April 25, 2013 12:01 am

Engine of humanity: ‘The New Digital Age’

Two Google executives offer an upbeat view of the internet’s power to shape our future
A protestor reads from his iPad during a sit-in at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in June 2012©Reuters

A protestor reads from his iPad during a sit-in at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in June 2012

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, John Murray RRP£25/Knopf RRP$26.95, 336 pages

 

Can the internet really save the world? That may be an exaggeration of the claims made in The New Digital Age, but not by much. Written by Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, head of the search company’s in-house think-tank, it lays out a mainly optimistic case for why the world’s tyrants should tremble in the face of universal internet access.

If there’s a single belief that underpins the book, it is summed up in this sentence: “Generally speaking, connectivity encourages and enables altruistic behaviour.” Most people, argue the authors, are moderates and reject the extremism that can destabilise societies: just let them connect to others like themselves and the world will be a better place. “The best thing anyone can do to improve the quality of life around the world is to drive connectivity and technological opportunity,” they conclude.

When applied to the complexities of international affairs, this risks sounding naïve. That’s certainly what the US Department of State seemed to feel when Schmidt took a trip to North Korea earlier this year. He said he went to explain the importance of opening up to the internet; the state department saw it as giving unwitting support to a sinister regime.

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As the visit shows, Schmidt has come to think of himself as something of an international statesman for the internet. Along with Cohen, who formerly worked at the state department on issues such as social media usage, he sets out here to predict how wider use of the internet will change the world, drawing on recent events such as the Arab uprising and China’s sweeping online censorship.

The book starts with the premise that most of the world’s population will soon enjoy open online communications and access to information. So what do they make of the two main levers available to repressive regimes: to filter online content or cut off access altogether?

The authors acknowledge that the internet’s virtual global commons are rapidly being balkanised, thanks to the censorship imposed by countries such as China. But they still manage to sound a positive note: they believe that information, like water, will inevitably find a way around barriers placed in its path.

Regimes that try to cut off their people from the internet completely, the authors add, risk undermining their own position. Egypt took that step in 2011 as political unrest reached a peak, only to see the move backfire as it “electrified the protest movement” and “brought so many more outraged people to the streets”.

But even if this argument is right, won’t repressive governments turn the internet to their own advantage? History provides plenty of parallels: the Nazis, after all, used the information technology of their day to great effect, employing punch cards with census data to systematise their tracking and identification of Jews.

That the internet is different rests on the argument that its decentralised architecture and baked-in anonymity make it hard to control. And, when all else fails, there’s always the hope that only the good guys will be able to take full advantage of it: “If autocrats want to build a surveillance state, it’s going to cost them – we hope more than they can afford.”

As the authors concede, however, we will soon live in a world where much is recorded and nothing is deleted. Repressive states will have “a dangerous advantage in targeting their citizens”. People living in such places will have to fight harder for their rights. But they will have at their disposal “tools and software” designed “to help safeguard citizens living under digital repression”.

This sums up the fundamental optimism of the book: that “for every negative, there will be a counter-response that has the potential to be a substantial positive”.

This is, of course, sensitive territory for Google. It already holds reams of data about its more than 1bn users. The authors largely duck the question of how this will be used, though they predict that internet users will demand government action to protect their privacy “at a much louder volume than we hear today”.

A further risk is that the internet, in the hands of astute governments, will become an instrument of propaganda.

In general, greater transparency is undoubtedly a force for good. “People who try to perpetuate myths about religion, culture, ethnicity or anything else will struggle to keep their narratives afloat amid a sea of newly informed listeners,” the authors write.

But there is no reason why effective online marketing should be limited to those on the side of the angels: in some of their most convincing passages, Schmidt and Cohen describe how it will become easier for governments to use their control of the internet to harass persecuted minorities – though they argue that heightened transparency will make genocide harder to perpetrate.

Internet-savvy governments will also find ways to defuse the popular unrest that bubbles up online, creating “venting spaces” to act as outlets for opposition. This raises a deeper question: whether the Facebook generation will be too apathetic to use the new-found power at its disposal. The Arab spring suggests otherwise.

The authors concede, though, that while the internet has helped to fuel popular uprisings, it has done little (so far) to create lasting revolutionary movements

It takes a master of realpolitik such as Henry Kissinger to explain why this might be so. Denouncing the “mad consensus” of the online crowd, he tells the authors: “Unique leadership is a human thing, and it is not going to be produced by a mass social community.” Building deep political support takes time and work. “It is hard to imagine de Gaulles and Churchills appealing in the world of Facebook.”

Schmidt and Cohen are right to point to the disruptive effects of a pervasive new communications medium such as the internet either to liberate or to destabilise, depending on which side of the fence you are on. But attempts by states to exert their control over the virtual world have only just begun. As the internet’s influence spreads into more aspects of life, those efforts are guaranteed to increase. It is far too soon to predict how this story will turn out.

Richard Waters is the FT’s US West Coast editor

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