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Google execs' 'New Digital Age' resists cyber-siren song

book review Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen are more sober than starry-eyed in this worthwhile look at how a pervasive Internet changes censorship, privacy, identity, government, and war.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, left, and Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen
"The New Digital Age"

When two executives at the world's most optimistic technology company write about humanity's digital future, you might expect a book brimming with excitement about the wonders to come.

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen offer plenty of that, but what makes "The New Digital Age" worth reading is the correspondingly healthy dose of pessimism. The book, released today, ultimately is persuasive in making the case that people can steer technology so it helps us more than it harms us.

The book, with straightforward writing and compelling details, seeks to predict what happens as today's online population of 2 billion relatively wealthy people are joined by 5 billion others in the next few years.

Here's the short version: a big, contradictory mess.

That's because the Internet -- "the largest experiment involving anarchy in history," as Schmidt and Cohen aptly describe it -- is indeed often contradictory. The authors argue we should expect more of the same.

One moment, Schmidt and Cohen describe how the Net enables business and social interactions that span cultural and geographic boundaries, fusing the planet's population into an interlocked world economy and culture. The next moment, they're describing how governments will balkanize the Net to keep out unwanted information and better control what its citizens see.

One moment, they're talking about how verified online identities will form the basis of people's reputations, with anonymous users' thoughts relegated to ignored backwaters of the Net. The next, they're talking about how media outlets will hire journalists known only by registration number or how political activists will buy encrypted communication services to smuggle sensitive information out of a repressive country.

One moment, they're talking about how connectivity will bring education and economic development to the poorest parts of the world and bring a sci-fi techno-utopia to the rich parts. The next, they're warning of cyberwar's untraceable attacks and of terrorists attacking with bombs on unmanned flying drones.

In short, Cohen and Schmidt see a glass that's both half empty and half full.

And that's OK, because the Internet has proved a mixed blessing so far, and there's no reason to think anything will become simple anytime soon. Oversimplification wouldn't serve anybody, even if it reads better, and the Internet is after all just the latest in a long series of human inventions that will be put to use for both good and ill.

Who should read it?
Little in the book will surprise technophiles familiar with the steady spread of smartphones, the advances in processor miniaturization, the resilience of data stored in the cloud, the power of social networks, and the speed that industry giants' ecosystems can spread software and services to a huge population.

But those very technophiles are probably the very people who'd benefit most from a measured look at the ups and downs of our connected future, a look that goes beyond wealthy countries and the near-term dramas of patent squabbles and market-share statistics. Cohen and Schmidt offer detailed assessments of drone warfare, cyberwar, terrorism and counterterrorism, and the future of censorship in China.

Unfortunately, amid the clear-headed thinking, you'll also have to endure some gushing about the wonders of coming technology. It can sound as uncritical as last century's ads that promised dishwashers, washing machines, and refrigerators would free us from drudgery and elevate us into a higher plane of happiness.

"Haircuts will finally be automated and machine-precise," they write. I can't wait to check that off the list.

The book is good for a general audience -- nothing requiring an understanding of MapReduce or TCP/IP. But it seems aimed in particular at politicians, about whose technological savvy the authors clearly are worried given how much power they hold.

"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. "As global connectivity continues its unprecedented advance, many old institutions and hierarchies will have to adapt or risk becoming obsolete, irrelevant to modern society."

That political focus shouldn't be a surprise, given who wrote it.

Schmidt, Google's executive chairman and former chief executive, led Google through its maturity into an Internet powerhouse, but now he's been spending a lot of time hobnobbing with world leaders and high-ranking businesspeople. Cohen, director of Google Ideas, has worked in the U.S. State Department and still holds a post at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The book stemmed from a 2010 article written for Foreign Affairs, a publication dedicated to foreign-policy discussions. So don't be surprised at all the anthropomorphic descriptions of how states do this, regimes do that, and governments behave. As icing on the policy-wonk cake, they even quote Henry Kissinger making grand assertions about how revolutions run their course.

Fortunately, the authors avoid the vagueness of political abstractions by grounding the book with plenty of specific cases. Even if you pay attention to how the Net has become involved in international politics, there will be cases of activism, crackdowns, snooping, content filtering, and censorship evasion you probably didn't known about.

Perhaps you hadn't heard of "Currygate," which led to new online expression in tightly restricted Singapore after Singaporeans of Indian descent protested a dispute involving a Chinese immigrant. Or how Saudi government reversed a decision to flog a woman for driving after hundreds of thousands of people inside and outside Saudi Arabia objected online. Or how within six days, Chinese people identified, located, and disgraced a woman for a video of her killing a kitten by stomping it with high-heeled shoes. Or how Vodafone had employees living in its Egyptian network operations center so it could gain a competitive advantage the moment the Egyptian government permitted the restoration of mobile-phone service during its Arab Spring revolution.

Big business evades scrutiny
It's easy for individuals to feel powerless, but Schmidt and Cohen make the case, with modest success, that laws can be changed and governments can be improved. Privacy legislation can protect people, corrupt politicians can be exposed, and bureaucracies can be made more efficient.

The New Digital Age
"The New Digital Age" in analog form The New Digital Age

Where they fall short is in bringing some of their attention to the other superpowers: the massive technology companies themselves.

The book doesn't ignore these juggernauts, but they don't get much of a critical eye, either. Telecommunications companies get credit for helping to to rebuild after tsunamis and for bringing stability to Somalia. But with the exception of the case of North Korea, they don't take much blame for enabling censorship or authoritarian snooping.

Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google also get credit for building massive global platforms that foster local economic development (Microsoft must make do merely with credit for developing the Kinect's gesture-based video game interface).

"Almost nothing short of a biological virus can spread as quickly, efficiently, or aggressively as these technology platforms, and this makes the people who build, control, and use them powerful, too," they write. "On the world stage, the most significant impact of the spread of communication technologies will be the way they help reallocate the concentration of power away from states and institutions and transfer it to individuals."

But there is insufficient scrutiny of their own roles in building an online future. Legislation is important, but so is what companies do on their own. And major international tech companies are picking up a lot of that power when it's being transferred away from states.

To be fair, Google itself lobbies governments for what it believes is the right thing to do -- working to block the Stop Online Piracy Act, opposing an effort to put the Internet itself under the control of individual governments, and trying to discredit Chinese censorship. But the book mostly gives passing attention to just how important these companies become as more and more of our lives move online. It's almost laughable when the authors advise us to make sure we read the terms and conditions of Web site usage carefully.

Cohen and Schmidt are right to warn us that "We are what we tweet":

The communication technologies we use today are invasive by design, collecting our photos, comments and friends into giant databases that are searchable and, in the absence of outside regulation, fair game for employers, university admissions personnel, and town gossips.

But the private sector has an opportunity to get ahead here, doing the right thing by users rather than waiting passively for the citizenry and legislators to address the problem.

Techno-utopian dreams
Most of the book takes a measured tone, avoiding things like hysterical warnings about a terrorist-controlled drone swarm. But the opening chapter of the book suffers from a bit of technology overexcitement.

Along with a litany of inventions not hard to predict from a couple Google execs -- self-driving cars and augmented reality glasses, for example -- comes the expectation of robots that can fix plumbing, nanobots in our bloodstream to monitor our health, holographic home videos and slideshows, and telepresence robots to give spoiled rich kids an attitude adjustment with a close-up look at a third-world slum.

It's unfortunate, since the authors likely are right about some of their projections, that their words sound like an uncritical marketing sales pitch.

"Centralizing the many moving parts of one's life into an easy-to-use, almost intuitive system of information management and decision-making will give our interactions with technology an effortless feel," they write.

In my experience so far, technology has improved shockingly since my first TRS-80 Color Computer decades ago, but every increase in ease of use is offset by an increase in sensory overload. I'm more efficient, but I'm not more relaxed.

Schmidt and Cohen are eager to assure us that we'll be able to take a break from it all, though:

By relying on these integrated systems, which will encompass both the professional and personal sides of our lives, we'll be able to use our time more effectively each day -- whether that means having the time to have a "deep think," spending more time preparing for an important presentation, or guaranteeing that a parent can attend his or her child's soccer game without distraction.

I see plenty of parents poking at smartphones rather than playing with their children, even when there's no work crisis. I'm certainly guilty of the offense. So it could be that human nature will have to change before we set the right priorities in this particular part of our technological lives.

A soberer view greets people outside richer areas of the world.

Congolese fisherwomen and Maasai cattle herders will see better business with smartphones that connect them with customers, but they'll also be the sort of people who see the worst of the future Internet, Cohen and Schmidt write:

They'll receive the greatest benefits from connectivity, but also face the worst drawbacks of the digital age. It is this population that will drive the revolutions and challenge the police states, and they'll also be the people tracked by their governments, harassed by online hate mobs, and disoriented by marketing wars.

This duality -- the promise and the peril of ubiquitous connectivity -- is at the heart of "The New Digital Age." Technology's march may be preordained, but how people handle it isn't.

"The New Digital Age," 336 pages, is published by Random House at a list price of $26.95.