The New Digital Age

Not content to just invent the future, the technology barons of Silicon Valley are now turning their formidable minds to authoring books about this future. First there was LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s bestselling self-help manual, The Start-Up of You. Then Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg provoked a national debate with her feminist polemic, Lean In. And now, with The New Digital Age, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Direct of Ideas Jared Cohen have written a book that, in just under 300 pages, attempts to map out the entire future of our networked century.

With chapters on everything from the future of our selves and our identities to the future of states, revolutions, and terrorism, Schmidt and Cohen certainly can’t be accused of thinking small. Indeed, their book, subtitled Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, contains the breathtaking ambition of a start-up with a particularly disruptive technology — a play that, inside Google, is known as a “moon shot.”

“The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history,” Schmidt and Cohen write.  But it’s “among the few things humans have build that they don’t truly understand.”

Their goal is to repair that failure and make sense of this anarchy, to actually understand the Internet. So is this the book that successfully imagines the destination of this historic collaboration? Have Schmidt and Cohen succeeded with their moon shot?

The answer, I’m happy to report, is mostly yes. I was impressed with both the conceptual scope and empirical research packed into The New Digital Age. Schmidt and Cohen make a formidable intellectual duo, combining Schmidt’s encyclopedic knowledge of digital technology with Cohen’s equally impressive grasp of international diplomacy and politics. And as a co-authored effort, The New Digital Age reads with surprising clarity, verve, and even occasional wit — a consequence, I suspect, of the admirable editorial skills of Schmidt’s daughter, Sophie, the book’s “internal editor,” to whom the authors acknowledge “a huge debt of gratitude.”

As executives at Silicon Valley’s most aggressively cheerful company, Schmidt and Cohen’s version of the future is, of course, mostly optimistic. The central theme in The New Digital Age is the shift in power from traditional twentieth-century political, economic, and cultural institutions to the twenty-first-century individual. The authors certainly aren’t the first to note this great transformation, but they do examine it with subtlety and intelligence, particularly their focus on the ways in which digital technology potentially empowers the citizen.

I particularly liked Schmidt and Cohen’s sophisticated analysis of the future of identity on a radically transparent network where individual privacy is essentially dead. With this death of privacy, they explain, public reputation becomes our most valuable asset — the thing that will most define our success and failure in a hypervisible world. They are good also on the educational ramifications of a world in which, by 2025, all 8 billion humans will be on the network — a change, Schmidt and Cohen predict, that will empower experimental online schools like the Khan Academy.  
I found their section on revolutions particularly balanced and interesting. They note that the Internet is no friend of autocratic regimes. And yet they believe that the pace of revolutions driven by online protest will fail to generate mature revolutionary leaders like Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa. Most memorable of all, however, is their warning about “revolutionary tourists” — the online activists of the future who will “spend all day crawling the web for online protests to join….just for the thrill of it.”

My only criticism of The New Digital Age is that occasionally Schmidt and Cohen let their techno-enthusiasm get the better of their analysis. The section, for example, on holographic travel — of being able to essentially transport oneself digitally somewhere else — is a bit too Star Trek-ish. And their classic Silicon Valley belief in the power of reason — in a strictly utilitarian network of rational people and rational government — sometimes crosses over into the Fordism so savagely parodied in Huxley’s Brave New World.

But it’s their quasi-religious faith in the democratizing power of the Internet that is most irritating. Here, Schmidt and Cohen sometimes leave their own scientific reason at the door. “In the future,” they promise, “people won’t just back up their data; they’ll back up their government.” No, I won’t drink that Kool-Aid. And nor, I suspect, will anyone reading this book in Iran, China, or Russia.

That said, The New Digital Age can’t be dismissed as another cyber-utopian manifesto about the ways networked technology will inevitably save humanity. Schmidt and Cohen are careful to remind us that their work is “about humans” and that “what happens in the future is up to us.” They understand and detail the darker side of the Internet, with its real-time warlords, its online mobs seeking immediate collective justice, and, most of all, its data that democratizes the making of terrorist bombs and drones.

“Technology”, these two titans of Silicon Valley so rightly tell us, “is no panacea.” The future, they say, is a “tale of two civilizations.” It’s the story of darkness and light, of both the freedom and tyranny created by the twenty-first-century network. This is the muddy, ambivalent online world mapped out The New Digital Age. It may not have the clarity of Google maps, but it’s just about the best guide we have for a misty digital future that even writers as perspicacious as Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen can’t quite see.