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Google’s big hitters’ most ambitious predictions yet

by John Naughton

The Observer

When, in early 2011, Eric Schmidt stepped aside from his position as Google’s CEO to become the company’s executive chairman, some of us were reminded of Dean Acheson’s famous gibe about postwar Britain — which had “lost an empire but not yet found a role.” What would Dr. Schmidt’s new role be, and when would he find it?

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. Knopf, 2013, 315 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)

Well, now we know. As well as acting as the public face of Google, he’s also been traveling the globe, researching a book with his coauthor, Jared Cohen, who has the magnificent title of “director, Google Ideas.”

“The New Digital Age” is the most ambitious attempt to date to sketch the contours of the world that will emerge as a result of the penetration of electronic networking into every corner of the globe and every part of people’s lives. At the moment, just over a third of the world’s population has an Internet connection of some kind. That leaves 5 billion to go. We used to assume that it would be a long time before they got hooked up. Schmidt and Cohen disagree. They think that global connectivity will arrive much faster than we used to think, and they believe that it will be a truly transformational development, a real hinge of history.

Their argument, in a nutshell, goes like this. Connectivity on an unimaginable scale is coming and the vast majority of humankind will be net beneficiaries of it. But their experience of it will not be uniform. A “digital caste system” will endure well into the future, and the extent to which people will benefit from the technology will be critically dependent on their positions in that system: poor people will be the biggest beneficiaries simply because of where they live, but they will also face the worst drawbacks of the digital age.

So far, so unremarkable. Where the book gets interesting is where it ponders what connectivity might mean for states and their citizens, and for conflict. Cyberspace will not “overtake or overhaul” the existing world order, but it will make everything more complicated. States, for example, will find that they will need domestic policies to deal with both the physical and virtual worlds, and also two foreign policies — one for “normal” international relations, and one for cyberspace. And the policies will be different in each case. Connected citizens will find themselves empowered to some extent in novel ways — which in turn implies different kinds of interactions with the state; but this empowerment will come with serious downsides — for example in the erosion (or perhaps elimination) of privacy. And so on. The message is always the same: technology giveth; and technology taketh away. This basic mantra underpins the book’s seven chapters, each of which carries the heading “The future of …” Thus it deals with the future of “Identity, Citizenship and Reporting” (an odd set of bedfellows, IMHO), the future of “States,” of “Revolution,” of “Terrorism,” of “Conflict, Combat and Intervention” and, finally, of “Reconstruction.”

Each chapter goes into relentless detail, which leads one to guess that the first drafts were the product of teams of those smart, endlessly obliging Ivy League interns who are filling in time before becoming Fulbright or Rhodes scholars.

The thoroughness is — to use a sophomore cliche — awesome, but the level of detail sits awkwardly with the incessant use of the word “will” in places where more seasoned analysts would put “could” or even “might.” That said, there’s a lot of thought-provoking material. The authors are insightful about what will happen to personal identity and privacy in a networked world.

Despite its thoroughness and appetite for detail, there is one glaring omission from Schmidt’s and Cohen’s vision of the future: the phenomenon of corporate power. They are — rightly — interested in the ways in which networking technology will affect the power of states both vis-a-vis one another and vis-a-vis the people who live under their jurisdictions. But there’s very little about the power and reach of the global corporations — like Google — that will dominate this emerging world. And insofar as corporations are mentioned at all, they are generally seen as benign.

As the Duke of Wellington said to the man who approached him in the street saying, “Mr. Smith, I believe,” if you believe that, you will believe anything.