The New Imperialists

We are being colonised — but we just don’t know it

In the 1700s, the Ottoman Empire ruled in Persia, the Mughal Empire ruled over most of India and the Ming and Qing Dynasties ruled over most of China. Asia accounted for over 80% of global trade and the economies of its two largest countries — India and China — together contributed to two thirds of global production. Yet, despite the advantages of economic wealth, military strength and a long history of scientific accomplishments, in the course of two short centuries, Europeans penetrated every corner of the globe — from the west coast of South America to the Japanese islands and the Chinese mainland — completely supplanting Asian dominance.

I’ve often wondered how this came to be. How Europe, a culturally, economically and intellectually fallow land mass, became the undisputed economic master of the world.

In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that this was due to their discovery of ignorance. When Columbus accidentally stumbled upon America, Europe was forced to the uncomfortable realization that here was an entire continent they hadn’t heard of — that their supposedly infallible scriptures did not mention. All of a sudden, their entire world view seemed flawed and imprecise, spurring them to take unprecedented measures to fill the gaps in their knowledge. Various European nations launched grand voyages of discovery, dispatching merchant ships filled with botanists, cartographers and linguists to the corners of the earth, choosing, for the first time, to use their maritime prowess to acquire knowledge over territory.

This led to a new golden age of technology and the development of empire building innovations like the long distance telegraph and the railway network with which they connected and controlled large land masses in a way that no empire — not even the great Roman Empire — had yet managed to do. It gave rise to the growth of capitalist imperialism, the creation of Dutch joint stock companies and the British East India Co. But perhaps, most importantly, it resulted in empires that were built, for the first time in history, by merchants — not the monarchy.

These empires demanded new laws and regulations. Even as telegraph networks transformed communications, they altered the traditional legal understanding of defamation and libel. And while the expansion of the rail and postal infrastructure helped improve connectivity, they demanded a re-articulation of the concept of right of way and the creation of special dispensations for the corporations that operated them. In time, these mercantile operations assumed significant strategic importance in the foreign territories in which they operated, protected as they were, by both local law and control of the network infrastructure. When the European monarchy decided to formally integrate the colonies into the Empire, all they needed to do was nationalize this mercantile infrastructure. It was the perfect bloodless coup, complete before the local satraps even realized they’d been colonized.

Today there are no empires or colonies. If anything, nations have become more regional and insular. Modern multi-nation experiments like the European Union (the closest modern equivalent of an empire) are unravelling before our eyes. That said, we find ourselves in the midst of an extraordinary technological revolution — a modern renaissance that has fundamentally transformed the way we function. That has allowed us to leverage the borderless Internet and brought us closer despite the distances that separate us.

It has allowed the merchants of our age to build vast virtual networks and establish dominant global corporations without ever leaving their home country. Networks that have insinuated themselves into every country on the planet, in many cases offering infrastructure more reliable and ubiquitous than that provided by local governments. Networks that are so large that they individually have more active users than the population of even the largest countries on the planet. And, if you step back and look at their geographical spread, whose reach far exceeds the farthest extent of the consolidated European empire at the height of its glory.

In much the same way as European colonists did, these modern networks have distorted traditional legal frameworks, calling for special exemptions to be granted to networks in respect of their liability for content, new rules to govern contracts concluded online and even changes in the way traditional brick-and-mortar businesses (like taxi services) are regulated. Around the world, national governments are scrambling to amend their laws, so they can give their citizens access to these powerful new services.

I guess it’s superfluous to highlight that, almost without exception, the primary base of operations of these Internet giants is in one country — to whose laws they are all subject. As that country goes through the motions of electing a new leader, it is probably appropriate for the rest of us, located as we are in the colonial outposts of the Internet Age, to reflect on how that result could impact us.

After all, if we don’t learn from history, we will be doomed to repeat it.

This article was first published in The Mint under a column called Ex Machina — on law, technology and everything in between.