Book review: The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

cv_the_new_digital_agThis book is in bookshops now.

How will the rapidly increasing spread of connectivity – such as you are using to read this review – affect us, and our institutions? This book claims to answer that question.

Indeed, this book promises a great deal. Its sub-title is ‘Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business’, and there are snippets of fulsome praise from many people, Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Tony Blair, and Henry Kissinger among others, scattered around both covers and the fly-leaf.

When I first picked it up my immediate reaction was ‘No Way – it’s over sold’. Is it?
To avoid suspense: no it isn’t, not entirely anyway.

The book starts with a simple, but counter-intuitive observation – that ‘the Internet is among the few things humans have built that they do not completely understand’. I was able to quibble with that immediately – it is the possible applications of the Internet that humans do not fully understand, but that turned out to be one of the many places in which clarity of explanation, and high-octane writing, are allowed some poetic license. No problem.

The book seeks to take what is happening perhaps just somewhere today and work out what can be expected everywhere tomorrow, in a world in which everyone is connected. This goes beyond just getting straightforward information; after all virtually every fact is already available more or less instantly to those of us who are already connected. What happens when the other 80% of the world’s population are connected all the time?

The book is structured in seven chapters, looking at the future of ourselves; of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting, of States; of Revolution; of Terrorism; of Conflict, of Combat and Intervention, and lastly of Reconstruction. Each chapter describes some of the things that are happening now, and projects to the future of ubiquitous connection. Big questions are asked about the relationship between the individual and the state, about privacy and security, about relationships between states, and what we will need to give up to gain the advantages of this coming digital age.

One core of the discussion argument is the observation that the future population will be connected, but at different levels – what the authors call a ‘digital caste system’. Different individuals will benefit from this connectivity to different degrees. States will find that they need to deal with the virtual world as well as the physical one. International relations will extend to include cyberspace, as indeed warfare already has – several examples are given.

The interactions between individuals and the state will change both in quantity and kind. The book stresses that technological change gives many benefits, but also brings less desirable impacts. Connected citizens will be empowered in many ways – witness the green revolution in Iran, in which Twitter was the primary means of communication and organisation. But this empowerment comes at the cost of the elimination of privacy. How can the costs and the benefits be balanced?

These are just a few of the big issues that are raised, and the authors give plenty of detail about the current state of play and what the future might hold in each case that they address. Their conclusions however are more variable – some are detailed and well thought out with concrete implications, others are more general. That’s probably to be expected, since the authors and their research teams are not omniscient.

I did notice that there isn’t much comment on the issue of corporate responsibility, although it is acknowledged that multi-national corporations can act almost as states, without such inconveniences as democracy or borders. I liked their discussion of the inevitability of changes driven by citizens, technology and corporations, despite the inherent conservatism of governments and politicians, and wished for more.

But who are these authors? How are they qualified to pontificate on the future with such confidence?
Eric Schmidt is the Executive Chairman of Google, after a long career as a technologist, and Jared Cohen is “Director, Google Ideas”, which doesn’t tell us much. What makes two geeks think they can answer such a wide-ranging set of questions? I’m a geek, and I don’t ask these questions, let alone provide answers.

Turns out that these are no ordinary geeks: both have been advisors to senior US politicians, including three Secretaries of State, and Barack Obama. Cohen has had some hair-raising experiences in the Middle East and Africa, is listed as an expert on terrorism, and radicalism, and has been a State Department policy planner. They have been involved with the Council on Foreign Relations, which is a large non-partisan think-tank. And they have talked to a lot of people either directly or perhaps through their researchers.

This is a short book. There are 315 pages but the main text finishes on page 257. There is an extensive set of notes about the sources, and an index.

The prose is readable and fast-moving, but in places I’d describe it as over-strong. Certainly there are a number of places in which a bald statement ‘Such-and-such will happen’ appears where a more nuanced argument might have been expected. This is no doubt a by-product of the need to keep the book pitched at as wide an audience as possible. The authors could have taken a narrower scope (or written two books), and I found the chapters on the individual, on privacy and security more insightful than some of the other sections. And there is bad news within, particularly the certainty that the Internet will be “balkanised” by large companies with revenues to build.

I was left with more questions than answers, but that is probably the point. At least now I know some questions and have some useful input towards finding my own answers.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

The New Digital Age
by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen
Published by John Murray Publishers Ltd
ISBN 9781848546219

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