The World in the Womb of Virus

Covid pandemic may not change history but it will certainly accelerate it

Faheem Gundroo

ON new year's eve I was talking to my friend on skype. We usually catch up after every few days. At times talking for hours. With best friends time evaporates. Horas Volat as they say in Latin. I don't exactly remember what triggered our point of discussion: but now in hindsight it was a very insightful discourse.

World was entering into a new decade. We listed out companies and businesses that will flourish in the new decade. Historically previous predictions have almost all fallen on dead ground. No one had imagined on 31st December 2009 that Amazon and Apple would grow its business almost 10 times in 2010s. Amazon of course has out grown from an online retailer and has invested heavily into web services and cloud computing. Apple has grown from a niche market into a global corporate giant with foot prints almost all over the world. If you had invested $1000 in Apple shares on 31st December 2009, it would be worth $13000 now! An increase of 1200%. Clearly technology was at the forefront in 2010s, but what about 2020s?

I argued that we will be in for a surprise. New technologies would emerge but not take over as we expect them. Bit coins, big data will exist but its climate that is going to hog the limelight in 2020s. Industries and companies that invest in alternatives to fossil fuels will emerge out. I had my reasons. Working in ICT industry, over last few years I witnessed there have been multiple plans to enhance technologies and move towards digitalization but things largely have grown slowly. Couple of reasons for it were: industry unpreparedness and markets still unripe for massive digitalization. My friend Mohsin argued against it. It was technology for him. He expected massive strides in this decade.

Six months into the new decade and it seems both of us were right. The covid-19 pandemic has thrown all possibilities out. We are looking at a change not only at political level but almost at all levels.

With most of the people working from home, schools holding classes online, universities operating, the amount of data consumption has surged through skies. The current technologies are not capable enough of transmitting high speeds to large populations. In this event 5G technology becomes important. It is capable of providing speeds in excess of 1GiG. This was unthinkable 5 years back. This not only means access to high speeds for end users but potentially transforming how we operate right now. Its utilization is in smart machines which need no human intervention, driver-less cars, health care, manufacturing.

To think of it, the world even though had made huge strides in last century, yet it was reluctant to disregard old habits. Our way of working and functioning is primitive. It is an industrial revolution era mode of operation where productivity is measured by the amount of hours you work. It made sense when a worker had to put certain hours to extract work from mechanical machines. With technology at hand it doesn't matter. It is more about smart work. Productivity has new benchmarks.

There is a very interesting side to 5G development. More than 60% of worlds 5G equipment is provided by China, through its main tech companies Huawei and ZTE. For China, 5G is the means to assert its strength to rest of the world. Why is China eager not to miss this opportunity? To understand its genesis I remember what Winston Churchill once said, 'The farther backward you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.'

Roughly between 1750 and 20th century nearly all explanations for why West ruled were variations on the long term lock-in-theme. The most popular version being that Europeans were simply culturally superior to everyone else. The oriental writers further fueled this theory. The Europeans believed that they were conquering everyone else because culture made them do it.

Right through the twentieth century a complicated dance went on in the West as historians uncovered facts that did not seem to fit the long-term lock-in stories. For instance, no one now disputes that when Europe's great age of maritime discovery was just beginning, Chinese navigation was more advanced. Chinese sailor's already knew the coasts of India, Arabia, Africa.

When a Chinese admiral Zheng He sailed from China for Sri-lanka in 1405 he led nearly three hundred vessels. His treasure ships had advanced rudders, elaborate signaling devices and magnetic compasses. Compared to this Columbus barely knew where he was, let alone where he was going.

So why did China lag behind? Where did it lose out to West? Geographer Jared Diamond in his classic Guns, Germs and Steel explains that China's centralized rulers who were more concerned about holding onto their empire favored Europe's surge. To avoid political fragmentation Chinese emperors banned voyages.

Of course, imperialism later on came into picture and West was to vastly benefit from the riches of its conquered colonies. History at times takes turns on the whims of an egoistic king or general. Remarkably true.

Things however have changed. China in few decades has turned its economy around. With the amount of supply chain markets that China controls, it is nearly responsible for 80% of world's exports, and advent of a new technology where it is a key player, it will be very hard for West to undermine China. Simply blaming it for the novel virus and expecting an alternative to China, isn't going to be so easy.

We're already seeing the consequences. China is punishing India in the Ladakh region, for cozying up to US. With its modern army and muscle power, China is no pushover.

Without falling into hyperboles, the covid pandemic may not change history but it will certainly accelerate it. The change that our world was in need of may happen sooner,  than we expected. In Aldous Huxley's terms it may not be a brave new world, but it certainly will be a different world.

Faheem Jeelani Gundroo is an ICT Engineer based in Dubai, with interest in travel, history and current affairs.  He can be reached at: [email protected]

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Faheem Gundroo

Faheem Jeelani Gundroo is an ICT Engineer based in Dubai, with interest in travel, history and current affairs. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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