Despite the seismic changes wrought by the Internet over the past 20 years, there’s a sense out there that we’re really only getting started. Who better to piece together a book full of sweeping predictions about the Internet’s impact going forward than Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman and former CEO of Google, and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations?
In The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, the two are not wide-eyed optimists (even though they do seem obsessed by the possibility of bringing Star Trek’s holodeck into our homes). By blending Schmidt’s tech savvy with Cohen’s understanding of the way governments and societies behave, they try to determine whether the citizen or the state will be more powerful in the future, whether technology makes terrorism easier, and whether we’ll continue to build societies in which we gladly trade privacy for security.
“There is a canyon dividing people who understand technology and people charged with addressing the world’s toughest geopolitical issues, and no one has built a bridge,” they write.
In The New Digital Age, Schmidt and Cohen take an “on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand” approach to their argument. On the one hand, the Internet’s free flow of information will yield more democratic societies, but on the other, autocratic societies will easily tap into these communication streams to search for dissenters and muckrakers, much like Iran and China do today.
On the one hand, e-commerce is still in its infancy and will make many people a lot of money (there will even be Internet insurance policies to protect against hacking and identity theft), but on the other, cybercrooks will always remain one step ahead of the law, finding ways to steal millions if not billions of dollars.
On the one hand, revolutions will be easier to start because communications are so easy, but on the other hand, they’ll be harder to finish because a million Twitter followers isn’t the same thing as a million motivated marchers taking over the streets.
Governments are struggling and will continue to struggle to create laws that govern a virtual rather than a physical world. Writing legislation for the “experiment in anarchy” that the Internet has become will continue to confuse and confound non-techie lawmakers. How do you legislate anarchy?
From Kosovo to Kabul to Kenya, Schmidt and Cohen provide hundreds of examples of how the Internet is changing states, and how governments are struggling, mostly unsuccessfully, to change the Internet. They raise issues that are current, provocative and for the most part unresolved. The Internet is no longer simply a window on the world. It has become the world itself, and it will need to be governed … somehow.
The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, hardcover, 336 pages. Published by Knopf.