Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen begin their new nonfiction book, “The New Digital Age,” with a rather bold pronouncement: “The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.” Subsequent chapters deal with how that experiment will alter life in decades to come, as more and more people around the world connect to the Internet via cheap mobile phones and other devices.
The authors aren’t shy in suggesting that the Internet will ultimately change lives for the better. In fact, any other position would have been odd: Schmidt is chairman of Google, and Cohen director of Google Ideas. While they quote a number of very opinionated people throughout the book—including Henry Kissinger, who offers the realpolitik version of “Get off my lawn,” and Android designer Andy Rubin—the pair always come back to the same conclusion: that the cloud will grow, that the cloud will store more data, that the cloud will offer more features, that the cloud is good, good, good.
Of course, Schmidt and Cohen extolling the virtues of the cloud is like two corporate board-members of McDonald’s insisting that burgers are delicious and everyone in the world should eat them three times a day. They talk about data permanence and its effect on attempts to safeguard privacy, but they never suggest that IT companies find a way to delete data in a permanent way (even though a number of entities are debating “right to be forgotten” legislation). They suggest that future governments could upload all their data to the cloud for safekeeping, but never really delve into the privacy and security concerns that would come with such a move. One wonders how much the pair’s respective tenures at Google, which profits enormously from data permanence and cloud storage, have affected their vision in these pages.
Indeed, the authors remain so wedded to their thesis—that the Internet will reach the majority of the world’s population in coming years, forcing massive but ultimately positive changes—that they end up making contrarian arguments at moments, depending on context. Midway through the book, for example, they suggest that the prevalence of mobile devices and the cloud will reduce the number of “massacres on a genocidal scale,” although “discrimination will likely worsen and become more personal.” Several pages later, however, the authors suggest that connectivity “encourages and enables altruistic behavior,” and that activism will increase when more people realize they can simply click or tap an onscreen button to contribute to a cause.
Smoothing out these colliding positions would have been a simple matter of acknowledging that human beings are complex, and that different groups will engage in wildly different behaviors with the same tools. But Schmidt and Cohen never dip into the human side of things, or explore the effect of technology on psychology; and as a result, the book at times feels disjointed.
They also fail to mention how the coming ubiquity of the Internet will flood the world with more data “noise.” Instead, they imply that all interactions are useful, regardless of the information being shared. “Activists in the future will benefit from the collective knowledge of other activists and people around the world,” they write at one point, without really digging into the main issue that comes with that connectivity: deciding which 1 percent of inbound “knowledge” is actually useful at that moment.
Along those same lines, they tout crowdsourcing as something that can “produce more comprehensive and accurate information, help track down wanted criminals and create demand for accountability,” without mentioning how such a tool can fail in spectacularly messy ways—witness what happened in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, in which the hive-mind on Reddit seized on innocent bystanders as suspects.
That’s not to say that Schmidt and Cohen avoid all the negatives that will surely come with the next generation of technology. They devote considerable space to the dank underbelly of the future Internet, from virtual “identity kidnappings” to state-sponsored cyber-attacks. Yet they never plunge into some of the thornier ethical and philosophical conundrums attached to some of those situations. Even the ramifications of drone warfare are largely waved away: “Asymmetric encounters in combat… will continue to pose unpredictable challenges for even the most sophisticated technologies.” That’s pretty dry language for collateral damage and death.
“The New Digital Age” is worth reading as a survey of how the future could look. But it may leave you wishing for a book that explored, in a more thorough manner, the inevitable mess that the coming technological revolutions will leave in their wake.