The New Digital Age opens with a bright and glaringly optimistic setting. The authors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, tell us that the computer revolution has “barely left the starting blocks”. In the not too far future, information systems will streamline the lives of many people. Bad haircuts, for instance, will be a thing of the past, as robot barbers will be “automated and machine-precise”.
A newly-wedded couple will be able to recreate their wedding ceremony, via holography, for grandparents who were too ill to attend. Parents of the future will be able to use similar technology — teaching spoiled kids a lesson will be solved by making them spend a day in the Dharavi slum of Mumbai through a holograph box. (Future technological utopias, it appears, will not involve the eradication of poverty.)
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The super-wealthy will have access to technology even greater — most of them will eschew driverless cars all together and instead travel to work in “motion-stabilized helicopters”. The true signal, however, that the future is upon us, will be when the younger generation no longer uses the excuse “a dog ate my homework”; after all, how could a dog eat a cloud storage device?
It is ironic, therefore, that while the future will be systematically ordered by information systems, this opening recital of future wonders seems oddly unfocussed. Much of it seems as if it could have been taken from a hypothetical list of Google search results, with the keywords being ‘technological utopia’. Prescient analysis is missing here, something that Schmidt, the executive Chairman of Google, and Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, clearly have the potential to offer.
No matter, however. The New Digital Age, which is undoubtedly an ambitious attempt to detail the contours of a world that is emerging as a result of technological revolution, feints halfway and starts exploring the ways in which technology, the nation-state and diplomacy will intersect.
“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,” the authors write. And this is where the book’s tone turns dark, moving away from its panglossian beginnings.
With the dawn of the next century, digital information truly becomes power. The consequent spread of connectivity, they argue, will pose challenges to most governments, particularly authoritarian regimes. As we see happening in the present, many states will respond by clamping tighter controls on the movement of digital data. The Great Firewall of China is already being adopted as a sort of quasi-model for other states to emulate. This is perhaps where it gets the most interesting. The book argues that a virtual civilisation will soon be built on top of our physical society — with the clash of both groups resulting in subsequent problems of identity, cyber terrorism, development and governance. If the first half of the book is aimed at technophiles, the second is nothing less than an open letter to today’s technologically illiterate political class.
Much of what Schmidt and Cohen predict can be seen in the seeds that are being sowed right now. For example, they argue that the World Wide Web of the old will be replaced by a ‘jumble of national Internets and virtual borders.” Globe-trotters may need a special sort of ‘online visa’ to log into many countries. Do we not see this happening in China, Iran and Syria already? It is not too hard to imagine our Supreme Court asking whether India could set up its own private Internet — cut off from Western influence.
The New Digital Age, however, suffers from interweaving mind-numbing detail in all the wrong places. The book, for example, in a chapter on the role played by connectivity in the rehabilitation of a disaster-prone state, says: “As governments look for ways to persuade ex-combatants to turn in their AK47s, they will find that the prospect of a smart phone might be enough to get started.” The idea of offering an iPhone to an armed thug, in the hope that he will lay down his arms and become a peaceful surfer, is not only heavy on detail but is also slightly ridiculous.
At the same time, there is an almost conspicuous absence of the role of the corporate world in this new digital age. The reach of global corporations is presented, at best, as a benign force. This seems a little confusing, considering that in the future, Google will most likely determine the fate of freedom of speech in countries such as India. Facebook and Twitter stand to play a bigger role than most democratic institutions.
Nevertheless, as celebrities of the tech industry, the authors deserve credit for being quick to point out the dark side of technological progress. What is sorely missing though is analytical rigour — prediction is too often presented as destiny here. It also seemingly ignores the subtleties of culture and tradition that often help shape the course of history.
While The New Digital Age does not offer much for technophiles, it does present a glimpse at the problems that face the nation-state in the years to come. As the book grimly puts it: “States will long for the days when they only had to think about foreign and domestic policies in the physical world.”
(Anuj Srivas writes on technology for The Hindu)