Zia Haider Rahman On The Reliability Of Information, And Mapping The World’s Elites

Jan 9, 2018

Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What We Know, covers a broad swath of topics, ranging from friendship, geopolitics, math and science.

The novel opens when an old friend appears at the narrator’s door, and the two men in their early forties have very different stories to tell about their lives.

“This novel is about knowledge and the question of the extent to which what we think we know is reliable,” Rahman told KGOU’s World Views.

Rahman’s novel ties into questioning the reliability of information.  He says there have been cultural shifts that question the authority of cultural markers that at one time were trusted, such as TV broadcasters.

“It's an exploration of this fundamental question, which you know, we see today present in all this stuff about fake news,” Rahman said.

Rahman says humans find it difficult to recognize our motivations. In fact, he’s not even sure of his own motivations, though he suspects it has to do with the concept of finding home.

“I think one of the things I like about looking at the motivations of my characters is that I can see what they are. It's much harder for me to see what my motivations are,” Rahman said. “We're not very good at being honest with ourselves. However, I can be very honest about my own characters.”

Mapping the world’s elites

Rahman is currently spending a year as a fellow at Harvard University in the Radcliffe Institute. He is working on a project to map what he calls “the world’s influencers and decision-makers” and their relationships to one another, using publicly-available data.

“There's an enormous amount of information out there that is useful and would prevent a lot of journalists, law enforcement, investigators, from duplicating efforts at the moment,” Rahman said.

He foresees the mapping project as a way for journalists and others to make connections between politicians and powerful institutions, like Wall Street, foreign governments and corporations.

Rahman has two degrees in mathematics and used to work as a banker, a corporate lawyer, a human rights lawyer and as an anti-government activist, so this particular project hits many of his interests.

“This is a project that has real world impact, could make a difference … will make a positive difference. But it's also satisfying for me because it touches, again, you know all these different buttons these things that I'm interested in,” Rahman said.

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Suzette Grillot: Zia Heider Rahman welcome to Worldviews.

Zia Heider Rahman: Hi Suzette. I'm really glad to be here.

Grillot: It's good to have you here as part of the Neustadt celebration and I've been really looking forward to this conversation because, wow, you've done so many different things. And of course we're going to talk about your literature, but many things that you've done. You've been a banker and an international human rights lawyer and an anti-corruption activist and you've got new tech projects going on now. But let's start with your literature, the novel that was published in 2014 "In the Light of What We Know." You cover a lot of territory in this book: Friendship, geopolitics, math, science. This seems to be a very broad subject. "In the Light of What We Know." What are you telling us in this book? What is this book about?

Rahman: It's about all these things, but it's also ... The question I'm detecting at the heart of what you're saying is how can these things hang together. Well first of all, there's the space for trying to get together. The book is I think some 500 pages long. Secondly, they hang together because they hang together in the characters. I'm always keen to focus on the preoccupations of the characters. A large part of my thinking in writing is trying to understand what animates the internal lives of my characters. And this novel is preoccupied with if any if it can be distilled to the preoccupations can be distilled into a short sentence then that sentence would be that this novel is about knowledge and the and the question of the extent to which what we think we know is reliable. So it's an epistemological novel it makes this you know it it makes it's an exploration of of this fundamental question, which you know, we see today present in this in all this stuff about fake news.

Grillot: That's where I was going to go next. Tell us how it connects to that sort of thing?

Rahman: The fact that is one of the central questions of fake news. Right. I mean we were asking ourselves all the time how can I rely on what I am being told and what are the indicia, what are the things that cause me to rely on things when when I do rely on them. That's the question we should be asking ourselves. And the broader question is that people have seemed to no longer, they seem no longer to be placing faith in the kinds of cultural markers that they used that used to signify authority. Not all people, but some people. And so it is not enough simply that someone on TV, typically a middle aged white male, is pontificating on TV and therefore we believe him. For others, they mourn the loss of this trope, the middle aged white male on TV whom they vested with so much authority. So these these are the sorts of pressing issues, but my novel is an inquiry into that. And yes, you're right, it touches on all these other things. It goes into Afghanistan, goes into banking, finance.

Rahman: You know the whole novel starts off in September 2008 when a friend, an old friend, reappears at the door of our narrator and they've known each other for since college and they're now in their early 40s. These two men have two different stories to tell. And the friend who's reappeared starts by telling by beginning his story and telling it to the narrator.

Grillot: So Zia, it's inevitable here that I have to say we're going to talk about you because I started by noting that you've done a lot of different things in your life. You're telling me about your novel which you know people say you should write what you know, that you obviously you're writing about a lot of different things in your novel. But you said that you want to understand what motivates the internal lives of your characters. So now let's understand what motivates the internal life of you. You've done all of these different things like I said. You've been a banker and a human rights lawyer and an anti-corruption activist. You were born in Bangladesh but you grew up in London and you are you have British citizenship and we're going to get in a minute to make something you've written in the New York Times about being Bangladeshi but. But what is it that's internally motivating you?

Rahman: More and more of modern neuroscientific and cognitive scientific wisdom suggests that we're really quite ignorant of our own motivations and in fact our motivations are hidden from us. I think one of the things I like about looking at the motivations of my characters is that I can see what they are. It's much harder for me to see what my motivations are. My own motivations are often you know these things get in the way, vanity or ulterior motives, or all the discomfort of confronting a particular kind of motive. So all those sorts of things come into play and we're really not we're not very good at being honest with ourselves. However I can be very honest about my own characters. So that's one reason.

Grillot: Is it a reflexion of it all. Are you trying to get out your motivation at all?

Rahman: Yeah.

Grillot: Or trying to discover your own self through the characters that you're writing about?

Rahman: I'm sure there's a little bit of that, definitely. There's a little bit of trying to understand ... not a little bit. There's quite a bit of me trying to understand how how certain ideas operate in me. I might sound like I'm in a bit evasive and I suppose I am. But the evasion is not so much because I want to withhold something. It's because the thing I would say, in answer to your question, is not something I'm sure about. So the thing I would say is I think a lot of my life has been about trying to find home. But I don't know that, right. I can't, I catch glimpses of how this desire so do seems off and I sense that's what I'm doing here. But I can't, I can't be sure about that. It certainly explains things, right. And explicative power is not a bad place to start in trying to assess whether a theory is a good one. If it explains a lot of stuff, then. It doesn't mean it's true, though, right.

Grillot: No, because it doesn't explain everything.

Rahman: It doesn't explain everything.

Grillot: Not necessarily. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a theory. So you know you've written about being an immigrant that you this beautiful piece I'd recommend to anyone in the New York Times, "So now I'm Bangladeshi," where you were referred to as being you know a ... you were born in Bangladesh but you were raised in Britain you don't hold a passport even. You are British.

Rahman: And I was referred to as Bangladeshi by people who really do know better, the literary establishment people. Because I when I was I was sitting on a jury, a literary prize jury, and they really ought to have known better. They could have. I mean they they did know it. I mean this is the point. The assumptions, the underlying assumptions, of what constituted Britishness were just they were blind to their own assumptions. You know, they did they just assume it was okay to call me that.

Grillot: They assumed that it was okay to call you that. And you noted in your piece about these hyphenated identities that it always it's beyond that even because it emphasizes otherness that you're not, you can't just be British. You have to be Bangladeshi-British you have to be you know because it's just noting some distinction that even though that's who cares where you were born.

Rahman: Exactly.

Grillot: It's where you were raised and spent your time and what formed your entire life. But one of the things that you said in that piece is every battle of ideas is fought on the terrain of language. And you were referring to this hyphenated thing in the way in which we describe things in our in our language and our writing and that we're actually battling out these ideas about identity and immigration and life and who we are and where we come from and who gets to come from where and who gets to claim what as their background is their identity, that we're battling those things out with these kinds of language.

Rahman: A good example is, yeah, no, absolutely absolutely. But let me just make this other point. I think we are all looking for a home in some sense, right. And that's some people And it's not the fact that I'm an immigrant that causes me, I think. That's not exclusively the point. In fact I know many immigrants who don't struggle with this you know anywhere near as much as I do. But I think we all do in some sense, and that's what the Garden of Eden is all about. That's what it speaks to, this sense of exile that all humanity shares. And that we're all trying to go back to Eden in some form or another way. And I don't mean that religiously. I mean that as a literary person might do.

Grillot: In terms of exploring our humanity.

Rahman: Exactly because the shortfall that we all sense in some way I think a metaphor for that shortfall is not being at home. It ... we feel it. The shortfall. We feel is as if it were not being at home. But to go back to your question which I'm trying to remember {speaking over each other} So yeah Black Lives Matter is an example of that. So when some people counter, well of course, white lives matter too. It's hard for us to imagine, that they don't have the subtlety of language to understand that that doesn't work as a counterpoint because the phrase blacks lives Black Lives Matter doesn't mean what they are taking it to mean. So I for one am not prepared to condemn those who respond to, who make that response, I'm not prepared to condemn them as just being stupid. I don't think they are stupid. I think they the very reason why they counter with white lives matter, the reason is that they understand what it means. Right. So and I think that's right. So I think we contest these very subtle ideas in actually quite sophisticated ways. Even if on the surface they seem very simple confrontations.

Grillot: Well at the very end of your New York Times piece you said, "How much more can I integrate? What more do you want from me? Do you want me to be like you?” But I want to pick up on this word "integrate" because you've just made this argument that it's about the words we use and how we battle out ideas through words. And I've been interested lately in how people use the word "integrate" as opposed to "assimilate." This difference between "integration" and "assimilation." And I mean you could look it up and you get the the definition. There's a real, you know, there's a kind of underlying meaning there that's really important. And yet you chose the word "integrate" and I assume on purpose.

Rahman: Yes yes yes. Well first of all it's quite a contested idea whether one ought to do either of those, each of those ideas. Should should those who are perceived as newcomers, should they should they, integrate or or or should they assimilate or should they be required not to do either?

Grillot: And can you even do absolutely nothing?

Rahman: And what does that mean? I mean really what it means is is is that the ... it's required. It's never required by the newcomer. Right. First of all a requirement of the host. And really what it amounts to is, "I want you not to be alien to me by my terms." And and that gets even more problematic because actually there's no such thing as a host. There are lots of people, lots of different people, just as there's no such thing as a reader for a novel. I mean from the perspective of the author there are just lots of lots of readers, right, and that presents problems for writing literature as well actually. It's another, another ... But so different people have different expectations. But I chose "integrate" because it's weaker in some sense, right. It's weaker. We understand it as weaker. And and I'm saying that you know you want me to do all of that. It also makes the, you know, I say to be to be you, to be white, to be you. I think. I don't know if I actually said to be white.

Grillot: You did.

Rahman: I did yes yes yes. By that yeah. A lot of people asked me, actually, have asked me since then, that particular piece in The New York Times got huge circulation and people did ask me, friends asked me, "I never realized you were that angry." And actually to tell the truth I'm not that angry.

Grillot: It's interesting because that's what people would pick up on.

Rahman: Yeah. I did make it angry. I made it sound angry by the end. You sort of see the emotional charge. Rather than anger, what's interesting is some people saw it as anger. Others saw it as a cry, a sort of a ... some people describe it as a very moving piece.

Grillot: And it is all of those things I think, but it's also very to me it was it's just very like straightforward. What more can I do?

Rahman: Well there's a list of things I've done to try and meet you.

Grillot: So tell me what more can I do, but then it's all said that just that. Why do I have to keep asking you what more can I do for you?

Rahman: And I think I think you know that the point is that that was always a fictional test that those who decide who have until now and possibly continue to arbitrate, and they do. They continue to arbitrate on the question of who is inside and who is not, who in this case is British and who isn't. Or who is American and who is not. Those who decide that or claimed to believe themselves to be in the position of deciding that, they that they have no interest in actually giving you anything other than a moving goalpost. So by the time you get there, it will have shifted. Because really what they are about, what deciding is the very act of deciding is about, as keeping you out. So. So yeah. So yeah.

Grillot: Well so let's end on this note. You were telling me about a very interesting project that you are working on now as if you had any more stuff to do, it seems to me. You're working on a tech company now, tech enterprise, where you're mapping the world's elite and their relationships.

Rahman: Yes yes.

Grillot: How do you do that and why?

Rahman: So I'm spending a year at Harvard as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. And what I done, in fact, before I even arrived we've been putting together a team of people around the world to map the world's influencers and decision-makers, and those are individuals but also corporations and institutions. The influencers and decision-makers, and really get a good picture of their interrelationships. And I think it's something that really began to bother me about a year ago when it struck me that newspapers and the journalists weren't making any headway. They seemed to be not saying very much, getting very far, on questions to do with, you know, the relationships between candidates for the U.S. president presidency. Relationships between them and Wall Street and foreign governments and foreign corporations. And it seemed to me very puzzling. Why why weren't they making any headway on this? And so this idea, this kind of mapping of interrelationships, using publicly available information, I might add. I mean, that's crucial to this. So we're not doing anything that runs up against libel or defamation or any of that. But there's an enormous amount of information out there that is useful and would prevent a lot of journalists, law enforcement, investigators, from duplicating efforts at the moment. I mean you might have noticed that the Washington Post and The New York Times have recently been showing us lots of diagrams of relationships. Well the research they've each been doing has actually been a duplication of the other's effort. And at a time when journalism is really being squeezed by the Internet, I think it's really important to find as many ways as possible to reduce the costs facing those who are facing the Fifth Estate. The most sacred, most sacred institution of democracy.

Grillot: How is that going to work? How is that thing going to work?

Rahman: Well, well. I can't I can't divulge everything. I'm not or not to know but they will but it will. In terms of ... it's tech heavy. So that's one thing it's tech heavy.

Grillot: So not usable by everyone.

Rahman: Oh no no no no. It should be usable by everyone. The idea of ...

Grillot: A database of some sort that we can access.

Rahman: Yes absolutely. And that uses modern networked science, science that has really sort of come into its own in the last, I'd say, 15, 20 years. It's been around for a while now but really come into its own and got a shot in the arm with things like Facebook and LinkedIn and also Twitter and various things like that that they actually provide large data sources that network scientists are able to use to do research in this field of mathematics. And they've been able therefore to develop tools for analyzing network data, which is a different kind of data from the kind of data that ordinarily you think about when you think about big data, such as health data. Network data is a different kind of data and requires different tools. You can't just do your linear regression and things like that. All that secret stuff that goes on, none of that applies. So that makes it very exciting in many different ways. This is a project that has real world impact, could make a difference, positive difference, will make a positive difference. But it's also satisfying for me because it touches, again, you know all these different buttons these things that I'm interested in it used to be a human rights lawyer who used to be an anti-corruption activist. I used to be a banker, corporate lawyer, and my first two degrees were in mathematics. So this is touching a lot of different buttons.

Grillot: Bringing you full circle, it sounds like. Well I mean it certainly sounds like a real world impact, but all of the work that you've done really does seem to be not only very exciting, innovative, it's very innovative and has an impact, and so I appreciate you being here today to share it all with us and our listeners. Thank you.

Rahman: Suzette, it's been great. Thanks.

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