Spectre of a Barbenheimer future

  • India at 75 is still taking baby steps into the realm of data privacy. It has been just five years since we acquired a definitive right to privacy.
  • A law on digital data protection, very different from the one that was debated for half a decade, is now imminent.
  • Public consciousness and behaviour on the subject are also evolving.
  • Meanwhile, pools of personal data are being assembled and processed all around us.

Digital India

  • Launched on July 1, 2015.
  • A Rs 1,13,000-crore flagship programme of the Government of India.
  • Vision: The goal is to make India into a society that is digitally empowered and a knowledge-based economy.
  • Vision Areas:
    • Digital Infrastructure as a Core Utility to Every Citizen
    • Governance & Services on Demand
    • Digital Empowerment of Citizens

Image of Nine Pillars of Digital India

Pandemic and Digital India

  • During the pandemic, technology played an essential part in ensuring the continuity of education, access to healthcare, and other citizen services.
  • Tablets and other digital devices, including affordable laptops, are being made available to students all over the country.
  • In order to accomplish this objective, electronic businesses are currently receiving subsidies that are tied to their production.
  • Digital solutions created by India during Covid pandemic
  • Aarogya Setu, a contact tracing app, has been an instrumental component in the country’s overall effort to control the spread of Covid.
  • The CoWIN app has garnered interest from a number of countries, and the existence of tools such as these is evidence of India’s technical prowess.

India’s future of digital technology

  • Technologies, policies and practices will continue to collide over the years to shape India’s digital and lived reality.
  • Numerous scenarios could emerge, including the two imagined here.
  • The first is the Barbenheimer future, would rely heavily on technocentric solutionism combined with digital escapism.
  • The second imagines a more equitable digital society born out of the wishful optimism for a more privacy and digital rights-respecting future.

Barbenheimer future of India’s digital technology

  • “Barbenheimer” is an internet phenomenon that emerged from the simultaneous release and divergent themes of the films Barbie and Oppenheimer.
  • An Oppenheimer-style future will be founded on stubborn faith in technology to manage all aspects of the polity.
    • Digital technologies, often with high-risks, will be seen as the path to sovereignty, domination, progress and empowerment. Like the men behind Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb, a privileged group of technical experts, bureaucrats, and politicians will get to choose which technologies India should adopt and how.
    • Laws will become a smokescreen for protection, as privacy and other rights routinely succumb to security and nation-building interests.
    • Surveillance, data leaks and various forms of exclusion will be routine social realities, bitter pills to be swallowed for the greatest good of the greatest number.
  • In parallel, citizens will find solace in a Barbie-like metaverse curated by large tech corporatiotechnology
  • s escapist world, life will be experienced through rose-tinted glasses, surrounded by like-minded Barbies and Kens, imagining the rights of our choosing.
    • But this will of course be only a simulated environment powered by virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
    • Personal data will be the fodder and the yield of this hyper-personalised ecosystem.
    • In the process, digital citizens would either be treated as subjects, to be “protected” and overseen by the state or users, to be entertained and surveilled by corporations.

In the scenario of Equitable digital future

  • In contrast, the equitable digital future will be citizen-centric by design. Its equity will reflect in the relationship between citizens and the state and their interactions with responsible private actors.
  • This imagination assumes that in the immediate future India will adopt a sound legal structure for data protection supported by an independent data protection agency.
  • Unlike the current version, this law will offer meaningful protections that apply equally to the private sector and state agencies.
  • In parallel, comprehensive surveillance reforms will guarantee that citizens’ privacy is protected by judicial oversight and robust procedural safeguards.
  • The equitable digital future will also gain from the advancement of privacy enhancing technologies.
  • Encrypted data processing will be the norm for all transactions and data anonymisation techniques would have evolved significantly.
  • India will also leverage its experience in building digital public goods to pursue meaningful data empowerment
  • This design is arguably more empowering for data users than individuals.
  • But maturity in India’s data protection regime will cause a bottom-up reimagining of such systems to foster greater agency for individuals and communities and accountability from data users

Along with digital rights, there is need to protect human rights, accountability and trust

  • With the passes of time time, India will have universal digital access, a sophisticated cyber security apparatus, nuanced jurisprudence on online speech and expression, and a sound framework for AI governance.
  • Therefore, All these instruments should have emerged through open engagement with stakeholders, prioritising human rights, accountability and trust.


  • With the new data protection law and the proposed Digital India Act, India is at an inflection point of digital governance.
  • The choices we make today will influence where India will find itself in the next 25 years.
  • This implies not just policy choices but also societal, technological and personal ones.
  • Hopefully, the sum of these choices will land us somewhere closer to the equitable future imagined here than the Barbenheimer one.