The New Digital Age

  • Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen
  • Knopf
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • May 17, 2013

In this “guide” to the future of technology the authors forecast a human existence of constant connectedness and deepening dependence on the cloud.

Tech executives are relentlessly optimistic. Give them five minutes, and they’ll fill your ear with all the ways in which the next iPhone or a new website will change the course of human history for the better. This ferocious cheer stems (at least in part) from a need for self-validation — if their latest bit of software isn’t going to change the world, then what’s the point of the all-nighters, the stomach-churning tension, the creeping unease that they’ve burned the best years of their lives designing an app that can, with the unerring precision of the latest technology, find the nearest pizza place that specializes in gluten-free?

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age elevates that optimism to global scale. Schmidt is executive chairman of Google and served as the search engine giant’s CEO from 2001 to 2011; Jared Cohen is director of Google Ideas and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Throughout this breezily written volume, the two devote their considerable brainpower (supplemented with ideas from a variety of luminaries, including Henry Kissinger and WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange) to describing how a more pervasive Internet (and associated hardware) will change everything from identity and citizenship to war and terrorism over the next few decades. 

In an utterly unsurprising twist for two people who help run Google, Schmidt and Cohen suggest that “soon everyone on Earth will be connected” to the Internet, with most of them accessing data via mobile phones rather than desktops or laptops. “As people come online, they will quite suddenly have access to almost all the world’s information in one place in their own language,” they write — nor does the evolution stop there. Over the next few decades, technology (especially information management) will reach the point where robots and mobile devices will largely eliminate life’s smaller burdens, making us more effective thinkers and doers in the process. 

On a governmental level, increased access to data and social networks will allow opposition groups to overthrow oppressive regimes; give terrorists and criminals the ability to engage in “identity kidnappings” and other bits of hilarity; and create easy-to-use pipelines for concerned citizens to micro-fund charities. And those are just a few examples. Schmidt and Cohen believe in a future that looks like something out of a Ray Bradbury novel, and that vision isn’t necessarily misplaced; to someone living in the 19th century, the technology we take for granted today would literally be something out of science fiction.    

Even as Schmidt and Cohen paint this future with particular vividness, they duck many of the thorny questions that always come with new technology. For example, they repeatedly suggest that online data is largely immune from deletion, which will drive individuals and governments to take increasingly drastic steps to protect sensitive information; they never bother to discuss whether such deletions are possible, much less preferable under certain circumstances. Then again, if people could delete data and reduce the size of their online presence, that might rob certain tech companies of valuable ad revenue, wouldn’t it?

In a similar vein, the two advocate backing up whole governments online. “Virtual institutions will exist in parallel with their physical counterparts and serve as a backup in times of need,” they write. “Instead of having a physical building for a ministry, where all records are kept and services rendered, that information will be digitized and stored in the cloud.” Yes, but which private firms will build that infrastructure for those governments? Will any government really trust a company with all its citizens’ information? What if an opposition party seizes control of those digital assets?

At every prediction throughout the book, questions like these abound, only to remain unexplored. To their credit, Schmidt and Cohen don’t present the future as an endless utopia delivered to us by technology — and in any case, more than enough of that sentiment comes from Singularity advocates, who believe that increasingly self-aware computers will eventually do away with those pesky little problems like human mortality. Nonetheless, the duo is endlessly positive about technology’s impact on the world: even military drones get something of a thumbs-up. (“The public will react favorably to the reduced lethality of drone warfare,” they write at one point — not a sentiment likely shared by many people in Yemen.) 

By the end of the book, you believe that mobile phones and the Internet can make the future better for the majority — but you also can’t shake the sense that, no matter what the year, life will continue as messily as ever.

Nick Kolakowski is an editor at Slashdot. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon, and Washington City Paper. His first book, a work of comedic nonfiction titled How to Become an Intellectual, was published by Adams Media in 2012.

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