The New Digital Age
Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen explore the 21st century, in which they see technology reshaping everything from the lives of individuals to the destinies of nations.
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I particularly liked Schmidt and Cohen's sophisticated analysis of the future of identity on a radically transparent network where individual privacy is essentially dead. With this death of privacy, they explain, public reputation becomes our most valuable asset – the thing that will most define our success and failure in a hypervisible world. They are good also on the educational ramifications of a world in which, by 2025, all 8 billion humans will be on the network – a change, Schmidt and Cohen predict, that will empower experimental online schools like the Khan Academy.
I found their section on revolutions particularly balanced and interesting. They note that the Internet is no friend of autocratic regimes. And yet they believe that the pace of revolutions driven by online protest will fail to generate mature revolutionary leaders like Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa. Most memorable of all, however, is their warning about "revolutionary tourists" – the online activists of the future who will "spend all day crawling the web for online protests to join ... just for the thrill of it."
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My only criticism of "The New Digital Age" is that occasionally Schmidt and Cohen let their techno-enthusiasm get the better of their analysis. The section, for example, on holographic travel – of being able to essentially transport oneself digitally somewhere else – is a bit too "Star Trek"-ish. And their classic Silicon Valley belief in the power of reason – in a strictly utilitarian network of rational people and rational government – sometimes crosses over into the Fordism so savagely parodied in Huxley's "Brave New World."
But it's their quasi-religious faith in the democratizing power of the Internet that is most irritating. Here, Schmidt and Cohen sometimes leave their own scientific reason at the door. "In the future," they promise, "people won't just back up their data; they'll back up their government." No, I won't drink that Kool-Aid. And nor, I suspect, will anyone reading this book in Iran, China, or Russia.
That said, "The New Digital Age" can't be dismissed as another cyber-utopian manifesto about the ways networked technology will inevitably save humanity. Schmidt and Cohen are careful to remind us that their work is "about humans" and that "what happens in the future is up to us." They understand and detail the darker side of the Internet, with its real-time warlords, its online mobs seeking immediate collective justice, and, most of all, its data that democratizes the making of terrorist bombs and drones.
"Technology", these two titans of Silicon Valley so rightly tell us, "is no panacea." The future, they say, is a "tale of two civilizations." It's the story of darkness and light, of both the freedom and tyranny created by the 21st-century network. This is the muddy, ambivalent online world mapped out "The New Digital Age." It may not have the clarity of Google maps, but it's just about the best guide we have for a misty digital future that even writers as perspicacious as Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen can't quite see.