Connecting The Dots

Author Parag Khanna believes that connectivity begins where fiber meets the road.

As he sees it, Earth is a planet of more than 7 billion people living with streets, tunnels, and bridges that wouldn’t even cut it for 3 billion. And yet our digital connections are thriving.

That’s not to say Khanna thinks we’ll be saved by fiber-optic internet in every corner of the world. It’s not only impractical, it’s insufficient. When a package shows up at our front door, we’ve felt how reliant many of us still are on networks of physical infrastructure, he points out. Khanna believes that the greatest change in how we live and work will come from the increased connectivity between online and offline networks. Take employment: By some estimates, 40% of U.S. workers will be independent contractors by 2020. Infrastructure is the key to keeping them connected, whether they are driving in or logging on.

According to Facebook’s 2015 State of Connectivity study, 78% of the world’s population is covered by broadband networks, and each year more and more people are able to access them. But the information superhighway will never replace Route 66. Khanna believes it’s increasingly important that we view the layers of connectivity enabled by roads, tunnels, phones, and computers as investments that require upkeep—not one-time costs. 

“A more prosperous world, a more connected world, a more vibrant world is going to be one where we focus on all three of these layers of infrastructure. Not just one or the other,” Khanna says.

The following is an excerpt from Khanna’s book Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization.

Connectivity is the new meta-pattern of our age. Like liberty or capitalism, it is a world-historical idea, one that gestates, spreads, and transforms over a long timescale and brings about epochal changes. Every day, for the first time in their lives, millions of people switch on mobile phones, log on to the web, move into cities, or fly on airplanes. Connectivity is more than a tool; it is an impulse.

And there is no better investment. Government spending on physical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, and on social infrastructure, such as medical care and education, are considered investments (rather than consumption) because they save costs in the long run and generate widespread benefit for society.

While the word infrastructure is less than a century old, it represents nothing less than our physical capacity for global interaction. Crucial geographic interventions such as the Suez and Panama canals reshaped global navigation and trade, and since the 19th century, Ottoman sultans aspired to construct a tunnel that would connect Istanbul’s European and Asian sides. Now Turkey has the Marmaray tunnel, which opened in 2013, along with freight railways and oil and gas pipelines, all of which are strengthening the country’s position as a key corridor between Europe and China.

None of these mega-structures is a “bridge to nowhere.” Those that already exist have added trillions of dollars of value to the world economy. Because only one-quarter of world trade is between countries that share a border, connectivity is a sine qua non for growth both within countries and across them. For all the effort we expend calculating the value of national economies, therefore, it is time to devote as much attention to the value of connectivity between them.

For a massive country such as America to live up to its self-proclaimed destiny, it must spend much more on connectivity. The same is true across the world: The gap between the supply and demand for infrastructure has never been greater. As the global population climbs toward 8 billion people, they have been living off an infrastructure stock meant for a world of 3 billion. But only infrastructure and all the industries that benefit can collectively create the estimated 300 million jobs needed in the coming two decades as populations grow and urbanize.

Already we have installed a far greater volume of lines that connect people than divide them: Our infrastructural matrix today includes approximately 64 million kilometers of highways, 2 million kilometers of pipelines, 1.2 million kilometers of railways, and 750,000 kilometers of undersea internet cables that connect our many key population and economic centers. By contrast, we have only 250,000 kilometers of international borders. By some estimates, humankind will build more infrastructure in the next 40 years alone than it has in the past 4,000.

The world is starting to look a lot like the internet. The internet was born to overcome distance.

Today it stands out as an embodiment of the quantum world. It is everywhere yet difficult to see. It enables connections that can also disappear instantaneously. Data can be filtered and blocked. Everything that is digitized can simultaneously appear in multiple places, whether a book, music, or even a live event.

While the increasingly borderless supply chain world was borne out of the state system, the internet seems to have been born borderless but is acquiring the trappings of interstate divisions. Which force will win this cyber tug-of-war?

Telecommunication has leapfrogged all other forms of connectivity. Whether through copper phone lines, signal relay towers, undersea internet cables, or low-orbit satellites, handheld mobile hardware can now connect to many other communication devices from just about anywhere in the world. Without looking too far into the future, one can easily foresee a world in which almost everyone has a smartphone with 4G (and eventually 5G) broadband internet access.

Today at least 300 undersea internet cables crisscross the earth like yarn wrapped around a ball, carrying 99% of intercontinental data traffic. When faraway places enjoy enhanced connectivity, the meaning attached to their location begins to change. Just one fiber-optic cable has propelled Kenya onto the digital map, with Google, IBM, MasterCard, and other companies setting up research labs in the budding Silicon Savannah. Uganda and Zambia both got their first fiber-optic cables connected via the Indian Ocean in 2014. These countries are still physically landlocked but digitally connected.

Telegeography maps of internet cable routes thus reveal the growing density of ties across vast geographies. The North Atlantic Ocean has the largest number of cables, followed by the Pacific, where a new 7,500-kilometer Google data-link cable (simply named Faster) connects California to Japan and other Asian shores. This new link will carry the projected tripling of Asia-Pacific internet data flows between 2013 and 2018, to 47 exabytes per month.

Today the internet is becoming a network that can withstand any rupture, be it physically uprooted submarine cables or digitally disrupted services. It now exists independently of the governments that created it.

Many people take the internet for granted as an invisible infrastructure, but in fact the junctions between the physical and virtual worlds are growing with complex ripple effects. Just powering the information and communications technology industry consumes 10% of the world’s electricity, indicating what a drain cybercivilization can be on natural resources. Data centers have now become lucrative real estate. The physical footprint of digital empires has certainly jacked up the cost of living in San Francisco. Amazon’s demand for programmers, salespeople, warehouses, and data servers is helping redraw Seattle’s skyline. 

Today the internet is becoming a network that can withstand any rupture, be it physically uprooted submarine cables or digitally disrupted services. It now exists independently of the governments that created it. Even as frictions emerge that block or ground certain data, still the internet continues to grow more diverse and complex.