When it comes to books forecasting the future, tech statesmen like Eric Schmidt don’t have a stellar track record. Even Bill Gates, in his 1995 “The Road Ahead,” famously ignored the Internet just as it was about to transform the world.
If Schmidt, Google (GOOG)’s executive chairman, and Jared Cohen, Google Ideas director, manage to sidestep any Gates-style howlers in “The New Digital Age,” it’s because their view of what’s ahead is complex, and not particularly pretty.
A common thread runs through their vision of how technology is redefining ideas of society, nationhood and business. It’s that technology is just a tool, albeit an incredibly powerful one, and the good or evil ends to which it’s put will be limited only by the imaginations of those deploying it.
“The central truth of the technology industry -- that technology is neutral but people are not -- will periodically be lost among all the noise,” the authors write. “But our collective progress as citizens in the digital age will hinge on our not forgetting it.”
Indeed, there’s not much Pangloss in their world view. In a chapter on the future of revolutions, for example, they cite the vital role played by social media in ousting despots, most notably during the Arab Spring.
But they also point out that while technology can mobilize citizens to mass in the town square, it provides little guidance about what to do when they get there, let alone once the despot is deposed.
China, in particular, comes in for something of a pummeling in “The New Digital Age.” Citing the 2011 crash of a high-speed train in Wenzhou, when microbloggers widely questioned the sanitized official version of events, the authors predict that the clash of a technologically advanced citizenry and tight government control is “exceptionally volatile,” and could lead to “widespread instability.”
They also call out the Chinese government for allegedly organizing cyber-attacks on offending U.S. companies -- most obviously Google -- and insufficiently respecting intellectual-property rights, and China’s telecom giant Huawei for doing business with authoritarian regimes such as Iran’s.
Still, all is not grim in the future world Schmidt and Cohen sketch. They devote an entire chapter to the role of technology in reconstructing societies after natural or man-made disasters.
The basic message: Far from being a low-priority luxury, fast data networks are almost a prerequisite to make sure efforts are directed to where they’re most needed.
The biggest flaw in “The New Digital Age” may be a tendency on some issues to have it both ways. The authors first decry the free-information-at-any-cost ethos of WikiLeaks as “a dangerous model,” then provide a lengthy, respectful and remarkably judgment-free explication of its philosophy, based in part on an interview with the house-arrested Julian Assange.
Similarly, they extol the vital role of news organizations as verifiers and analyzers of the flood of information generated by the future newsgatherers of Twitter and other social networks -- but offer no suggestions as to how those organizations can afford such a role while their economic viability is drained by, among others, Google.
Meanwhile, just what does the future hold for Google itself and its fellow tech companies, which provide the tools and services that will shape the future? The authors predict a bumpy ride ahead, as they increasingly become targets of anger from all sides.
Some of it, they acknowledge, will be justified, “but much will be misplaced. It is, after all, much easier to blame a single product or company for a particularly evil application of technology than to acknowledge the limitations of personal responsibility.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.