Lights are great storytellers of the souls of nations. Here's how

Night light as a global lie detector is a marvellous 21st century invention

Let there be light,” is a well-known biblical command. Light, as in life, wisdom, goodness. Night is associated with evil, committing crimes and escaping detection in the cover of darkness. But now we have the phenomenon of “night lights”, the extraterrestrial lie detector.

Night lights detect the duplicity of dictators and shady democrats. They excel in exposing the false narratives of prosperity. To inflate their realm’s importance and success, autocrats exaggerate their economic data. Now a torchlight shines on them from up above, and it is not God.

Satellite imagery of the earth at night reveals many secrets. Ten years ago, scientists discovered that greater the density of “night lights”, the greater the economic activity. Night lights are less domestic and more infrastructure lights—ports, highways, buildings, streetlights, 24x7 factories and shops. Seen from outer space, New York remains one of the brightest spots and the Indo-Pakistan border, a major activity hub.

Illustration: Job P.K. Illustration: Job P.K.

As data analyses and satellite imaging technology leap-frogged, economists too got in the fray and made a stunning discovery—the concentration and pattern of lights were great storytellers of the souls of nations. It was no longer merely a depiction of high or low economic activity, but a comparative revelation of fact and fiction spun by governments.

Economists know that dictators bluff. But lies were hard to expose because access and data were restricted. Despots guarded statistics on industrial production, jobs, construction, trade and agricultural output. Lights expand during economic expansion, shrink during recession. High-definition close-ups of pixels enable statisticians to deep-dive and assess economic metrics. In-depth analyses now unveil truth narratives that contradict government versions of GDP. Unlike official statistics, night lights do not lie. They cannot be manipulated.

Caught in this spotlight, dictators become “emperors without clothes”, slowly but surely losing control over their data, their narrative, their bombast. Night lights show dictators inflate their GDP by 30 to 70 per cent. Lead liar is Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s rural darkness paints a picture of poverty, isolation and stagnation. Pictures reveal 30 years ago both Koreas had about the same illumination level. North Korea still remains the same, while South Korea’s night lights have exploded. Democrats exaggerate too, but they face greater domestic institutional scrutiny. But economists can see how democracies inflate or deflate their statistics to get an IMF loan.

China’s economic miracle is self-evident, but when growth falters, the tendency is to inflate performance. At the Chinese Communist Party congress six months ago, President Xi Jinping announced that despite Covid, China’s GDP this year would be $17 trillion, an impressive growth rate of 4.4 per cent, just $6 trillion less than the US. At this rate, China will overtake the US by 2035, magnifying China’s current geopolitical power. But night lights confirm independent economists’ growth rate estimate of 3.3 per cent, impressive but “not so close to catch up with the US because of the autocrats’ habitual overstatement of GDP growth,” says pixel-crunching Chicago University’s political economist Luis R. Martínez.

The incorruptible American Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis believed publicity remedies social and industrial malpractices. He said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant, electric light the most efficient policeman.” Darkness and secrecy are the accomplices of crooks, while technology that brings transparency is like the pen, mightier than the sword.

Night lights as a global lie detector is a marvellous 21st century invention that gives a new interpretation to “let there be light”. Light as in truth.

Pratap is an author and journalist.