The Internet Doesn’t Hurt People — People Do: ‘The New Digital Age’

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jessica Rinaldi / REUTERS

Executive Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt listens to a question at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts April 25, 2013.

The rise of the Internet has been one of the most transformative developments in human history, at least comparable in impact to the advent of the printing press and the telegraph. Over two billion people worldwide now have access to vastly more information than ever before, and can communicate with each other almost instantaneously, often using Web-connected mobile devices they carry everywhere. But according to Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, the Internet’s disruptive impact has only just begun.

“Mass adoption of the Internet is driving one of the most exciting social, cultural, and political transformations in history, and unlike earlier periods of change, this time the effects are fully global,” Schmidt and Cohen write in their new book, The New Digital Age, published Tuesday.

Perhaps the most profound changes will come when the five billion people worldwide who currently lack Internet access get online. The authors do an excellent job of examining the implications of the Internet revolution for individuals, governments, and institutions like the news media. But if the book has one major short-coming, it’s that the authors don’t spend enough time applying a critical eye to the role of Internet businesses — particularly giants like Google and Facebook — in these sweeping changes.

Schmidt and Cohen, who first met in Baghdad in 2009, are well-situated to document the digital changes transforming our society, and they spent three years writing the book, which includes interviews with several prominent figures, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Schmidt, a 58-year-old billionaire, was Google’s CEO for a decade; he now serves as the company’s executive chairman. Cohen, a 31-year-old geopolitical expert, is now director of Google Ideas, the company’s New York-based “think/do tank.” This year, Cohen, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford and Oxford, is on the TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world.

(MORE: Is Broadband Internet Access a Public Utility?)

In The New Digital Age, the authors aim to provide the most authoritative volume to date that describes — and more importantly predicts — how the Internet and other new technological advances will shape our lives in the coming decades and beyond. Schmidt and Cohen paint a picture of a world in which individuals, companies, institutions, and governments must navigate two realities, one physical, and one virtual.

At the core of the book is the idea that “technology is neutral, but people aren’t.” By using this concept as a starting point, the authors aim to move beyond the now familiar optimist vs. pessimist dichotomy that has characterized many recent debates about whether the rise of the Internet will ultimately be good or bad for society. In an interview with TIME earlier this week at Google’s New York City headquarters, Cohen said that although he and his co-author are certainly optimistic about many aspects of the Internet, they’re also realistic about the risks and dangers that lie ahead when the next 5 billion people come online, particularly with respect to personal privacy and state surveillance.

“We have a fundamental belief that there is no country that’s worse off because the Internet arrived,” Cohen told TIME. “We don’t believe the Internet makes countries worse. So yes, we’re optimistic about that, but we’re also realistic about the world’s problems, and we’re determined to have an honest and frank conversation about the good and the bad that awaits us, where technology is implicated, and where technology can be a useful tool.”

In developed countries like the United States, Schmidt and Cohen write, the Internet and other technological advances will make individuals and companies more efficient, increasing productivity and improving standards of living. Imagine driverless cars, thought-controlled robotic motion, and “augmented reality,” the likes of which Google has begun testing with its Google Glass Web-connected spectacles. The rise of 3-D printing — in which designs are downloaded from the Internet and manufactured on a smale scale — could herald the emergence of a new generation of producers, who will bring “an unprecedented variety to the products used in the developed world.” And forget about the traditional conference call: Meeting participants will be projected as holograms into your home or office.

(MOREHow the ‘Maker’ Movement Plans to Transform the U.S. Economy)

In the future envisioned by Schmidt and Cohen, new technologies and information systems will streamline mundane, everyday tasks: Imagine a refrigerator that automatically orders groceries, or a washing machine that cleans, dries, and folds laundry, before “algorithmically” recommending the optimal outfit based on the weather and day of the week. Robots will vacuum our homes, take out the trash, and manage the recycling. Haircuts will be automated. Personal schedules and to-do lists will be stored online and linked to the rest of your devices. Typing itself may soon become a lost art as emails, terms-papers, articles, and speeches are dictated using the next generation of voice-recognition software. The automation of everyday chores will leave more time for people to address the most important tasks, according to Schmidt and Cohen, such as preparing for a key work presentation, watching an important lecture, attending a child’s sports game, or simply engaging in what the authors call a “deep think.”

The impact of the Internet, mobile phones and technological miniaturization in the developing world may be even more profound. Consider the Congolese fisherwoman who will leave fish on the line in the river until individual orders are phoned in, rather than bringing her entire catch to market and watching it spoil in the heat. Or the Masai herder in the Serengeti, who will check market prices and the whereabouts of predators, and receive spoken answers from his mobile device. Or the young Kenyan inventor who designed a tiny, pressure-activated electronic chip, that, when placed in a shoe, can charge a mobile phone with every step.

The authors’ optimistic-but-realistic orientation is a welcome approach, particularly when it comes to international affairs. The Internet is not a panacea for solving the world’s ills, Schmidt and Cohen argue, but it can make a huge difference in the lives of billions of people around the world. Technology can help spark and accelerate revolutionary movements, as it did during the Arab Spring. But activists on the ground — real people — bear the responsibility and dangerous work of toppling dictators, and must be prepared to replace autocratic regimes with democratic governments. “It’s the people who make or break revolutions, not the tools they use,” Schmidt and Cohen write. “Building a Facebook page does not constitute a plan; actual operational skills are what will carry a revolution to a successful conclusion.”

(MOREGoogle Fiber Heading to Austin as Cities Race to Boost Web Speeds)

Because no one government, institution, or company controls the Internet, it amounts to “the largest experiment involving anarchy in human history,” Schmidt and Cohen write. “Hundreds of millions of people are, each minute, creating and consuming an untold amount of digital content in an online world that is not truly bound by terrestrial laws.” In this respect, the Internet shares a key trait with the classic theory of international relations that describes an anarchic, leaderless world. On the global stage, the most significant impact of the emergence of the Internet will be the reallocation of power from states and institutions to individuals. “Authoritarian governments will find their newly connected populations more difficult to control, repress and influence, while democratic states will be forced to include many more voices (individuals, organizations and companies) in their affairs.”

But this state of anarchy on the Internet comes with a dark side, the authors acknowledge. The lack of a central authority allows the proliferation of online scams, bullying campaigns, hate-group websites, and terrorist chat rooms. Unlike traditional media, in which reporters and editors place a premium on accuracy and context, Internet-based media allow anyone with a connection to publish inaccurate information, libel, or outright propaganda on a massive scale — frequently with few consequences to the author. (Consider a notorious recent example, when the Associated Press Twitter account was hacked, and a false message was sent to the news organization’s two million followers saying the White House had been attacked and President Obama had been injured. The message was quickly removed, but not before the stock market plunged 130 points, wiping out $130 billion in a matter of seconds.)

The emergence of hundreds of millions of potential “citizen journalists” with Internet connections will fundamentally change the nature of the news media business, the authors write. People all over the world will become amateur reporters: Remember the man in Abbottabad, Pakistan who tweeted that a helicopter was hovering overhead the night Osama bin Laden was killed? These new “correspondents” will play an important role as eyes and ears on the ground, according to Schmidt and Cohen. The mainstream media, meanwhile, will serve as a “credibility filter,” as its function “primarily becomes one of an aggregator, custodian and verifier.” The elite will come to rely even more on the mainstream media for cogent analysis, the authors argue, “simply because of the massive swell of low-grade reporting and information in the system.”

(MORE: After Austin: Five Reasons You’ll Want Google Fiber in Your City)

Another risk that Schmidt and Cohen identify is “data permanence,” in which our personal information, from financial and medical data, to our status updates and Tweets, to that photo from the graduation party you forgot you posted, will live online, often permanently. “This is the first generation of humans to have an indelible record,” the authors write. Rarely a week goes by these days when a private citizen doesn’t find his or her supposedly private information disseminated widely online. Hackers and online vigilantes routinely “dox” both public and private figures who provoke their ire, by publishing social security numbers, home addresses, and credit card numbers. The public will have to demand strict privacy protections from governments and companies, the authors write, but no information you put online will ever be 100% secure.

Data permanence, coupled with the spread of mobile devices, also has troubling implications for surveillance, blackmail, and even darker outcomes, in authoritarian states. “Without question, the increased access to people’s lives that the data revolution brings will give some repressive autocracies a dangerous advantage in targeting their citizens,” Schmidt and Cohen write. “What little privacy existed before will be long gone, because the handsets that citizens have with them at all times will double as the surveillance bugs regimes have long wished they could put in people’s homes.” Repressive states and other malevolent actors, meanwhile, will use advances in facial and voice recognition to pick dissidents and protestors out of crowds at demonstrations in order to target them.

It’s clear from the book that although Schmidt and Cohen believe in the power of the Internet to improve people’s lives, they aren’t shying away from the potential risks and downsides of billions of Internet-connected, mobile device-wielding citizens. They’re also clear-eyed about the limits of technology in the poorest and most violent regions of the world. “You can’t eat a cellphone,” Cohen told TIME. “It’s not medicine. If a bullet is being shot in the direction of somebody, it won’t stop that. And it doesn’t stop the police from showing up at your door at 3 o’clock in the morning. But it is a tremendous source of information to increase the likelihood that those things won’t be as devastating.”

The rapid pace of global technological change underscores one of the most important lessons of the book: the need for interdisciplinary expertise and insight. It is no longer satisfactory for experts in the discrete fields of technology, business, politics, and international affairs to remain cloistered in their respective silos. Because technology permeates all of these areas, the next generation of experts, journalists, and policymakers will need to be well-versed in each, in order to understand how technology, the catalytic driver of change in today’s world, is radically transforming industries, governments, and the age-old dynamic at the heart of political science: the relationship between the individual and the state.