Just read ‘The New Digital Age’ by Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman Google) and Jared Cohen (Director, Google Ideas). Received a copy, gratis, when attended Google Atmosphere in London last week. I think some of the comments included on the cover praising the book may be over hyped – though interesting that Schmidt and Cohen attract high praise from such luminaries as Tony Blair, Richard Branson, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, amongst others.
And I should include that I currently use google apps on a daily basis – and would be lost on a regular basis without google maps. And I am using google document to prepare this blog posting.
The title of the book very closely aligns with discussion I find myself having with many people – how is society (and business) being impacted by technologies including mobile, social networking, big data? Recently I reviewed Keen’s excellent book, ‘Digital Vertigo’.
Schmidt and Cohen are, not surprisingly, positive about the contribution of technology and I do not disagree with them. They see the emergence of a ‘virtual civilisation’ in coexistence with ‘physical civilisation’ – with both civilisations influencing and impacting each other. As part of this they place great emphasis on virtual IDs and virtual institutions e.g. virtual government.
Per the authors your virtual ID or IDs have now assumed great importance – in that they have the ability to influence significantly your physical life. Hence the emergence of third parties looking to work with individuals to help them manage their on-line reputation. Schmidt has generated plenty of controversy previously by suggesting the possible requirement for individuals to be able to start again with a new identity. I have always been grateful that there were no mobile phones (with powerful cameras) when I was growing up and engaged in various juvenile pursuits. Interestingly in this book the authors point out one possible issue in post war/ conflict reconstruction being the difficulty of achieving ‘collective memory loss’ because of digital records.
Much of Keen’s book ‘Digital Vertigo’ focused on loss of privacy – as people provide information to social networks, as people are photographed, as people’s location is recorded, as companies and governments accumulate this data. Google is in the business of accumulating this data and using it (google+, search engine, locations, etc). In the chapters ‘ Identity, Citizen and Reporting’ and ‘Future of Sates’ Schmidt and Cohen acknowledge concerns or challenges re loss of privacy e.g. importance of parents speaking with children at an early stage about privacy and security, high levels of surveillance (‘big brother’) and activities of police states. But they also emphasise the ‘costs of anonymity’ – the costs of opting out and potentially not being relevant. In identifying a range of coping strategies’ they include, under ‘legal options’ the possibility of introducing the idea of ‘sealing juvenile records’ – although the impracticalities of such a step are acknowledged.
I thought the chapter ‘Future of reconstruction’ was interesting – and Schmidt was doubtless informed and influenced by his own visit to Iraq. But the discussion re Iraq, Haiti and Egypt all pointed to opportunities to get back up and running more quickly is you can re-establish communications – in particular by taking advantage of mobile communications. And our own Irish king of telecommunications, Denis O’Brien, has been very much to the fore in Haiti. The ideas around use of rfids to track weapons and manage handing/ handing over of weapons post conflict was interesting.
Schmidt and Cohen draw attention to some negatives associated with the Digital Word in the context of terrorism and war. Of course the virtual worlds offer both potential for more strife and, in parallel, the opportunity to head off some conflict. The use of drones is very much a hot topic in the world press at the moment – with President Obama under pressure to justify their use – given a number of innocent bystander casualties. In dealing with terrorism and crime there are now several challenges in terms of cyber-crime, use of mobile communications by prisoners – but we are reminded that terrorists only have to make one mistake to give away their location – and this happens quite often.
So what do Schmidt and Cohen see driving more digital? Dropping broadband costs (Somalia is quoted as a great example), better encryption (to address people’s security concerns), open source development and the availability of telecommunications equipment at the right price (note the importance of the four major vendors: Ericssons, Alcatel/ Lucent, Huawei, Cisco).
Overall the book was a good read and included a few interesting ideas. It included the odd acknowledgement of the existence of a company called Microsoft. I think it completely underplayed the influence and power of companies such as Google. It highlighted a range of risks/ threats for society but concluded firmly that most of this is good for us and society (and the individual!) will be the winner.