AN INTERVIEW WITH PARAG KHANNA:
ON HYBRID REALITIES AND CONNECTOGRAPHY
TGSM Editorial Board
Born in India and educated in three continents, Parag Khanna is a cosmopolitan globetrotter with a roving sensor and an analytical mind to spot and then transform disparate data into strategic visions and best-selling books. When he is not on the news or scouting around the world in search of new trends and big ideas he keeps busy lecturing in the Centre on Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, in Singapore. Together with his wife, Ayesha, he was also a co-founder of the Hybrid Reality Institute, envisioning the co-evolution of humans and technology as a challenge and opportunity rather than a threat. One of the editors of TGSM met him in Madrid in 2009 when he was presenting the Spanish edition of an earlier essay – The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order– at the Rafael del Pino Foundation. Eight years and several thousand miles later, the author is introducing another of his successful books to a Spanish-speaking audience: Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilisation (recently published in Spanish by Planeta de los Libros). TGSM converses with Parag Khanna about his current and future projects:
Cover of the English edition of Connectography, Random House, New York, 2016.
TGSM: Like us, you love maps and it shows in your books. In Connectography maps based on political geography are superseded by functional maps showing connectivity networks with lines representing not borders, but physical and digital infrastructure crisscrossing continents and oceans and creating truly astonishing images. The question then is to what extent are these functional maps present in the visual and mind fields of voters and decision-makers? With Brexit and all sorts of nativist and protectionist tendencies looming large on our political landscapes it seems that we need another revolution in the way we perceive and represent the world akin to the one provided in the past by the likes of Ptolemy or Mercator, are we ready for it?
We have to navigate through our dense volumes of connectivity.
PG: The very purpose of the functional maps of CONNECTOGRAPHY is to provide the navigational utility that the great medieval cartographers did. Today, however, we need to do more than just navigate nature but infrastructure. We have to navigate through our dense volumes of connectivity. This is why the maps are not only in the book but also online and regularly updated as new high-speed railways, pipelines and fiber-optic cables are laid down. Part of the reason we have these fringe populist movements is that Western publics are blind and ignorant as to the extent to which their own prosperity depends on trade and investment connectivity. If they saw it on their maps, perhaps they would not vote for Brexit or right-wing parties. In this way, maps are part of our fundamental education as citizens. Note that the populist anti-globalization backlash in the West is indeed only in a few small Western countries; it is not a worldwide phenomenon.
Part of the reason we have these fringe populist movements is that Western publics are blind and ignorant as to the extent to which their own prosperity depends on trade and investment connectivity.
TGSM: ”Connectivity is destiny” (…) “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward connectivity” are some of your mottos of choice. At the beginning of your book you envision a trip around the world without getting on a plane and mostly by road or railway tracks across landmasses and even through bridges or tunnels linking continents. The German geologist Alfred Wegener, who authored the theory of continental drift, was the first to discover that all continents had once be part of a single landmass called Pangaea. After breaking up and drifting apart, some scientists say that tectonic forces will once again pull all continents together into another supercontinent called Amasia or Pangaea Ultima. If you are right, it seems that we are moving faster than nature. What can be the consequences for the environment and even for the planetary balance of all this Earth reengineering?
Over time, cities are the locations where humans consume fewer resources
PG: There is enormous resource consumption implicit in building global infrastructures. Our consumption of steel, cement, water and other materials and elements is skyrocketing as we build ever larger cities. But this is not a linear process. Over time, cities are the locations where humans consume fewer resources because people don’t need to own cars, and services economies consume less per capita than industrial economies. Also, urban concentration frees up land for increasing agricultural output and shortening the supply chains for food.
TGSM: Let us turn from nature to nurture. A connected world like the one you describe in your book requires massive investments in infrastructure, both for building those transport, energy and communication networks and for maintaining them operative over long periods of time. Now, most of that investment in infrastructure is done either at the national or regional levels, though, as you rightly say, its relevance is increasingly global in scope. In Roman times, the supranational, so to speak, ways and means of communication, those astonishing Roman roads and aqueducts that new audiences are discovering in Mary Beard’s documentaries, were built and sustained by a centralized authority with the will and the means to do so. When Rome collapsed that network either vanished or was fragmented. How can we avoid that sort of fate? Do you think it feasible the emergence of a supranational body in charge of managing the global infrastructure necessary for the thriving and survival of a connected World civilisation? If not, which actor or partnership, public and/or private, could take care of that responsibility?
There is no global Holy Roman Empire, and the United Nations is almost powerless.
PG: In my book I explain that because we live in a world of radical devolution in which there are now 200 sovereign countries, we are at the opposite end of the spectrum from a world of supranational political authority. There is no global Holy Roman Empire, and the United Nations is almost powerless. However, the smaller our countries, the more they need to be physically connected to each other for survival. They need to trade efficiently in fuel, water food, and so forth. So countries voluntarily engage in bilateral and regional infrastructure projects as Europe has been doing for 70 years. These are governed by joint commissions of utilities agencies for the mutual benefit of citizens and customers on both sides. So we need to ensure that infrastructure remains under the administration of these functional and independent multilateral bodies rather than becoming a political tool for expansion of geopolitical influence.
China has embarked on the largest multilateral infrastructure investment program in world history with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
There are numerous examples of how this plays out today. Gazprom has been manipulating downstream energy companies across the Black Sea such as Bulgaria and Serbia, but now the EU has ruled against Gazprom’s monopolistic activities. China has embarked on the largest multilateral infrastructure investment program in world history with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Here too it remains to be seen if this will be only economically beneficial to countries along these new Silk Road corridors such as Pakistan and Kazakhstan (which it surely will be), but also whether or not China uses these infrastructures to expand its strategic influence.
Roman bridge over the River Tagus in Spain.
TGSM: Imagine that you were at the helm of an Investment Bank for Global Infrastructure with the task of selecting just three projects that would radically improve world connectivity where it is most needed, which would be your choices?
Two-thirds of the world population is located on one mega-continent stretching from Portugal to China.
PG: I would certainly complete many of these “new Silk Road” projects stretching across Eurasia since two-thirds of the world population is located on one mega-continent stretching from Portugal to China. I would also build out fiber-optic Internet to far more of the world’s largest cities, since about 50 cities are the key economic hubs of the world and increasingly trade in physical and digital goods with each other. (This would be quite inexpensive!) And lastly I would invest in greater alternative and renewable energy generation in rapidly industrializing emerging markets such as India so as to reduce their need for oil and gas imports. This would have a profoundly positive impact on reducing the world’s carbon footprint.
About 50 cities are the key economic hubs of the world and increasingly trade in physical and digital goods with each other.
TGSM: Talking about mega- infrastructure projects and since you also love the Silk Road, what do you make of the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative? Could it be a catalytic for fostering cooperation over competition in Eurasia and beyond? Or is it another way to project Chinese influence at a time when the US and the West are receding as global players?
PG: I am a supporter of the “Belt and Road” initiative because it will definitely benefit all economies along these routes. These post-colonial and post-Soviet societies have become severely dilapidated in recent generations and only China has come forward with the capital and vision required to re-frame these countries not as isolated and landlocked failed states but as connected nodes in the Eurasian economy. Of course there will be heightened political and commercial competition for influence, but this is part of the nature of infrastructure build-out.
The Silk Road depicted in the Catalan Atlas, by Abraham Cresques, 1375.
TGSM: Since we have been talking about connectivity in its geographical expression, let us turn now to another kind of connectivity, the one linking humans and machines also via Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). For decades, science- fiction and the film industry, those modern myth- making and future-anticipating machines-, have been pointing towards a scenario where hybrid realities are not only a distinct possibility, but part of our lives. Now it happens that science, without the hyphenated “fiction”, is telling us that the imagined future is already here. For many this is shocking news, particularly for those worried about robots overtaking not only factory jobs but occupying more sophisticated positions in the work place and even in those circles where vital decisions are made about our health, our finances or about whether we go to war or what kind of targets are legitimate in a blurry battlefield. What can you say to those wary about these Hybrid Times we seem bound to live in?
We strongly advocate that people have not just IQ or EQ, but “TQ” – technology quotient
PG: Indeed, Ayesha and I wrote Hybrid Reality years ago in anticipation – though early signs were already visible, of course – of this fusion of man and machine, what we call “human-technology co-evolution.” The added dimension when it comes to AI is also technologies merging with each other in exponential ways. Look for example at how computational biology has emerged, with processing speeds rapidly expanding the pace of gene sequencing, which then has a fundamental impact on the capabilities of the bio-tech industry, which therefore impacts human-technology co-evolution. We strongly advocate that people have not just IQ or EQ, but “TQ” – technology quotient – to be more knowledgeable about these trends and how they are affected by them. And we advocate being very proactive as citizens and consumers, being aware of whom “owns” one’s data and how to leverage it as an entrepreneur.
We advocate being very proactive as citizens and consumers, being aware of whom “owns” one’s data and how to leverage it as an entrepreneur.
TGSM: The concept of Hybrid Reality applies to a variety of entities particularly those blending the man, the mind and the machine, but it can also be used to describe emerging economic sectors, mixed sources of energy, modes of societal organizations or even the ambiguous nature of some countries: China or Russia could be examples of Hybrid Capitalism though in different shades and degrees. In a new book – Technocracy in America, Rise of the Info-State– you advocate the virtues of what you call a ‘direct technocracy”, a sort of democracy led by experts. As you well know, at the height of the Cold War, authors from both systems – like J.K. Galbraith in the West or S. Menshikov in the USSR- foresaw their convergence in a technocratic society. In their analysis, both capitalism and communism were increasingly relying on technological advances, moving towards post-industrialism and dependent upon powerful bureaucracies. The Cold War is long over, but are we still heading to a kind of Hybrid Democracy as the best possible system of governance?
A smart government would combine citizen inputs and data wisely.
PG: I strongly believe we should evolve our political systems in the direction of “direct technocracy”. Democratization in the sense of expanding political empowerment and voice for citizens is a fundamentally important thing, as is the growing presence and utility of technology such as social media and big data to gather information about citizen’s needs. Think of it as a real-time census. How will these forces productively interact? How will we use these citizen and data inputs? What kind of government can harness this data towards utilitarian purposes? I argue that it must be this kind of expert-led government rather than the kind of politics we have today, which has become an end in itself for corrupt interests and populist movements. A smart government would combine citizen inputs and data wisely.
TSGM: And finally, since you will be visiting Europe this fall, what are your prospects for the European Union? What are the challenges and opportunities ahead for Great Britain after the Brexit? And how do you see the position of Spain after the crisis and in the context of the connected world your book both describes and advocates?
We have to remember that Europe learns from each crisis and continues to evolve in new directions.
PG: I have always been very positive and constructive about Europe in general and the EU in particular. We have to remember that Europe learns from each crisis and continues to evolve in new directions. Brexit might even help continental Europe move forward without the political restraints of the UK. Furthermore, the economic recovery in Europe such as in Spain is a sign that although heavy debt was a driver of the crisis, solid infrastructure like in Spain is also an important part of long-term socio-economic resilience. Europe should continue to widen its membership and expand the Eurozone, but mutualize debt more substantially so that weaker countries have a stronger long-term recovery.
The economic recovery in Europe such as in Spain is a sign that although heavy debt was a driver of the crisis, solid infrastructure like in Spain is also an important part of long-term socio-economic resilience.