Abishur Prakash is a co-founder and geopolitical futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future. He is an authority on how technology is remaking geopolitics.
Prakash (left) works with Fortune 500 firms, governments and institutions. He has appeared in media outlets including CNBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Fortune, The Telegraph, the South China Morning Post and, of course, Asia Times.
He is the author of several books, including his latest, The World Is Vertical: How Technology Is Remaking Globalization.
Prakash spoke to Asia Times about his new book and related subjects. Excerpts of that interview follow.
Daniel Bardsley: When did you begin to identify this trend in which the world is becoming more vertical, and what key pieces of evidence cemented your view?
Abishur Prakash: The Vertical World has been quietly forming for several years now. Governments have begun to look at technology in a new way, with goals like “tech sovereignty” (from the EU) or “strategic autonomy” (from the UK). At the same time, Big Tech is increasingly being confined by borders, unable to transcend them as they once did.
For instance, Russia has told 13 large technology firms they must establish a company in Russia by 2022 if they want to operate in the country. Alongside all this, there have been two big catalysts of the Vertical World.
The first was/is the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus has made self-reliance and localization a top priority for countries. From generic drugs to personal protective equipment (PPE), nations realized that reliance on other nations in times of crisis is unacceptable.
The second is the growing US-China rivalry. Because technology is underpinning geopolitical power, both Washington and Beijing are actively trying to block each other out. This is dividing the world in the process. The Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) has lost an EU-funded contract in Poland because of surveillance fears.
At the same time, Senegal has agreed to stop storing government data on foreign servers (largely controlled by the US), and is having China build national servers to achieve “digital sovereignty.”
DB: What is driving countries to put up barriers and to create a more vertical world?
AP: Globalization has always had two sides. There’s the side that most people are familiar with: massive infrastructure development, raising of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, emergence of massive multinationals, intricate and complex supply chains, massive immigration and mixing of cultures.
But there’s also been another, less seen side. Many nations have been angry at globalization – including those who built it and benefited from it – and it boils down to three reasons: loss of sovereignty, inability to compete economically, and erosion of identity and culture.
Except there has been no choice apart from the largely Western-driven globalization. If a nation didn’t buy into it, they were isolated and cut off from the world.
But now with technology, countries are striking back. They are able to ask questions they couldn’t ask before, like, “Why are we using someone else’s currency, ecosystem, platforms, etc?” and, “Why can’t we develop our own?” All of this is giving rise to countries using technology to redefine how they connect with the rest of the world. With technology, countries are able to hold the world at arm’s length.
DB: You have highlighted the way in which certain countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and the UK are leading this move toward a more vertical world. Why are they the key players and how will other nations contribute?
AP: For each country, the reason they are taking vertical steps is different. For China, it’s realized that new technology-based walls are emerging that are restricting its rise (for example, Lithuania has called on citizens to throw away Chinese smartphones over censorship fears). The Chinese government needs independence in areas like chips and critical talent to emerge as a global superpower.
For Saudi Arabia, as oil loses its value, Riyadh is putting technology at the center of its economy. And, as this happens, Saudi Arabia is diverging from the Arab world.
On January 1, 2024, Saudi Arabia will require any business who wants to work with the Saudi government, or related companies, to base their regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia. This will force businesses to pick sides between Riyadh and Dubai, dividing the region.
For the UK, it knows that China’s rise will hinder its place in the world. Instead of being China’s gateway to Europe, which was the British strategy for many years, now the UK is trying to lock out China. Other nations now have two options. They can either act vertically themselves or they can react to the vertical decisions other nations are making. Either way, everybody will be pulled into the Vertical World.
DB: What, if anything, will a vertical world mean for day-to-day life? Will it affect how we work, how we travel, what we read or what we watch on television?
AP: There are multiple levels to this. First, the Vertical World will affect individuals as much as countries or companies.
Take India. After India and China fought in the Himalayas in 2020, the Indian government launched a tech war against China, banning TikTok. When this happened, millennials and Gen Z in India lost their livelihoods, as they were earning income by posting videos on TikTok.
Second, because the world is dividing, and countries and companies are being forced to pick sides, different regions will be dominated by different powers.
Take the UAE. It’s bought an AI avatar from China to tell the news in Arabic. But whose news feeds will this AI avatar use, Western media or Chinese media? This dilemma never existed before.
Third, the interoperability that’s existed in the world, like using American Express everywhere, could fade away in the Vertical World. Certain systems and platforms might not work as nations prioritize their own alternatives and force people to use them in the country – including foreigners traveling there.
DB: What will a more vertical world mean for global security? Is it something we should be worried about?
AP: The Vertical World means that nations will be walled off from one another. There will be new mini-empires and new blocs that will divide the world.
This creates a greater propensity for conflict, as nations may not be as economically and socially integrated any more. It creates conditions similar to what existed before the First World War, when the world was not integrated and different economies and cultures were disconnected from each other.
One of the big advantages of the current form of globalization is that, good or bad, countries have been forced to depend and rely on one another – especially when it comes to economic matters. This made conflict more difficult and less likely. But now, in the Vertical World, this status quo is turned upside down.
DB: While there are technology-based barriers being put up, are there also technological forces pushing in the opposite direction? It’s easy for the average person, who may order goods online from anywhere in the world, and have online friends in all four corners of the globe, to think the world is become increasingly connected rather than fractured.
AP: This is part of a paradox that’s discussed in the book. At one moment, technology is causing societies and economies to “unplug,” and yet at another moment, it’s causing new forms of connectivity and integration.
For example, the UK has launched D10, a grouping of 10 democracies to set the global rules for 5G. So, at one moment, the UK is walking away from global cooperation, and yet at another moment, it’s driving globalization with an exclusive grouping of countries.
Or look at SoftBank. Its founder has proposed an AI corridor between Japan, India and Southeast Asia. It’s the same dynamic, walking away from global integration, and gravitating towards selective connectivity. The common variable here is technology, allowing nations to operate in this way.
DB: The old era of globalization has lasted since World War II. Now, the Vertical World describes a new era of globalization. Will things ever return to “normal”?
AP: It depends how one defines normal. Arguably, the last 70+ years have been an anomaly if one is to look holistically at history. There has been no other time where the world has been so deeply integrated and where barriers that separated economies and societies largely disappeared.
What is clear is that the pendulum of globalization has begun swinging in a new direction. And the only way the direction it’s swinging in will change is if nations are incentivized to do so.
Take Israel. With desalination technology, Israel has solved its freshwater needs. Does Israel need global climate agreements?
Or look at Japan. With AI and robotics, Japan is building a military that won’t need the US as much. Once this independence is achieved, what incentive does Japan have to rely on the US for defense?
The reality is that the Vertical World has a lot to do with human desires to not depend or rely on others. The question now is that if the Vertical World is the new modus operandi of countries, then what will co-existence between nations and businesses look like?
In the short term, it will result in more volatility, tensions and competition, putting the fortunes and fates of many on the line. As for the long term, the ink of the Vertical World isn’t even dry yet, and that’s where everybody needs to place their attention.
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