Abishur Prakash, on the death of the "flat world."

Abishur Prakash, on the death of the "flat world."

"All the bridges that have been built to connect our societies are now being taken down."

Coined by the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman in 2005, the metaphor was intended to describe a world where technology offered immense opportunities to everybody, irrespective of geography. As Bill Gates enthused at the times, in a flat world he would “rather be a genius born in China than an average guy born in the U.S.”

We talk about the changing nature of globalization in an interview with Abishur Prakash, co-founder and geopolitical futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future (CIF), a Toronto-based advisory company. His main point: we are moving from the connected flat world of yesterday to a new form of globalization; one which is “vertical”, utterly fragmented, and where nations are increasingly reluctant to engage with multilateral institutions. Such transformation will be hugely consequential and lasting, argues Prakash, as the main drivers of the world’s coming dis-integration are a potent mix of global discontent and advancing technology set against a backdrop of technological hyper-competition. Technology, which contributed to creating an open, interconnected world in the first place, is now for many nations the way out of a system that was fundamentally imposed on them. Indeed, were we ever asked if we wanted to be “flattened?”

Technology was never really neutral. Today, for the US and for China, the contest for technological supremacy can no longer be separated from the development of technologies and standards that are driven by strictly national interests—what Ian Bremmer describes as a “technopolar moment,” in which “digital powers will reshape the global order.” Geopolitics is becoming techno-politics.

Prakash highlights six examples and megatrends of the “vertical world:”

  • SOVEREIGN INTERNETS: Nations are building their own ‘sovereign internets’ to unplug from the world
  • WALLED INDUSTRIES: Industries like healthcare are being ‘walled off’ to specific nations
  • NEW TERRITORIES: Tech firms are creating their own territories that challenges nations in terms of wealth and power
  • DIVIDED ALLIANCES: Alliances are fracturing as tech gives governments increased independence
  • SELF-SUFFICIENCY: Governments are replacing foreign technology with homegrown alternatives
  • EXCLUSIVE INSTITUTIONS: New tech-based institutions are forming, that only include like-minded nations

Naturally, the emergence of a splintered world will have massive consequences for International Geneva too.

I spoke with Abishur Prashak in Toronto by phone. His interview was edited for length and clarity.

Philippe Mottaz: The world was ‘flat.’ You argue that it has now become ‘vertical.’ What has changed?

Abishur Prakash: I think that since the second world war, the way the world has been designed was moving in a certain direction. The ‘flat world’ was a concept that revolved around the way technology was driving globalization, getting rid of barriers, opening societies, integrating economies, and propelling more trade. The world was moving in the direction of more openness, more accessibility, less barriers, less walls. That was how diplomacy and relations between states were being conducted, how finance and immigration policies evolved.

The problem, however, was that many countries and economies, many people disagreed with the model. For quite a long time, many governments around the world have been incredibly worried, incredibly concerned, incredibly angry even at how this movement towards a more open and accessible world has actually resulted in a loss of sovereignty, a loss of identity, and for some an inability to compete. But this dissatisfaction was mostly vented behind closed doors, because many countries that considered themselves the losers of globalization couldn’t do anything about it. That anger obviously culminated with Brexit in the UK and in the US with Trump’s election.

Now, I am arguing that what has changed is that nations are finally able—almost entirely due to technology—to take actions they weren’t able to take before, and this is taking the world in a completely different direction, moving from flat to what I call ‘vertical.’

The situation is that several countries, notably China and others in Asia, which have reaped most of the benefits of the flat, globalized world, are the same nations now wishing to unplug and decouple.

Absolutely. I am not in any way challenging the progress that has been made through globalization: immense economic growth, immense development, infrastructure development, the raising of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty into the middle class. I’m not saying globalization is ending, and I’m not saying it hasn’t benefited specific economies. But if you think about it, globalization was really brought in through either consensus, or colonialization. That was how globalization was initially ushered in. And so, I am saying that a new era of globalization is beginning, exclusively fueled by technology. And on these critical fronts, from AI, to 5G, semi-conductors, robotics and space technologies, on all these fronts, nations are no longer looking to cooperate. They are doing the exact opposite. Nations are increasingly unplugging themselves from the global, multilateral world as we have known it. They are walking away and establishing new walls and barriers.

What’s driving this change? Is it great power politics, Big Tech, is it people and societal changes? Is it a backlash?

What is the catalyst within nations to do away with cooperation and drive the shift to this vertical world? Three things, I would argue. First, a loss of identity and culture. Second, the realization that you cannot compete any longer, and therefore you erect walls—like the UK, which has literally been building restrictions around its critical technology sectors. And third—and this is a very powerful force—is the fact that many governments fear they don’t have control over their own societies.

Take India, for instance, where Facebook volunteered to supply hundreds of millions of people with internet where there was little or no access. From the standpoint of the Indian government, this could be seen as a kind of ‘tech colonialism’; [with the associated concern] that the old shackles were going to return.

The list of countries which you argue are engaging in erecting barriers and reshaping globalization as we have known it is long: it includes most major Western economies, plus China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Do you expect new ad-hoc alliances to be formed among this group?

The first thing that is worth noting is that there was a certain amount of stability in globalization in its old form. There were rules. Even when countries didn’t agree, there were institutions and processes to discuss these disagreements. This, too, is now going. What you now see are specific alliances and exclusive institutions being created around important and specific issues. Even among Western countries that used to share a commitment to international cooperation and multilateralism, you now see new alliances being created, such as AUKUS, that leave countries like France and Germany or even Canada out in the cold. In the Indo-Pacific region, for instance, you now have the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). This is leading to massive global divisions, to a massive global fragmentation.

I am sitting here in Geneva, the operational center of the traditional multilateral system. Is Geneva one of the battlegrounds of this reshaping of globalization? Will traditional international organizations be able to withstand the shock of a vertical world and adapt to the creation of new pop-up alliances?

I believe that the battle has already been underway for some time for these institutions. Take, for instance, China and its new internet proposal at the ITU. These institutions—the WTO, WHO, ITU and WIPO—are already faced with a crisis of relevance. I don’t believe that they will disappear, not at all, but their ability to create global consensus, to enact global cooperation, to propose rules and standards that most of the world will adopt… that, I think, is finished.

You say in your book that our lives will be affected in unimaginable ways by the vertical world that is emerging now. Can you elaborate?

I think our individual and collective lives are going to be massively impacted by technological changes. Think about the evolution of AI, the rise of autonomous lethal weapons systems (‘killer robots’), the rise of deep fakes, the impact of gene editing, to take a few examples. These developments will push more and more countries to try to erect barriers, to protect themselves, to protect their culture, their way of life, and their beliefs. I’d say we might be entering an era when nations are starting to look at each other through prisons bars. And I am saying that every corporation, every country, every city, and every citizen must now pay attention to these changes.

Would you say that governments and policymakers understand the size, amplitude, and scope of what you’re describing?

I think they understand parts of it. I do believe that some governments are waking up to the fact that the design of the world is radically changing. They may not be using the expression ‘vertical world.’ But they are realizing that the way that they have operated until now isn’t how they’re going to be able to function in the future. I believe that thinking in terms of a vertical world really brings this all into clear focus and can be a concise way of looking at what’s emerging, and what’s coming next. All the bridges that have been built to connect our societies are now being taken down. That can only have massive implications.