Author Parag Khanna falls into the same trap as have many prophets of the future over the past century or so. Their ideas are complex and not always amenable to popular literature. But they want to make a point and sell books. Thus, they find dramatic-sounding concepts and some exciting predictions. They add padding and lots of full-color charts that help get them invited to appear on CNN. The tone is breezy and easy to read. There are usually gems of knowledge in there, but you have to wade through hundreds of pages to find the two dozen or so that give you the information you’re looking for.
Another professional hazard with books is that the expert reviewers are unhappy that the book they’re reviewing is actually interesting. This fate has at times befallen Khanna. A number of reviews have criticized him not for his ideas but because he did not write the book they thought he should have. I will not repeat the doubting judgments, but they are generally unjustified.
In my case, I admit to having received most of my own basic knowledge about science and technology from two sources: science fiction and an older generation of futurists who wrote over one hundred years ago. (Somehow, few people were writing such stuff in the 1950s and 1960s.) Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edward Bellamy were among them. They padded and dramatized as well. But they knew how to tell a good story, and I still can’t figure out how Verne’s explorers got to the center of the earth.
Bellamy was my favorite because he predicted real things like the radio, music through earphones, and the like, some of which we still didn’t have by the 1960s. Only later did I learn that he was also a socialist who used his predictions to argue that science and technology would create a socialist paradise on earth. It must have worked, and I still learned a lot from it. At one point, his book Looking Backward: 2000–1877 was the third most popular book ever published in the United States.
By the 1960s there was a veritable flood of such books. The master of the genre was Alvin Toffler, who, writing with his wife Heidi, created an entire library of predictions of what was to come. Many of them, such as the Internet, came true. His first book, Future Shock, sold 6 million copies and led to a series that ran for years. Copycats such as Charles A. Reich, whose Greening of America helped coin another household word that survived for two decades or more, John Naisbitt, and even Arthur C. Clark tapped into a seemingly endless thirst by Americans in particular to be told about the future before it happens.
Khanna’s latest book, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, falls into this category. I am a believer of his theories and have been trying to spread them in my own dry way for some time. I agree that innovations such as global supply chains, high-speed information networks, and virtual marketplaces are changing the world faster than we can count. I have even suggested in writing that skills in logistics could help Europe overcome America’s lead in information technology.
To me, there is no doubt that if leaders and the general public understood the meaning of the new world being built around them by the many levels of connectivity, they would not find globalization so frightening. But they still have not noticed that during the past twenty years the world has slipped rapidly, almost without notice, into a new era. The world of formal structures, hierarchical methods of management, and national borders has disappeared, without most people even knowing what was happening. We desperately need enlightenment. For this reason alone, books such as Connectography should be welcomed.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, the rantings of Republican candidate Donald Trump, and similar populism in Europe might have been less dramatic if more people had read Khanna’s works. His detailed description of the new infrastructure of globalization is worthwhile reading for almost everyone who cares to understand how their lives are going to be structured in years to come.
The problem is that a book such as Connectography is not likely to stir politicians and policymakers out of their ignorance. It has too many dramatic phrases such as “Competitive connectivity is the arms race of the 21st century” (I don’t agree) or “mega-patterns” (What in heaven’s name are they?) to hold decisionmakers’ attention for long. They need the four-minute version followed by a spanking good crisis that will make them fear for their jobs. I’ve put my money on the trifecta of Brexit, Trump, and Putin. Maybe they will be enough to wake the world up.
John Kornblum is a senior counselor at Noerr LLP.