Global Issues

The upside and downside of transparency: Q&A with TEDGlobal guest host Parag Khanna

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No stranger to the TED stage himself, geo-strategist and author Parag Khanna is curating one of the sessions at this year’s TEDGlobal. “The Upside of Transparency” promises to be enlightening, thought-provoking — and perhaps just a little bit scary. Helen Walters recently talked to Parag in London. An edited version of their conversation follows.

How did the theme of your session emerge?
So the overall theme of the conference is “radical openness,” which is a classic TED theme: it means so many things. Within that, Bruno [Giussani], Chris [Anderson] and others have worked to sub-define transparency, a hugely important pillar for openness. Given my personal background and leanings, I wanted to have a session that’s more political. Not just sociological, technological, emotional, artistic, but fundamentally political. After all, TED has evolved to a place where there’s really nothing it doesn’t cover or talk about

That’s interesting. TED has always attempted to be resolutely non-partisan. Will that change with this session?
No. You might expect to hear people glorifying the virtues of transparency in everything, but that’s not what I can promise you’ll see. Instead, there are a number of speakers who will show both the upside and downside of transparency.

So, can you take us through your lineup?
Beth Noveck comes first. She has a significant amount of experience of looking at government transparency around the world, and she’s really one of the key intellectual thinkers and doers on this issue of political transparency and what that can mean. She’s been very persuasive in demonstrating the efficiency and legitimacy gains of transparency to government.

Who’s up after Beth?
Marc Goodman is intensely geopolitical, and his talk will be full of intrigue. He talks about the groups that are capturing the technology that’s open to everyone, and how our responses need to be as open source as transparency itself. It’s something of a counter-intuitive argument that goes against so much of what our bureaucracies think in terms of suppressing or hording technology. Marc points out that you’ll never be able to do that.

So he’s one of your speakers showing the downside of transparency, I take it?
He’s most definitely going to scare us. No doubt.

Can’t wait! Ok, who’s up next?
Sanjay Pradhan from the World Bank. Even though it’s gotten front-page coverage in the New York Times, people don’t realize the seismic shift that happened to transparency when the World Bank, the largest repository of social and economic data on earth, decided one fine day to release it all. It was truly tremendous. Sanjay is going to show the early stages of where we’re headed in this, so this one is a very positive story. Then, after Sanjay, Heather Brooke will tell her incredible story about her encounter with Wikileaks. I don’t want to put words in her mouth or reveal too much, but her take is incredibly refreshing.

So I was with you up to there. But am I wrong in thinking your final speaker is somewhat out of place? I mean, Deyan Sudjic is a design expert. He’s a natural TED speaker, but what’s he doing in your session?
There’s a cadre of people such as Rem Koolhas or Daniel Libeskind who have been at the forefront of controversy for working on projects in opaque political systems. They have been been put in the crosshairs, peppered with questions about what a project means to them, asked about the political symbolism of the project, or whether they are kowtowing to a foreign power. And they haven’t been prepared for this. Deyan is the director of the Design Museum in London, he’s an educational and cultural figure, and I felt it was important to have someone take a wider perspective on this topic. Not someone to look at one work, one project, but to think about the broader concept of architecture and transparency, the city and the right to privacy.

Ah, I see. How interesting. So it’s a pretty eclectic group of people you’ll have up on stage. How have you been working with them to get the best from their short time in the spotlight?
These people have incredibly powerful ideas and have extremely demonstrable influence, so actually just allowing them to unlock the key elements of story and visualize in the TED format has been a real treat. I thought it was great enough to sit in TED and watch and learn, but the conversations that take place in the formulation of the TED talk are even more enriching.

And as a former speaker yourself, what tips have you been giving?
They don’t all need the same advice, and some need none at all. This set of speakers has so much to say that my main encouragement has been for them to boil the talk down to one or two core ideas and theses or experiences. After all, everyone here is more accustomed to giving a one- or two-hour lecture. So that’s the only hard part, deciding what will be the right fit for the time available.

How do you go about helping them edit?
Once you’ve been through the training and coaching it takes to do a proper good TEDTalk, you find yourself in the position of teaching newborn parents how to handle kids. You don’t know it unless you’ve done it, but once you’ve done it, it feels natural. You’ve acquired a skill that you can now use and apply to others. It’s a big advantage to be in this role having given a TEDTalk myself. The difference was I was terrified then, and now I get to be relaxed and excited.

Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization by Ayesha and Parag Khanna was published by TED Books in June.