arnold’s 2005 paper, “Europe, Technology and Colonialism in the 20th Century”. Technology is a “cultural space in which various forms of interaction and exchange became possible”. Interaction and exchange, as we will see through a series of examples, are fundamental to the success of technologies in both the modern and premodern world. Finally, we will attempt to develop some broad concepts to understand how states can engage strategically with technologies in the 21st century, from an Indian perspective.
Technology: Four Basic Principles
Let’s imagine that one fine day in the late 16th century, the Mughal emperor Akbar is feeling a little grumpy. He orders that the famed musician Tansen be brought to him for a performance. In short order, Tansen appears, musicians in tow, and delights the emperor with an ear-splitting rendition of his favourite raga. The musicians blow into their pipes as they never have before, they beat their drums until their fingers are sore. In return for their hard work and talent, Akbar heaps them with gold, they go off to enjoy a meal in the royal kitchens, and that is that.
Let us briefly think about what allowed Akbar to have this pleasant experience. In the first place, musical technology – notation, rhythm, aesthetics – have to exist. There need to exist the tools to bring the music to life. There need to be people who know to use the tools to create music which an audience wants to hear and pay for. And finally, there must exist a system capable of finding and paying for these professional activities. This is not something that the vast majority of Akbar’s subjects can even imagine. A farmer might know songs that her mothers and grandmothers taught her to sing while harvesting rice or grinding flour. Her cousin might know how to beat an old leather drum to a beat. But she might only hear a professional troupe of musicians perform a complex raga or sing an ancestral ballad two or three times a year, when there is some kind of festival, and the musicians know that there will be enough small donations to allow them to feed themselves. To her, readily-available, professionally-performed music is something to be savoured with the utmost attention and joy – nothing like the relatively normal occurrence it is for the much wealthier Akbar.
But today, the farmer’s descendants can access more music than they can ever hear in their lifetimes – performed with passion and talent by professionals from across the world, in a wide variety of genres, and with an amazing array of instruments – through the tap of a button on their smartphones.
What makes this possible? First, it’s far easier for musicians to find training and build an audience for their work. If you only want to perform abstract neoclassical electronic music, you no longer need to be born into a family of abstract neoclassical electronic music performers or find an abstract neoclassical electronic music performer to train you. You can study music online or go to a college; you can buy reasonably priced instruments made by manufacturers with highly-optimised global supply chains. You can find your own sound, and you can put it up online, where people will listen to it. These people could be from anywhere in the world and come from a variety of professional backgrounds, but they can interact with you, you can interact with them. You give them an experience worth their time and effort, and they give you support that is worth your time and effort – and the same applies to a dizzying number of other potential markets, professions, and clients. All this has been enabled by technological progress, which has facilitated exponentially more complex forms of interaction between people across the world, totally transforming it from what was during the times of Akbar. This allows us to make some general statements about the relationship between technology and human societies:
Technology is science applied to make tools. In general, these tools reduce the transaction costs of interaction between large numbers of people. This interaction generates value.
Let’s break this down.
Technology is science applied to make tools.
Tools allow people to manipulate reality, usually to their benefit. In order to manipulate reality successfully, the tools must take advantage of the fundamental laws of reality, which stems from scientific understanding. A spear allows you to stab a fish because it allows force to be concentrated onto a single point, puncturing tissues. An oil tanker floats because the water it displaces generates buoyancy. But these tools don’t always have to be physical: they can also be conceptual. Humans, unlike other sentient animals, also believe in, and act in accordance with, things beyond what they can immediately perceive. For example, humans do things because it would bring “status” or “salvation”, such as donate to a religious institution. Or they might buy a plain white commode placed in a gallery for millions of dollars, because according to the conceptual apparatus of postmodernism, the fact that a commode is patently not artistic makes it a commentary on our expectations of art. Thus, owning it can be a marker of status and sophistication. A conceptual tool that manipulates human social fabric through taking advantage of human nature is, therefore, also a technology.
These tools reduce the costs of interaction between large numbers of people.
Face-to-face interactions are a miniscule fraction of the total number of interactions that you will have with people in your lifetime. If you were to purchase a branded cotton shirt, for example, you are interacting with a complex supply chain consisting of dozens if not hundreds of people. Some may have grown the cotton in Egypt. Some may work in a factory in Greece that manufactures dye. Others may work in a textile factory in Bangladesh to improve the shirt’s bottom line and pay for the services of marketing, design, and other white-collar professionals based in the US. And from their salaries, which are composed of the purchases of thousands of people like you, uncountable new interactions are generated. But such indirect interactions are fundamental to complex economies and societies. For example, a grain market in the town of Sarnath in the Gangetic Plains in the early historic period, c. 600 BCE, might see indirect interactions between householders and dozens of farmers in tiny villages. This interaction was enabled by technologies such as iron ploughs, wheels, and organised commerce. The development of technology makes it easier for people to interact in chains and networks, eliminating the need for face-to-face interactions that require them to physically move, at great risk and effort, from place to place.
This interaction generates value.
“Value” takes on a wide variety of forms. It could be something straightforward, such as money being exchanged for goods and services. It could be the feeling of belonging and validation that comes with online echo-chambers. It could be the satisfaction that comes from binge-watching a really good series on a streaming platform. It could be the reduction of risk through investing in an 18th century colonial joint stock company. Fundamentally, the interactions enabled by technology generate value for those participating in them, and this plays a major role in technologies catching on and becoming more pervasive.
To this, we can add one final point, crucial to our interest in understanding and explaining statecraft.
Control of the value derived from interactions grants power.
In the field of international relations, power is usually thought of as the ability to compel another actor to do something that they would otherwise not do. A huge variety of metrics are used to quantify what this power entails: most commonly, military capabilities and geoeconomic leverage. This often works fine when we focus on interstate relations, but it is inadequate for a world where states routinely influence each other’s citizens through social media, and thus also indirectly influence each other. It is even more inadequate in a world where social media companies, multinational corporations, and even celebrities and influencers, with neither military capabilities nor territory, exert direct and indirect influence on people and states.
The often-used trope of “territories” in cyberspace is insufficient for our purposes: the analogy breaks down quickly when we consider the extremely diverse ways in which communication and interactions work on the Internet, and it is best to avoid the ahistorical implication that either nothing or everything has changed through the advent of increased global digital connectivity. A better conceptualisation is needed to connect modern notions and applications of power to the broader trajectory of human history.
We build on that suggested by Barnett and Duvall: “Power is the production, in and through social relations, of effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their circumstances and fate”. Organisations and individuals in the international realm – states or otherwise – are not black boxes interested in promoting their interests only against entities with comparable types of power. They are collections of human beings interested in promoting their interests over those of others . (Even if this is not how they necessarily believe they act, or even if ostensibly driven by the “greater good”, this is what often ends up happening in practice). Power includes the ability of states or companies to track, tax, train, and care for their citizens or customers to get them to behave in certain ways. It includes the ability to spread disinformation; to spy; to promote certain individuals to positions of power and influence by manipulating systems.
Fundamentally, all these stem from the ability to control and shape the interactions that technology enables: to create and destroy value derived from them, in a way that suits the powerful entity’s interests. This is strikingly reminiscent of the state entity envisioned in the Arthashastra, one of the most well-known surviving ancient Indian texts. The state of the Arthashastra aims to build up its power at all costs, concentrating wealth, influence, and value in the hands of its ruler so that he may do what he believes is best for his people. He does this through controlling interactions based on the technology of his times: enabling commerce, extracting resources, spying on rivals, torturing dissenters, imprisoning threats, rewarding supporters. Though the Arthashastra’s perspective on foreign relations is often studied and discussed, its ideas on domestic statecraft actually tell us far more about the logic of the state and how and why it does what it does – and suggest a path to understanding the evolution of statecraft in a radically different technological world.
A (Very) General History of Technology, from the State’s Perspective
This section will attempt to show how states have used these four principles to shape human history. It is extremely general and makes no attempts at being comprehensive.
ACT I: Technology and the Premodern State
How did civilisation as we know it begin? Up until very recently, most humans lived as hunter-gatherers, moving across wide swathes of territory in family groups. Every now and then, they might come across other groups and interact through religious and social rituals. But with the advent of agriculture after the last Ice Age, things began to change very rapidly.
The first and most important change was the development of systems of collective action that enabled agriculture, as well as conceptual tools that permitted unequal distributions of wealth (Point 1). These, in short order, permitted ever-more complex social hierarchies to emerge, with specialised professions and organised commerce. This allowed interactions between gradually-growing urban populations based on gradually-spreading agrarian bases (Point 2). This created new disease environments, of course, and the poor quality of nutrition contributed to a high mortality rate.
Early states were generally family enterprises centred around the activities of royal and aristocratic families. These families were the most “powerful” ones in their territory, controlling systems of interaction, such as being able to coerce or convince large numbers of people to till their lands (Point 4). But other organisations, such as merchant groups and religious institutions, also had power. Merchant groups allowed the exchange of luxury goods in relays across vast distances, allowing very disparate peoples to derive value from interaction with each other (Points 2, 3 & 4); on the other hand, religious institutions tinkered with the conceptual apparatus that shaped how people interacted through notions of sin and merit (Points 1, 3 & 4). Even the evolution of cultural norms and aesthetics, by influencing the demand for highly-skilled professionals such as musicians and artists (Point 3), played a role in the evolution of systems of interaction. But the scale of all of this was relatively tiny: the vast majority of people lived in fairly simple agrarian hierarchies with limited interaction with other people and derived little value from it all in comparison to the most wealthy and powerful.
ACT II: Technology and the Early Modern State
A series of very significant changes began to erupt across the world by the 16th-17th centuries. One of the most important, perhaps, was the development of highly effective gunpowder weaponry – both artillery and handheld weapons – which in turn was enabled by the evolution of applied sciences (Point 1).  This enabled states to become more powerful than they had ever been – they now had the ability to use overwhelming military force to crush local power centres and implement systems of interactions that were in their interests (Point 4). The Mughals provide an excellent example: their gunpowder-powered military superiority over other North Indian powers allowed a major expansion of trade with Central Asia, which supplied the court with horses and luxury items. The French king Louis XIV, similarly, used effective flintlock and bayonet-equipped infantry to create an absolutist state centred upon himself, famously exemplified in his statement: “L’etat, c’est moi,” or “I am the state!”.
Other technologies, such as printing and cartography, also played a very significant role in allowing people to interact and ideas to spread (Point 2). The early modern period also saw the emergence of more sophisticated concepts allowing more and more people to play a role in structuring interactions. Consider the joint stock company, which, by distributing risk among large numbers of shareholders, allowed them to collectively profit from the creation of new global networks of exchange (Point 2 & 3); or the emergence of sophisticated conceptions of citizenship and liberty in Europe, which allowed for much larger forms of collective identity, enabling easier interactions between hitherto very diverse peoples (Point 2).
ACT III: Technology and the Modern State
With the advent of colonialism and industrialisation – both of which evolved from the networks of exchange (Point 2) and applied sciences (Point 1) of the early modern world – profound changes were set into motion. Sophisticated markets, financial systems, and overwhelming military force brought more or less the entire planet into a world-spanning system of exchange, reducing the costs of interaction to levels well within the reach of most people (Points 2 & 3). Advanced agricultural and medical technology fed more people and kept them alive for longer, in ever-larger urban agglomerations – large enough to have serious adverse impacts on their environments.
States in the modern period commanded value and controlled interactions at unprecedented scale. Entire populations in colonies could be educated according to curricula set in Europe, making them well-suited to the interests of colonial states. These states were also pervasive enough that for the first time in human history, they had the ability to control the means by which technology was diffused through legislation and an extensive executive apparatus, a difficult task for early modern states.
This proved an especially effective method of maintaining power over adversaries, as pointed out by American academic Mitchel B. Wallerstein. By 1949, the US had implemented a full-fledged system of military technology denial to its adversaries, enabled by its “virtual monopoly on certain technologies”. Through the Cold War, says Wallerstein, the need for technological superiority led the US to maintain a tight grip over both military and dual-use technologies while also funding Department of Defense-led programs in “aeronautics, propulsion, and electronics… their commercial applications eventually transformed the civilian economy”. Initially, it proved to be fairly realistic for the US to control the diffusion of such technologies, which were usually embodied through expensive, bulky, and complicated pieces of hardware requiring considerable economic and technological resources to design and operate. However, by the 1980s, dual-use technologies such as microelectronics were being developed by the private sector at a much faster rate and were commonplace in global markets. Continent-spanning supply chains of human capital and manufacturing began to emerge, as well as global communication networks powered by private sector resources. It seemed like there was little the state could do to control this technological diffusion as more players began to derive value from innovation.
The spread of communication networks over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries also meant that for perhaps the first time in human history, uniform codes of interaction and exchange could be spread – and enforced – across continents, allowing for ever-cheaper interactions. States developed a sophisticated system of concepts representing themselves as expressing the will and best interests of millions. They also gradually developed the ability to shape interactions, especially public opinion, using a variety of tools, especially the control of mass media. But the aforementioned rise of private sector innovation in dual-use technologies and communication would erode this, and finally it would all be thrown into question by a radical new technology: social media that connected people directly to each other on digital platforms.
ACT IV: Technology and the State Today
The advent of the global Internet was hailed as a new era for humanity. The free flow of information and knowledge, it was believed, would make it impossible for states to control populations and allow people across the world to understand each other better, allowing for an enlightened era of effective popular democracy and global peace. Up to the Arab Spring of 2010-12, this heady optimism seemed justified: states seemed to have no effective way of responding to these “radically networked societies”, where people could easily share information and mobilise to defend their collective interests and rights.
The years since have shown that states have indeed understood how to manipulate radically networked societies, arguably becoming more powerful than they have been at any point in human history. In particular, states are capable of severing network connections and de-incentivising particular forms of interaction – such as protests – by imposing severe physical and economic costs. States have also developed sophisticated means of surveilling and tracking their populations, as well as the means to effectively spread pro-state narratives using social media to mobilise popular support.
Dual-use technologies have once again become a major arena of contention between states. Technologies such as artificial intelligence hold the potential to grant unprecedented power to states, because of how effectively they can facilitate and manipulate human interactions. Alongside this, states are also far more interested in controlling technologies without immediate military applications because of the potential they hold for value creation and economic growth, which can be harnessed for the interests of the state. For example, limiting China’s ability to manufacture processors would allow another state to seize a share of the lucrative consumer electronics market. Finally, with global technology firms also having developed an enormous amount of power through their ability to amplify and control interactions, bringing them in line with states’ interests has emerged as a priority.
This has resulted in state activities only vaguely reminiscent of what we have seen during the Cold War – in the sense that the goal is to secure access to technology while denying it to adversaries. But no single state has a monopoly over the most lucrative technologies of today’s globalised world, nor are they able to conclusively compel corporations with a global presence without indirectly harming themselves. Instead, states today attempt to damage or threaten other actors’ ability to generate value by disrupting the supply chains and inputs that create this value, and thus indirectly compel them. For example, they actively seek to create and retain human capital that can develop sophisticated applications of artificial intelligence, denying them to their adversaries. Similarly, states have used their control over resources such as data, app marketplaces, or rare earths to threaten adversaries and reduce their ability to derive value, as India and China have done.
What India Must Do
In this concluding section, we use the insights developed through the course of this document to suggest some general ideas for what India must do in the coming decades.
Power comes from the ability to shape value-generating interactions in an actor’s interests.
India can grow its relative power by creating value for its citizens. A consensus is beginning to emerge in the West about the creation of a “technology consortium” of like-minded states with similar ideas on privacy, data flows, and the state’s use of technology – but India has played little role in these developments, which might potentially be among the most powerful and influential alignments of the 21st century.
The Indian state has already shown that it has the ability to shape interactions in its interests through Internet controls, social and digital media regulation, and the banning of Chinese apps – but most such interactions seem more geared for short-term benefits for the state rather than serving a long-term strategic perspective. For example, the banning of TikTok erased a platform that allowed many young Indians in smaller cities a way to interact and generate value from large audiences, while not significantly impacting Chinese interests in the subcontinent. Similarly, Internet shutdowns across the country have resulted in significant adverse economic impacts. To generate power in the 21st century, India must make it easier for its citizens to engage with the world and create value through interactions, which would require it to adhere to global Internet norms and adopt a policy stance that is uniform, consultative, and judicially prudent, creating a healthy, encouraging, and sustainable environment for such interactions.
Interstate competition and cooperation in the 21st century depends on the control of supply chains of value.
As noted earlier, states today compete by disrupting each other’s ability to derive value from interactions. The converse of this is that states can cooperate by helping each other generate value. This means two things for India: first, it must ensure that other states are less able to disrupt Indian citizens’ value-generating activities, which means building diverse supply chains for manufacturing, resilient and expansive communication networks, and extensive cybersecurity capabilities. Second, it must increase its ability to create value for international partners by growing into a reliable supplier for valuable products such as rare earth oxides, processor design, IT services, and so on. Simultaneously, it must seek to leverage international supply chains of value to its own benefit, attracting human capital for high-technology applications, seeking funding for its digital startups, and so on.
Today’s states share the same nature as the earliest ones, but the technological environment within which they operate has changed profoundly. It is hoped that this historical survey has provided sufficient context to broadly understand how and why they behave the way they do, and established a theoretical framework for understanding the actions of varied actors in the global arena.
We welcome your comments, thoughts, and feedback at research[at]takshashila[dot]org[dot]in.
 This perspective on statecraft is influenced by the work of political scientist James C. Scott.
 To be sure, gunpowder technology had existed from at least the 10th century CE, and was used extensively in the campaigns of the Mongols in the 13th century, but it was in the early modern period that it would become so effective that it began to fundamentally change the nature of warfare across Eurasia.