Issue 6 Uncategorized

What was Fashionable in 2020

The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) conducted their first-ever digital fashion week in September 2020, with each brand shooting fashion films which were broadcasted through social media and YouTube. Unlike normal fashion weeks, designers used this freedom to choose locations ranging from castles to lotus ponds and deserts. At the same time, fast fashion workers in Bangladesh and India were struggling to put food on the table due to the almost overnight collapse of the industry during the first wave of coronavirus across the world. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) estimated that between March and June this year, Bangladesh lost $4.9 billion worth of apparel in order cancellations. The fashion industry has always been one of the most glaring displays of class disparity in the world. How has it fared in our new COVID world?

“Work From Home Outfits” was the newest trend when the first series of worldwide lockdowns began due to COVID-19. How does one dress for a zoom call? Is bottom wear even important anymore now that your coworkers can only see your face during meetings? What does one do with all their party wear? Of course, these were questions only the more fortunate of us faced, while millions of essential workers were forced to wear their work uniforms or PPE and worry more about survival than fashion. But what about those people whose survival depended on fashion?

In January 2020, the Indian textiles industry was estimated at more than US$140 billion, with USD 40 billion in exports. It provided employment to over 45 million people directly and 60 million people indirectly. Like with every other industry, it closed down overnight with the announcement of the nationwide lockdown. But the industry was especially hard hit as export demand collapsed overnight. So producers across the chain — from raw materials, weavers, designers and tailors were left with an immense backlog of frozen inventory, with a very real possibility of much of the said inventory going to waste. The Worker Rights Consortium has compiled a list of companies that have and haven’t agreed to pay their suppliers. The have nots include regular offenders like Urban Outfitters and American Eagle, and surprisingly also include luxury brands like Balmain And Oscar De La Renta. Since the start of the pandemic, around 77% of workers claim that at least one member of their household has gone hungry. The second and third wave of lockdowns around the world is a cause for heightened fear for many owners of these manufacturing units as they see very little chance of survival if they face another major loss.

Much has been discussed about the impact of COVID on the fast fashion industry and it is essential to discuss given that India is an up-and-coming manufacturer for the industry. But what is perhaps more interesting is how small businesses in India have been impacted in the pandemic. Fast fashion is a relatively new player in India with H&M starting its first Indian store only in 2015. Fashion via e-commerce is an equally novel phenomenon, especially for smaller towns and cities where delivery services expanded to much later than they did in metropolitan cities. Before Indians had access to fast fashion to stay trendy for cheap, we would turn to local tailors with our magazine cutouts for everything from saree blouses to tops and formal suits. Tailoring was a family business for some and a means to start earning for countless women who couldn’t work in a professional setting.

Over time, with an increase in the variety of mass-produced clothes, people began to turn to tailors only for special occasions like weddings and festivals. The pandemic meant a complete halt for a majority of these events. For the first few phases of total lockdown, tailors had no income at all. A tailor from Pune said “Even after the lockdown was lifted, for a long time we had no customers because people were not celebrating anything and also did not want to come to my shop where we would have to make physical contact for trials and measurements. A lot of my clients also did not pick up outstanding orders saying they did not have money.” Many of these tailors have turned to selling homemade masks as their clients slowly return albeit in much smaller numbers than before. A majority of these smaller boutiques and tailors cater to lower and middle-income households who have also been hit by the pandemic and do not have money to spend on clothes. Even when people did shop, party clothes weren’t as much a necessity as your regular t-shirts and sweatpants for which we depend on fast fashion companies rather than tailors. While organisations like the FDCI did protect a handful of designers that are registered with their foundation, these smaller tailors have been left mostly helpless.

Since the start of the pandemic, much of the world that could move online has done so. In doing this, many fashion brands that were small businesses were able to establish themselves and survive. Even Instagram, a platform meant for sharing images, has realised this and made one of its biggest-ever changes in its application by replacing the user activities tab with a shopping tab. While controversial among its users, this change points to a larger trend of a rise in Instagram boutiques and stores. In India, many of these brands have grounded themselves in the idea of sustainability. Brands like Ash & Eden, Bodements, Renge and The Burnt Soul have started exclusively online stores and centre their production around sustainability. But more interesting is the exponential rise of Instagram thrift stores that India has seen in the past year. There are now thousands of thrift stores on the app, some of the most popular ones including Luu Liu (30K followers), Lust Thrift (21K followers), and Posh Past (14K followers). In spite of being launched in only in January of this year, Luu Liu has gained immense popularity and is a got to for corsets, something previously unavailable in the Indian market. COVID was the perfect setting for the thrift market to grow in India. Most people had switched to shopping online either out of necessity or as a precaution. The demographic of these stores as confirmed by the owners is of mostly women in their late teens to late twenties, an age group that is also proactive about environmental protection and sustainability. Also, many thrift store owners are located in areas like Delhi and the North-East, where they have access to large amounts of dead stock through wholesale markets like Sarojini Nagar in Delhi. Due to the unprecedented amounts of unsold inventory in fast fashion factories this year, designs usually sold in Europe and the USA were suddenly available to the Indian market through these stores. Unlike in the western world where thrifting generally relates to second-hand or vintage items, in India, thrifting centres around factory rejects due to our proximity to these factories. Most stores price their items fairly accessible. Shopping on these stores is a great pastime while staying indoors as the system is first-come-first-serve and there is usually only one of each item available. These stores also profited off the necessary narrative of “support small businesses” that was emphasised due to the pandemic.

While thrifting and sustainability are great developments, fashion in India hasn’t seen a major change due to COVID. Much like the rest of the economy, the fashion industry is slowly bouncing back to normal. And while this may be a welcome development for our tailors and small businesses, the workers in the fast fashion sector continue to suffer due to a lack of awareness in India. Parts of the world have begun questioning the unethical labour practices of fast fashion, but the message is yet to reach India and the inequalities continue here. Conversely, India is looking forward to expanding its production for these companies as they plan to move out of China. For now, while small businesses continue to suffer, major designers from Rahul Mishra to Manish Malhotra and Falguni Shane Peacock are back to creating Bridal and Wedding outfits for the wealthy families of the country for who the pandemic was all but a damper to their festivities.

Statistical research about thrift stores was done by Shruti Shrivastava, a student of journalism at Ashoka University.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 6 Uncategorized

The Job Market in 2021

The Indian job market is improving slowly and steadily over the past few months after declining by over  60% in April’20 and May’20 year-over-year (Y-O-Y) owing to the pandemic. Hiring is still down by 28% in Nov’20 versus the same time last year as per the Naukri JobSpeak Index. Even though the effect of the pandemic is still evident in Y-O-Y growth, what drives optimism for job seekers is the continued month on month recovery that makes us hopeful for the coming year.  

As organizations are realigning and adjusting to the new normal, they are anticipating an upsurge in the demand for the right talent to tackle challenges that the post-pandemic world would bring. One-fifth of total recruiters foresee hiring bouncing back to pre-COVID levels within the next three months, as per the Naukri Hiring Outlook survey done in Sept’20. Another 26% predict 3-6 months while 34% said that it would take their organizations 6 months to 1 year. 

Some notable trends that will become key in the Indian job market in the coming year include:  

Sectors that will drive hiring in 2021 

Technology has been the game-changer during the lockdown period with corporates showing a huge appetite for digitization. Clearly, the IT sector has been the least impacted sector when it comes to hiring this year. With more companies taking on the route of digital transformation during the pandemic, IT  becomes central to a lot of processes, further pushing the recovery of the sector. The numbers prove this as hiring in the IT sector grew by 10% in November’20 over October’20 while the overall hiring remained flat as per Naukri JobSpeak. This sector could see continued growth in the coming months as well.  

The BPO/ITES sector started the year with positive Y-O-Y growth, up by 18% in January’20 but saw a  decline in hiring as the pandemic hit the country. Interestingly, early signs of recovery were seen from  June’20 onwards as lockdown restrictions were lifted in a phased manner. With more WFH (Work From Home) support for employees and greater digitization efforts across companies, the sector will continue to see an uptick in hiring and remain one of the least impacted sectors in terms of hiring.  

One of the key sectors driving hiring in India this year has been the Medical/Healthcare sector, which was at the forefront of fighting the pandemic. As the demand to hire the right talent increased owing to the pandemic, the Medical sector was the first to bounce back in hiring in May’20 itself as compared to  April’20. The sector has shown strong sequential hiring trends thereafter and will hopefully continue to post more jobs in the coming year. With the vaccine in sight, it appears that the healthcare fraternity which has been single-mindedly focused on the pandemic will start catering to a larger variety of ailments, giving rise to hiring across different specializations. 

Sectors that will make a comeback in hiring 

The two sectors that took a major hit during the pandemic due to lockdown restrictions and social distancing norms were the Hospitality/ Travel and Retail sectors. Hospitality was down by 91% in April’20 and Retail experienced a 77% decline in hiring Y-O-Y. With 5-star Hotels starting home deliveries, and retail outlets developing online trial rooms, both industries found novel methods to integrate technology to deliver their offerings to customers and we saw it reflect in a slow but steady sequential recovery over the year, which will continue in the coming year. There is a lot of pent up demand in this sector 

and with the coming of vaccines, this sector may very well become the sunshine sector in a post-pandemic world. 

Education/Teaching was one of the sectors that saw a sharp decline in hiring in the early days of the lockdown but showed quick signs of recovery as the pandemic pushed academicians and teachers to plunge into the online mode of teaching. This adoption of technology-driven teaching is set to transform the traditional Education/Teaching industry in India in the coming year as well. The movement towards online learning has expedited the need for teaching tools to adapt its delivery of study material for students. This has boosted recruiter demand for a very specific skill called ‘Instructional Design’ that combines education with technology and communication.  

 Hybrid Working Model will be the future 

One of the most interesting behavioural shifts that the Indian workforce has seen as a green shoot to the pandemic is the remote working culture. Led by the pandemic, hiring for remote jobs has increased by 3X as compared to pre-COVID levels this year. Sectors such as BPO/ITES, IT,  Education/Teaching and Internet/Ecommerce are major contributors to WFH jobs posted on  

Greater acceptance of remote working will pave the way for a hybrid-working model in the coming future. Interestingly, as per a recent Naukri survey done with over 4000 jobseekers, a majority of the jobseekers (59%)  prefer a hybrid model of working. A significant 76% of employees confirmed that WFH is equally or more productive than working in an office. The jobseekers’ insight mirrors the recruiters’ perspective as well. Around 69% of recruiters out of 1000 surveyed also feel that WFH is equally or more productive. With companies taking measures to ease their employees into the WFH culture, this trend is clearly is here to stay.  

Upskilling to stay relevant for career progression 

Up-skilling will be the key to be employable in the coming year. As per the recent Naukri Jobseeker Survey conducted with 50,000 job seekers, more than 50% job seekers are focusing on self-development through up-skilling, brushing their domain knowledge and well as taking professional help in building their resumes. Courses such as Data Analytics, Digital Marketing and Finance Management remain the top picks for up-skilling. Even soft skills have become integral as working conditions have changed, and there is a  preference for those who can collaborate remotely, communicate effectively and manage their time well, without the confines of an office setup.  

Remote Hiring will be the new norm 

Since most companies will be hiring virtually in the coming year, job seekers should focus on preparing for online assessment & virtual interviews. Top HR Experts recommend getting comfortable with the webcam as campus hiring too has taken a remote approach,  and candidates are being judged on how well they adapt to situations outside their comfort zone.  

Freelancing and Part-time roles will gain popularity 

In this tough job market, job seekers should be open to freelancing and part-time jobs to gain some experience in their respective domains. Instead of only focusing on full-time roles, picking up work on a  project basis to strengthen the resume will be key and will become a tool to network with prospective clients too. 

As organizations pace up their growth plans in the coming year, a requirement for those who can help in digital transformation and develop innovative methods to deliver products and services to customers will see a rise. With companies becoming leaner, there will be an expectation to work cross-functionally and go beyond the scope of the job description. It would be interesting to see the evolution of both hiring and working in the coming year.

Zahabiya Kinkhabwala is a marketing manager at

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


Issue VI: Editors’ Note

Come December, we always look back at the year gone by – introspecting, making resolutions for the coming year, and subconsciously accepting that these promises won’t be followed through. 2020 has been different. We have seen the repercussions of being lax with our concerns about safety. We have had a lot to think about, much of it being intense questions about the global systems, difficult realisations about failures and acknowledgement about the need to change old paradigms. In this issue, we reflect upon hopes and concerns, looking back at 2020 while also looking ahead to 2021.

We look at how the pandemic has changed us: we have been compelled to have certain conversations, and working from home has become the norm. To understand how our everyday struggles may have taught us more about ourselves than we realise, we explore humour as it creates a channel for a personal look at the lockdown. 

From the point of view of economics, where exactly does India stand in the world now? Domestically, what challenges does the future hold for India’s business families? Drawing the lens away, what is the history of the minimum support price in the Indian agro-market and what are the two sides that make it contentious now? How then, do we combat misinformation and ‘make the world add up’? 

In dreary times, many of us have taken to the online space to find corners of entertainment. In the move towards more diverse and accessible content, we bring Indie film recommendations, the five you must watch. Has our patriotism evolved with our films? What can we learn about the different literary prizes? These are all extremely important questions to take into the next year as we consume an ever-increasing plethora of content. What we must also keep in mind are the impact of social media, and technology on the ethics surrounding journalism.

2020 has also faced us with intense climate change calamities and it has become more important than ever to look at 2021 with hope for genuine action, but is the world up for it? Despite the pandemic, we have seen environmental protests sustain, but what does it take for environmental movements to truly work?

Bringing our gaze back to the personal, we look at how masks have been incorporated into fashion, while our daily fashion itself seems to have been metamorphosed by the culture of work-from-home.

2020 has been bizarre and intense. This issue looks at transformation, what can this year tell us about what’s to come? Is it possible for the transition to 2021 to be seamless?

–Aradhya Sharma, Mansi Ranka, and Sanya Chandra

Picture Credit: Getty Images

Issue 5 Uncategorized

The Dichotomy Of Constitutional and Social Morality In India

In January this year, India’s union cabinet amended the 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act. The amendment raises the legally permissible limit for an abortion to 24 weeks from the previous limit of 20 weeks. and now also acknowledges the failure of contraception as an acceptable reason for an abortion. Along with that, the law now also acknowledges the failure of contraception as an acceptable reason for abortion and has been extended to any woman or her partner replacing the old provision that was only for married women, placing India in the top league of counties serving women who wish to make individual choices as part of reproductive and gender rights. 

At a time when United States‘s Roe V. Wade is under scrutiny, and Poland’s abortion laws have been restricted even further, it’s surprising that despite being a relatively conservative nation, India has one of the most progressive laws around abortion in the world. Though it may be assumed that this is a result of India’s culture and norms, especially since sex-selected abortions have been commonly practiced throughout the subcontinent, it seems to have more to do with India’s constitutional morality and the distinction it makes its majoritarian social morality. 

The general consensus in political theory is that laws and people evolve together, hand in hand. The changes made to laws are a result of a change in attitudes, beliefs, and norms. However, this isn’t necessarily the case in India. The Indian constitution and legal framework, instead, was created to be an instrument of social change. India being a nation entrenched in traditions, religion, caste hierarchies, its founding members understood that the way to change the country into a liberal democracy was to create and use progressive laws and liberal principles to shape the nation’s culture and norms. 

“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top –dressing on Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” – B.R Ambedkar. 

Constitutional morality, according to Ambedkar referred to the adherence to core values of India’s constitution, that extended to create a society based on social, economic, political equality, and justice. This wasn’t just limited to the constitutional provisions literally but was vast enough to ensure the commitment to constitution values over what was considered socially moral. 

In the landmark 2018 Navtej Singh Johar case, which pertained to the criminalization of non-heterosexual sexual acts, the supreme court scrapped the law saying that “constitutional morality cannot be martyred at the altar of social morality”. The same law was challenged in Singapore a few months after India’s judgment but was rejected on the grounds of threatening public morality. According to Anand Grover, a senior advocate practicing in the Supreme Court of India, “Singapore courts appear to follow the “literal” interpretation of fundamental rights whereas we in India interpret fundamental rights in an expansive way that there is such as a huge difference in the result, especially on the notions of equality which is still tied only to the classification test”.

Similarly, in the Sabrimala judgment regarding the restriction of women that belonged to a certain age group into the Sabrimala temple in Kerela, the courts observed that “existing structures of social discrimination must be evaluated through the prism of constitutional morality. The endeavor is to produce a society marked by compassion for every individual”. 

The Sabarimala verdict was historic because unlike abortion and section 377, the Sabarimala judgment couldn’t have been attributed to anything other than constitutional morality. There is some ambiguity about how abortion and members of the LGBTQ+ community are seen in India’s cultural history, but the Sabarimala judgment was clearly against what has been a belief and a social practice for many years now. The verdict and social morality were are a clear-cut clash, and the violent opposition and widespread protests against the verdict were proof of that. However, despite that, the law and constitutional values were upheld. 

Unfortunately, since the gaps between the constitutional and social morality are so wide, and overturning in the former doesn’t necessarily lead to a change in the latter. Even after the Sabarimala judgment was passed in 2018. only a handful of women have been able to enter the temple, either because their entrance is blocked or they’re forced to leave. However, more importantly, the number of women who’ve entered the temple isn’t just low due to the difficulties of entering the temple, but also because most women also believe that it is wrong for them to enter the temple between their menstruating years. Similarly, despite the NALSA judgment which identified trans people as people of the third gender and affirmed that fundamental rights will be equally applicable to them, and section 377, members of the LGBTQ+ community still face discrimination often in the form of violence. 

With that being said, constitutional morality does play a pivotal role in shaping India, even if that process is very slow. Abortion was made legal 70 years ago in India, yet up until 2014, 78% of all annual abortions were unsafe, likely due to lack of education, accessibility, and the stigma attached to the act. It is important to note that illegal sex-selective abortions are unlikely to play a role because 81% of most of these abortions happen during the first trimester, before 12 weeks, while the sex of a fetus is usually detected by sonography after the 13th week. With the aid help of educational initiatives and proactive policies such as the Yukti Yojana in Bihar, a public-private partnership where women can access abortion care free of cost from accredited private providers, the percentage of annual unsafe abortions has decreased from a staggering 78% to a 56% in 2017. Maternal mortality rates, due to unsafe abortions have also decreased from 13% or 8%

Aradhya is a student of Psychology, Biology and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


The Queen’s Gambit

In late October, Netflix released its new miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit. A riveting drama that follows the rise of chess prodigy Beth Harmon (portrayed by Anna Taylor Joy), the show is set in the 1960s as Harmon battles her inner demons that stem from the trauma of her mother’s death from an accident. As she grows up in an orphanage, she learns chess from a janitor who happens to be a chess enthusiast keen on teaching her as he learns of her ability to be a skilled player. Thus begins her journey with chess. 

The plot of The Queen’s Gambit is very engrossing and coherent. As it progresses, it magnificently weaves characters from various phases of Harmon’s life as she battles addiction, loneliness and insecurities with great passion and perseverance. Anna Taylor Joy’s portrayal of the protagonist is a marvel to watch. Creators Frank and Allan Scott have done a great job weaving Harmon’s story as she makes her way to the most coveted tournaments. 

Under Scott Frank’s direction, the show has achieved some great frames with its stunning portrayal of the 50s and 60s. The aesthetic seems spot on and is visually very appealing. 

For chess aficionados, the show can be a marvel to watch. The show was received well for accurately portraying chess moves as well. Even if you are not familiar with the most basic chess rules, there is no instance where the discussing of strategies and the analyzing of the chess boards will bore you. Instead, it allows you a look at the work that has gone in the making of the adept chess players that the characters are. Get used to the rush every time you hear about the sicilian opening! 

Another highly commendable aspect of the show is its impeccable soundtrack. The songs go very well with the scenes, be it pensive, melancholic or rebellious. Most of these songs are soul and rock music from the 60s and are just perfect in the context they are used. 
The entire cast does a brilliant job of elaborating on the several tropes explored in the show. Even with so many complex storylines, it is interesting how chess always alludes to one way or the other. It’s simply brilliant writing and proficient execution. All in all The Queen’s Gambit is a must-watch.


The Shadow King

The Shadow King treads different territory, each more skillful than the last. The novel speaks of violence with a degree of care, exposing vulnerabilities, limitations but also strengths and motivations of the women who went to war. It breaks down perceived dichotomies– public and private, men and women, outside and inside.

The beginning introduces a scene of the interiority of Kidane and Aster’s home; and the orphan who is now living with them– Hirut. One realises the affective appeal of these characters as well as that of Wujira, Hirut’s rifle. Maaza Mengiste interweaves the personal narratives of war with its more public ones. She manages to humanise actors through its writing and gradual laying bare of facts. For instance, Aster, mourns the loss of her child while at the same time exhibiting sheer jealousy of Hirut. It is skilful in its lucid and thorough representation of overlooked ideas– one emotion doesn’t define a character; one aspect doesn’t define a story. This is reminiscent in the interspersed chapters which follow Hirut, the Italian colonel Fucelli and the photographer, Ettore Navarra.

Set in the context of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Mengiste does not fall into the hackneyed portrayal of women in war zones where they cease to be entities in their own right but are reduced to the tropes of mothers, monsters or whores. At the crux of it, the novel is a story of power, and power dynamics, asserted through violence, sexual and otherwise. All in all, The Shadow King has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, and rightly so.


AI Could Be China’s Next Big Foreign Policy Tool

In June 2020, the Indian government banned the Chinese owned social networking app TikTok. The move was motivated by concerns over safety of the users’ data. Similar concerns have also sparked debate within the US government on banning the app. Although Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat are facing opposition, AI powered Chinese surveillance technologies are being increasingly employed around the world. As their popularity increases, these technologies have the potential to become powerful foreign policy tools. 

In 2015, the Chinese government announced Made in China 2025, a 1.68 trillion dollar plan aimed at achieving global AI dominance by the year 2030. In 2018, China also announced its AI Innovation Action Plan for Colleges and Universities, a plan to make Chinese education institutions the hotbed for AI innovation by 2030. Chinese state-backed investment banks are also continuously investing in Chinese AI startups. For example, the Chinese Electronics Technology group, a state owned company, owns 42% of the video-surveillance company Hikvision through its subsidiaries. Since 2017, $30 billion dollars have been invested in Chinese AI firms by both private and state investors. Although investment in AI is booming around the world, the Chinese state without an independent judiciary holds asymmetric power over AI startups. When the state does not indirectly own the start-ups, it can easily persuade them to share the data they collect with them. The Chinese state is also one of the biggest customers of these AI firms, further increasing chances of collaboration. For example, HikVision received a $290 million contract from the Chinese state in Xinjiang. Thus, Chinese AI start-ups become extensions of the Chinese state. 

China has already begun perfecting a system of mass surveillance in the region of Xinjiang. The region is increasingly being outfitted with surveillance cameras equipped with sophisticated facial recognition technology developed by state-backed Chinese AI firms. Citizens are constantly monitored in public places and various checkpoints around the cities. Other personal information, including an individual’s purchase history, address, family-links,  and biometric data are all linked together to create a comprehensive, all-seeing system. Residents of Xinjiang are also required to install mobile apps that monitor their phones for religious content. These apps can scan chats for verses of the Quran, religious books stored on the phone, donations made to religious organisations, or even a simple association with someone who attends mosques. If flagged, a citizen’s movement can be severely restricted, and in the worst case scenario, the citizen could be detained. 

Although Xinjiang represents the most intrusive form of Chinese surveillance, it does not mean that other regions of the country are not under the state’s watchful eye. The Great Chinese firewall continuously monitors and filters content on the internet. Chinese cities are dotted with surveillance cameras just like Xinjiang. Chinese social media apps have also become tools of surveillance. The most popular Chinese social media app is WeChat which serves as a social media app, a news app, a dating app, a ticket booking platform and a payment app. The app is used by around 1 billion Chinese citizens. The app was found to be monitoring content shared by its users. Various private pilot projects for a social credit system with an eventual plan for a state-backed national rollout are also underway. Scoring badly on the system may prevent a citizen from “travelling, buying property, or taking out loans”. Chinese AI firms are also perfecting smart-city projects which can track criminals, large crowds, and guide traffic, further increasing the scope for surveillance. Used together, this allows the Chinese state to track the movements, associations, and purchases of its citizens both online and offline. 

Chinese AI technology is also in demand internationally. Malaysian police are being outfitted with facial recognition cameras by Chinese firm Yitu. These cameras can match the faces of criminals in a central police database. Zimbabwe signed an agreement in March 2018 with Chinese firm CloudWalk to create an expansive facial recognition system for surveillance and law enforcement. China plans to offer its surveillance expertise to suppress terrorism in Pakistan as a part of its CPEC project. China will also offer “safe-city” programs to track explosives in conflict-ridden cities like Peshawar. Chinese firm Dahua has installed its “Intelligent Transportation System” to detect traffic violations and monitor blacklisted cars. Serbia, Kenya, Uganda, and Egypt have also inked similar deals with Chinese AI firms. As Chinese AI becomes more sophisticated and its demand increases globally, it will come to play an increasingly pivotal role in Chinese foreign policy. 

According to International Relations theory, one of the primary motivations driving a country’s foreign policy is self-preservation. A country’s actions towards others would primarily be influenced by ensuring the stability of its regime and strengthening its internal political control. Threats to regime stability can arise both internally and externally. Thus, states could be expected to act against both international and domestic threats. 

For an authoritarian regime, external threats could take the form of democracy-promotion measures taken by an international democratic bloc or waves of democratisation. Internally, threats could take the form of dissent from the civil society. 

International pressures to democratise can take many forms. Democratic states can enforce economic sanctions on authoritarian states. These states can also prevent authoritarian states from accessing important international institutions. Further, aid, investment, or bailout packages are also used as bait to bring about democratisation. 

An international authoritarian bloc, facing democratisation pressures, can choose to collaborate using collective agreements signed with an autocratic great power. The threat of escalation would prevent pro-democratic blocs to put pressure on individual authoritarian states. An authoritarian superpower can also represent and support smaller allies in international institutions and also become a source for economic and political assistance. This further allows smaller authoritarian states to repel democratisation pressures. 

Active democracy promotion isn’t the only threat to the regime stability of authoritarian states. The mere existence of successful democracies can spark up domestic opposition. In such a case, the maintenance of stable and economically successful authoritarian regimes becomes important to legitimise the regime type itself. The higher the number of authoritarian regimes, the more likely they are to be considered a legitimate form of political organisation. 

This is where Chinese AI tools gain political salience. China has long resisted pressures of democratisation despite a surging educated middle-class. Its use of technology in monitoring information and surveilling its citizens can partly explain the stability of its regime. These technologies of social control, with its proven effectiveness in China, can be used as extremely potent leverages to create alliances in the international arena. It wouldn’t be a surprise if leaders around the world are tempted to use China’s AI technology to ensure the survival of their regimes. Further, building alliances on the basis of AI can also lead to the creation of an international authoritarian bloc. This bloc can successfully resist pressures to democratise further securing domestic authoritarian regimes. Numerous stable authoritarian regimes can also grant legitimacy to themselves, further repelling pressures to democratise. 

Additionally, if an authoritarian regime comes up with a new and effective model of social control, it can also be expected to export that model to other regimes around the world. China has already proven that its expansionary measures are aimed at achieving global leadership. The “China model” – which marries economic freedom and industrial growth with absolute political and social control – can be expected to be exported around the world. A key part of the Chinese model is its surveillance state. For states looking to emulate China’s success, access to its surveillance technology would prove to be crucial. In such a case, the surveillance model it is currently perfecting in Xinjiang can become an even more powerful bargaining tool. 

Despite massive leaps, China still is not the global leader in AI. Most surveillance technologies are also in the nascent stages of their development. However, fuelled by its commitment and impressive investments, China is well on its path to dominate with its increasingly sophisticated technology. Mobile phones and internet connectivity are becoming more and more accessible with every passing day. We have also observed a surge in authoritarian states who will find China’s AI driven surveillance attractive. China has recognised AI’s potential very early on. Will it end up making all the difference? 

Pravish is a student of Political Science, International Relations, Economics and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


Bringing The Boys to Life in Trump’s America

Image credits: SKetch (Instagram: @sketchbysk)

“With great power comes great responsibility”, these words, said by Uncle Ben in the Spiderman comics and movies, became Peter Parker’s guiding principles in his pursuit against crime. The same principles apply to most mainstream superheroes that choose to use their powers for the benefit of humanity and often seem to only do the “rightthing. Amazon Prime Video’s hit show ‘The Boys’ takes a more realistic view of superheroes, where these super-powered individuals are employed by a powerful corporation Vought International, which markets and monetizes them. Most of these heroes are arrogant and corrupt outside of the public eye. While the show is meant to be extremely weird and unrealistic, something about it makes it seem very real…

“Sounds like the American thing to do, sounds like the right thing to do” while this may sound like a line from President Trump’s rally speeches, and in all probability is – it was actually said by Homelander, the American flag-cape-wearing leader of the Seven (Vought’s strongest superhero team) during a believe expo for “honest Christians”.

The most powerful superhero has much more in common with Donald Trump than you might think. Both Homelander and Trump are in positions of extreme power and seem to want to use their powers to protect the American citizens from the evils the rest of the world hurls at their country. While American presidents through the 21st century have championed globalization and have actively tried to create a global community, we have witnessed a globalization backlash under Trump’s presidency with the intention of protecting American interests. Similarly, Homelander is different from the traditional superhero who wants to protect the world and chooses to project himself as America’s savior. We see clear instances of this when the Corporate executives of Vought tell Homelander his brand is “America, baseball and sunshine”. When after a focus group comes up with the tagline of “Saving The World”, Homelander bulldozes his way through corporate to make it “Saving America”. Trump speaks about the Chinese stealing American jobs and Mexicans raping American women and Homelander is on a mission to protect Americans from “foreign” extremists. While Trump uses isolated incidents and stereotypes around non-white demographics being involved in criminal activities or stealing jobs to build hype for his immigration policies and the border wall, Homelander uses a plane highjacking as an opportunity to make a case for superheroes in the military. Both Trump and Homelander hence seem to strive in situations of chaos, choosing to add to the chaos in order to further their personal agendas.

Gökarıksel et al in their work categorize this ability to amass a following by propagating fear through partly rooted facts as “demographic fever dreams”. The nightmarish “dream” implies an orientation toward the future, that is demographically apocalyptic for the dominating population hence calling for active, often violent intervention. While we have seen politicians use rhetoric about the class divide to appeal to sections of the masses, the fever dream created by Trump is quite different as it manages to break class barriers by uniting white Americans across class divisions through an embodied fear of the toxic other. The same demographic fever dream is quite openly displayed in the setting of ‘The Boys’. Eric Kripke the creator of the television series quite explicitly stated that he tried to bring out “the worst of politics”. The show as he states is very reflective of the world we are currently living in – “a blurred line between authoritarianism, fascism, and celebrity.” While ‘The Boys’ captures these themes it also shows how Homelander (just like Trump) projects himself as the hero who is going to protect “his people” from these external threats. 

Not only do Homelander and Trump have the same rhetoric and use demographic differences as a political tool but they also have very similar personality traits. Homelander is self-centered, craves public approval, and is highly concerned about his ratings. He has a team of PR specialists running his social media accounts to make sure his public image remains untainted and constantly keeps a check on his public rating. A superpowered being that has the ability to destroy anyone or anything seems more affected by his public reputation than terrorists and supervillains. Homelander in one instance lets a plane filled with passengers crash so that his inability to save all passengers doesn’t impact his and his team’s image. The most panic you see on the face of this superhero is when he finds out his approval ratings fell by 9 points.

Blonde hair, white male, cheeky smile, self-obsessed, xenophobic, erratic, and a public image built over love for his country. Is Homelander Donald Trump in a cape? 

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


Humans v. AI: How automated decision making is a game changer for legal liability

The Trolley Problem, like many thought experiments, has a pervasive shelf life. There is little to add to its 50-year-old documented history in and outside classrooms—except to add a footnote about its strange popularity in autonomous vehicle circles. This is evidenced by its crowdsourced avatar dubbed ‘Moral Machine’, that has been an inspiration to computer scientists and engineers within the Silicon Valley counter culture. 

Fiercely debated and disavowed by philosophers, ethicists and behavioural psychologists, it seems, we begin exactly where the trolley problem ends—the complexity of the real-time decision making and messy morality in the aftermath of the loss of a human life. The trolley problem isn’t theoretical anymore and neither are the algorithms that sought to adapt it to the digital age.

Our case in point—In 2018, Silicon Valley awoke to an autonomous Uber killing a 49-year-old pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. As one reporter succinctly summarised—what happens when a two-ton machine, one that is run by an assortment of sensors and computers and makes decisions foreign to human reasoning, comes in contact with the all too human textures of urban life?

A growing demand for and interest in scholarship, at the intersection of law and technology, identifies the immediate and real puzzles for legal systems, the state and tech corporations. The levers pulled by these three key actors will lay much of the groundwork and have the battle lines drawn.

The State and Digital Governance 

A public-private partnership paradigm forms much of the situational context of the testing and adoption of autonomous vehicles in cars and other cyber-physical systems. When we consider the question of state responsibility or even liability in the aftermath of crashes in testing zones or general roll out areas, this partnership between the state and tech corporations is increasingly transforming governance and producing new modes of surveillance. The question, as Jack Balkin put, is not if there will be a Surveillance State, but who is better suited to lead the Surveillance State? Big Tech is certainly an unprecedented contender. 

New forms of governance are emerging in a transnational zone of ‘legal indistinction’, an operational space bound by legal systems specific to nations but beyond their borders. Here, the Tech Corporation, authorised by the state, exerts influence and dictates norms on issues that range from cybersecurity, surveillance, intellectual property, user privacy and most recently, pandemic contact tracing. In the case of the recent self-driving car crashes, the state liability for allowing autonomous cars without sufficient oversight is unlikely to fly as a legal standard outside of issues of faulty state-built infrastructure. Only a legislative attempt can compensate for the regulatory failure in establishing safety standards or oversight.

The Determination of Legal Liability and Compensation

Over the past decade, legal scholars have described the situation of ‘identifying legal liability for autonomous decision-making software powered vehicles’ to be a grey area where the law runs out. This typically creates room for courts to consider questions of legal liability, compensation and criminal action, while creating new legal tests and establishing precedent. However, the other key trend in the legal responses in autonomous vehicle crashes reveals the use of the doctrine of product liability instead of vehicular negligence in cases featuring damage caused by autonomous vehicles. What is clear to researchers working at the intersection of law and technology, is that the current trend of moving cases involving autonomous vehicle collisions away from criminal liability and courts, and towards civil suits and settlements, will prove to be a missed opportunity. This is because it can potentially chip away at the ability of courts to adjudicate or set new precedent. It also makes the debate on ‘product liability’ a fierce contest studied by both legal scholars and economists. Thus, there is a trade-off between allowing these cases to be heard in court, chipping away at the significant role legal systems could potentially play while regulators play catch up, and the project to raise public knowledge and civil society awareness about autonomous decision making is put at risk. 

Scholars like Bryan Smith point out that a shift from the doctrine of vehicular negligence to ‘product liability’ in the short run advances the prevention of injury and the compensation of victims, while keeping the calculations of compensation fairly private between the tech companies and any human victims. In an economic context, the shift to ‘producer’s responsibility’ is a debate on its own, whether it’s regulating the drivers, self-driving manufacturer, lawmakers or the car itself! 

Legal protections and tech corporations

A culture of codified secrecy is hardly new to the corporate form. A direct line can be traced from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and by extension between the legal personhood afforded to Big Banks and Big Tech. It is interesting to think about the distinctions drawn between financial and personal information in the digital age. The contrast almost vanishes when we consider Big Tech and its successful campaign as the dominant corporate form, surpassing even Big Banks in their ability to amass information and then bundling it so all information becomes inherently financial in our new digitally enabled surveillance paradigm. 

In the age of algorithms, a behind the scenes look into the secretive and complex business models, practices and interfaces of leading tech platforms are critical both for users and governments. These are referred to as ‘Black Box Systems’ precisely because they enhance the legal and real secrecy afforded by algorithms and automated systems to tech companies. They become a blind spot to both regulators and consumers at large.  Algorithms, which are largely covered by existing intellectual property standards, have also revived interest in property rights for the digital age. 

More and more predictive algorithms are impacting every aspect of our lives. The paucity of enforcement activity, requiring moral justification and rationale, makes it harder to track illegal or ethical discrimination carried out during self-driver crashes. Frank Pasquale highlighted how predictive algorithms mine personal information to make guesses about individuals’ likely actions and risks. Thus, it becomes imperative to explore the consequences to human values of fairness and justice, when scoring machines make judgments about individuals in order to avoid arbitrary and discriminatory ways.

An unlikely but growing collaboration between independent researchers, former/current Big Tech employees, legal and civil rights activists, has been instrumental in making the implications of automated decision making public knowledge. This offers critical momentum for regulators and legal systems as they play catch up to Big Tech’s bullish attempts to drive both the adoption and research into cyber-physical systems. Most recently, Amazon’s controversial facial recognition software and the company’s aggressive campaign for adoption by law enforcement came under scrutiny by several independent AI researchers, who detailed the higher error rates in identifying women of colour. 

While shaping the future of AI, tech companies’ input is essential, however, they cannot retain absolute power on how their systems impact the society or on how we evaluate the impact morally. In order to boost accountability and transparency, governments need to support independent AI research, create incentives for the industry to cooperate and use that leverage to demand that tech companies share data in properly-protected databases, with access granted to publicly-funded artificial intelligence researchers.

The ‘internet of things’ is growing exponentially, generating unprecedented volumes of data. With autonomous vehicles hitting the roads in increasing numbers and lives at stake, it is necessary to ensure that the liable party is held accountable when things go utterly wrong. The goal of economists, lawyers and policymakers alike then, would be to come up with a ‘pareto optimal’ scenario, while assuring that each party involved does not take undue advantage of each other.

Arushi Massey is a research and teaching fellow at the Department of Political Science at Ashoka University. Her research focuses on the digital political economy and questions at the intersection of law and social theory.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


To End or Not to End Privacy

Imagine, if you will, a murder. Some letters are found, all written in a strange language. In Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” it took Sherlock Holmes to decipher such a script and find the murderer.

Inventing a secret language is rather difficult, except that we now have standardized ways to do it: encryption algorithms. Essentially, we have language-inventing software, which can create different languages based on a secret password. If you know the password, you can translate the language back into plain English. Today’s techniques produce incredibly secure ciphers that would leave even Holmes clueless. 

This has led to governments trying to subvert or weaken cryptography. Inevitably, every time an atrocity occurs, we hear this argument again and again. Donald Trump has stated that the US should be able to “penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is and everything about ISIS.” It was perhaps David Cameron who best articulated this sentiment: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people, which even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally, that we cannot read? … are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn’t possible to do that? My answer is no, we are not.” The justification, of course, is that these powers are needed by “intelligence agencies and security agencies and policing in order to keep our people safe.”

The “deal”, then, is this: You can communicate securely, as long as you make the encryption easy enough for The Government to decipher. This “easy enough” requirement is currently being enforced by various means, including the infiltration and bribery of companies that produce commercial cryptographic software. Many activists and technologists have written about the ethical problems with having a government that is capable of snooping on all of our communications. I argue that legalising this is not only unethical, but operationally impossible.

I am sure you can already spot the problem — if something is easy enough for one person to decipher, then it is easy enough for many others. You cannot have one and not the other, since our government employees are not magically cleverer than their US, Chinese, or Russian counterparts, or the many cyber-criminals that prowl the internet. Broken security renders us vulnerable to anyone with the expertise, not just some government agencies. Mathematical laws care little for the laws of any country.

A commonly proposed solution is for the government to have some kind of “backdoor,” such as a master key. This is difficult to do, both technically and operationally. Given that we have substantial problems implementing and deploying our current (comparatively simple) systems, shifting to such a complicated new technology would inevitably lead to more security holes.

Even if one government has a master key for a certain set of encryption systems, we still have problems. What if the master key gets stolen? We are artificially introducing a critical weakness — such a key would certainly be a prime target for any adversary, and having the key stolen is not a negligible possibility. Over the past few years, hackers have been able to steal everything from the blueprints of the F-35 fighter jet, to financial data from credit rating agencies, to healthcare data from hospitals. Trusting governments with master keys when they haven’t been able to safeguard their own military technology seems like a terrible idea.

Further, if a criminal knows that the government has a master key to software #420, she’s not going to use it. She’ll find a system with no master key (these, of course, already exist). So, the people suffering from weak encryption are mostly going to be law-abiding citizens, who will now be more vulnerable to hackers.

The global nature of the internet adds yet another layer to this. Other governments are not going to sit around and use compromised (from their point of view) communication systems – they’ll build their own software, probably with their own master keys, and stop trusting software made by residents of other countries, essentially creating import control on software. How would multinational companies secure their data? Would they be required to provide keys to every government in the world, or, perhaps a branch of the UN? The creation of a global body to govern these master keys presents a herculean challenge. Further, nothing prevents the governments from adding their own backdoors to subvert that body as well.

Practically every expert in the field believes that subverting cryptosystems (and the bulk surveillance that inevitably accompanies it) is foolish, immoral, and dangerous.

This is why companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are supporting stronger encryption. Some people who don’t really understand how encryption works have come up with many good reasons for exceptional access backdoors and opined that regulators and legislators must find a way to provide some privacy while allowing law enforcement access. This won’t work. Yes, there are many good reasons for having backdoors (roll-down windows on airplanes might have many advantages), but the numerous fatal problems that they create should have obviated this discussion long ago. Governments should stop trying to build backdoors and support strong, end-to-end security and privacy.

Debayan Gupta is currently an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Ashoka University, where he teaches a course on security and privacy as well as an introductory programming class. He is also a visiting professor and research affiliate at MIT and MIT-Sloan.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).