Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"The New Digital Age", by Schmidt and Cohen; raising the ante on our online lives

Authors: Eric Schmidt, Jared Cohen
Title: “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business
Publication: New York, 2013: Knopf; ISBN 978-0-3070995713-9; 314 pages, hardcover, indexed, 7 chapters, with Introduction and Conclusion
Amazon link:(direct). 
First, a note the authors: Eric Schmidt is executive chairman of Google, which actually owns part of the copyright according to the inside cover.  Jared Cohen directs Google Ideas and has considerable experience with foreign affairs, including work for the National Counterterrorism Center in northern Virginia and has lived and reported from hot zones overseas. (He paid his dues the same way Anderson Cooper did as a young adult.)  .
The book establishes the premise that the “Internet revolution” (no, Al Gore didn’t invent it) has raise d the ante for individual freedom, both in terms of opportunities (especially for persons and small businesses, companies or countries) and in risks.  The book comprises seven long chapters, about  “Our Future Selves”, “Identity, Citizenship and Reporting”, “States” (i.e. sovereign countries), “Revolution”, “Terrorism”, “Combat, Conflict, Intervention”, “Reconstruction”. The book tends to make closely related points across the chapters, and it may have been difficult for the authors to organize the details of the material without risking repetition.  I run into that myself with my own book manuscripts – where best to make a certain critical point.

The idea that many people will own smartphones but not PC's, and use phones for everything but calling sometimes, somewhat characterizes the nature of progress, as Schmidt later told Fareed Zakaria. 
The early portions of the book emphasize that the digital revolution has changed “identity” forever. Digital life occurs in tandem with real life.  Parents now think about this in choosing names for their children, wondering if unusual names will make them stand out online, or whether a lower profile is safer.  We’re more familiar with this problem as “online reputation”, but the concept is evolving.  Privacy as we used to view it seems no longer possible.  The book doesn’t say this directly, but it’s clear that the implosion of the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, partly founded on outdated ideas of “privacy” that had sounded reasonable in 1993,  is largely the result of the Internet and social media.  (Mark Zuckerberg and Schmidt himself did more to make this happen than did President Obama.)    
Gradually, the book moves into the political stages.  The enemies of freedom may be connected to states or may not, creating a complex mix of dangers and possible countermeasures.  States can try to restrict Internet access to their own people and to visitors by various licensure systems, bur workarounds (like TOR) always develop.  Imagination for what terrorists can try is endless, but advances in law enforcement make apprehension more likely and raise the risk.  The book seems to have been finished before the Boston Marathon incident.  However, it’s clear that the perpetrators did not envision how the omnipresence of cameras and “crowd sourcing” would lead to their identification so quickly. It’s also apparent that the questions about “too much information” – the ease with which criminals can use the Internet and technology to plan attacks (now the 3-D printer enters the picture) is very complex.  It does raise questions about the value of uninhibited plow of information.  The latest investigations even raise questions about just how much religious and “jihadist”  ideology, spread online, motivated the brothers, or whether there were other more disturbing personal factors.
The book makes the point that “revolution” is never easy, and often replaces one totalitarian regime with another.  At a certain personal level, revolution is not easy to sustain, even in a digital world.  It requires personal and social motivation that transcends technology.  The authors question whether there will be many more “springs”.
The authors also discuss “reconstruction” after a catastrophe, whether man-made or natural.  The digital world can become a tremendous ally for organizing rebuilding.  But there are still social questions to be answered, starting with the effectiveness of volunteerism the way it is often organized now (bureaucratically).  There are good questions about individual readiness, such as the ability of homeowners to house strangers from miles away if there is a huge catastrophe.  A local church here in Arlington VA has spoken about this issue as “radical hospitality”.
The authors, while noting well the unprecedented opportunity for self-publication and self-broadcast, don’t get into the downstream liability issues as I think they could.  These include  protection of minors, DMCA Safe Harbor, Section 230, cyberbullying, piracy,  copyright and patent trolls,  the battles over SOPA and PIPA, and even the possibility of frivolous (Aaron Swartz) or erroneous prosecution if one is framed on the Internet. 
They do discuss the potential scenarios for cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism in some detail, and are somewhat hopeful that countermeasures can keep up with them.  But I think that the authors could talk more about the physical threats, particularly from electromagnetic pulse or even nature-driven geomagnetic storms. They do mention radio frequency weapons as capable of undermining attempts to identify and track people and entities, without enough clarity.
There is another YouTube video depicting the authors’ visit to North Korea.

One could posit that there are other takes on the idea of "Revolution" that the authors don't consider, as in the notorious NBC television series.

Update: June 2
Julian Assange wrote a stinging op-ed about this book in the June 2 New York Times.  It's titled "The Banality of 'Don;t Be Evil" and has link here.  

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