JULY 5, 2013
MOST AMERICANS look upon technology companies favorably, for the most part. They provide us with useful services, and their visionary executives routinely declare that their primary intention is to change the world for the better. Everyone from Al Gore to Senator John McCain has publicly professed their love for Apple products. But this surfeit of goodwill has allowed tech companies to acquire an astonishing monopoly over a surprising amount of 21st-century life. “Modern technology platforms, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, are even more powerful than most people realize, and our future world will be profoundly altered by their adoption and successfulness in societies everywhere,” Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen –– respectively, the ex-CEO, now executive chairman of Google, and an ex-advisor in the US State Department, now director of the company’s think tank Google Ideas — write in their new book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, “Almost nothing short of a biological virus can spread as quickly, efficiently or aggressively as these technology platforms, and this the makes people who build, control and use them powerful too.”
This is good news for Schmidt and Cohen, who have more than enough clout and connections to wield that power. The extent of their influence is made apparent by the range of interviews with hard-to-access subjects that pepper their book: foreign policy titan Henry Kissinger, telecommunications business magnate and billionaire Carlos Slim, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the former Mongolian prime minister, and more. This book also has praise and blurbs piled on it by a laundry list of politicians: Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Michael Bloomberg, and Tony Blair –– just to name a few. Whether these political actors and technologists ought to be such close bedfellows is another question.
A 2011 Financial Times profile makes it clear that Schmidt and Cohen want to use their Google Ideas think tank as a vehicle to engage and, with any luck, solve geopolitical issues. When asked about what kind of global problems he might want to tackle, Schmidt gave a “semi-facetious example” that reveals the scope of his ambitions: “I mean, there are lots of interesting problems that you could tackle. You could tackle the Iranian nuclear bomb problem.” With high-profile trips to places like North Korea, Schmidt’s status as Silicon Valley’s ambassador and premier executive-cum-statesman is difficult to contest. Cohen, for his part, has reportedly used his newfound position to coordinate with his old colleagues in the White House to spur on regime change in the Middle East.
The New Digital Age attempts to cover a wide purview of topics within foreign policy; every chapter is devoted to the “future” of something, be it “identity, citizenship and reporting,” “terrorism,” or “reconstruction.” The book is brimming with confidently direct declarations about the technologically infused future: “this will happen,” “that will occur,” “people will act,” and “institutions will change.” (The overuse of the future tense has a sort of hypnotic effect; I found myself unconsciously placing emphasis on the word “will” as I read, giving the book’s language an at times maddening mantra-like cadence.) This rhetoric is redolent of the worst of crystal ball futurism, but The New Digital Age is not, surprisingly, another paean of techno-utopianism, nor is it a pure piece of Google propaganda. Schmidt and Cohen paint what many will see as a balanced picture complete with bad guys (most often government agents and religious fundamentalists) and good guys (upstart freedom fighters and empowering technology platforms). And they decline to hop on the Twitter Revolution bandwagon that so many pundits, in the wake of the Arab Spring, readily mounted. Schmidt and Cohen sensibly recognize that “technology has nothing to do with whether an individual has the attributes to fill the role of statesman. […] Building a Facebook page does not constitute a plan; actual operational skills are what will carry a revolution to a successful conclusion.”
Schmidt and Cohen’s futurism, then, is tinged with fatalism, as if they regard technology as an autonomous juggernaut that we can only try to tame. Consider this realistic, but not necessarily inevitable prediction: “By the time a man is in his forties, he will have accumulated and stored a comprehensive online narrative, all facts and fictions, every misstep and every triumph, spanning every phase of his life. Even the rumors will live forever.” They admit the detrimental effects this shift will have on security and privacy, but can imagine no plausible or meaningful alternatives. Instead of looking for ways to reorient technological development, they give us rules for orienting ourselves to it: “Since information wants to be free, don’t write anything down you don’t want read back to you in court or printed on the front page of the newspaper.” Them’s the breaks, kid, so learn how to deal with it. This type of individualistic focus acquiesces, regretfully, to a post-privacy future, rather than imagining how norms and laws could be instituted to protect us from it.
To be sure, the ample attention Schmidt and Cohen pay to the nefarious and politically oppressive uses of digital technologies is commendable (especially when you consider that the book is a Google brainchild). Few denizens of Silicon Valley would or could afford to write so openly about a future where technology doesn’t fix the world. Compared to most works in the futurist genre, The New Digital Age takes a comparatively sober approach, presenting its reader with cautious optimism rather than utopianism. They even supply what is likely to become a new, foundational principle in the tech-booster playbook, which I will call –– à la Moore’s Law, which posits that the processing power of computers will double every 18 months –– the Schmidt-Cohen Law: “That is the power of this new information revolution: for every negative, there will be a counterresponse that has the potential to be a substantial positive.” This principle will surely be a useful reference for those who want to justify the unanticipated harm done by their innovations by pointing to the inevitability of positive rebound effects.
Too often, though, the Schmidt-Cohen Law causes the authors’ descriptions of undesirable technological outcomes to appear half-hearted –– as if all dilemmas exist only as foils for the soon-to-come “however” moment that reiterates the ultimate good of gadgets and widespread Web access. The confusing schizophrenia of their arguments caused by ping-ponging back and forth between the good and bad uses of technology is a symptom of the wrongheaded neutrality that informs the book. “The central truth of the technology industry — that technology is neutral but people are not — will periodically be lost amid all the noise,” Schmidt and Cohen plainly state. “But our collective progress as citizens in the digital age will hinge on our not forgetting it.”
What this formulation misses is that, regardless of what engineers and entrepreneurs would like to think, technologies are not impartial conduits through which users enact their wishes. Indeed, it lets the makers of technology off the hook almost entirely, in a manner not unlike the NRA’s “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” slogan. There are indeed people who will seek to use digital tools for specific purposes not intended by their designers, but the technologies themselves also come with a suite of biases, politics, and values that are both consciously and unconsciously programmed into them. This means that certain outcomes and ways of using a particular device (and, thus, certain outcomes) are always more likely than others. “To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape,” philosopher Evan Selinger writes in an article for The Atlantic entitled “The Philosophy of the Technology of the Gun.” “It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets. Furthermore, gun possession makes it easy to be bold, even hotheaded. Physically weak, emotionally passive, and psychologically introverted people will all be inclined to experience shifts in demeanor.” A technology is not good or evil, per se, but neither is it a neutral thing in the world. Technologies afford some activities and types of relationships more than they do others, and it’s crucial for those who design, manufacture, and market those techologies to understand those affordances.
The Web provides another case in point. Schmidt and Cohen describe the internet “as a ‘lawless’ space, ungoverned and ungovernable by design. Its decentralized makeup and constantly mutating interlinking structure make government attempts to ‘control’ it futile.” All state actors can do, Schmidt and Cohen claim, is exert power over “the mechanics of the Internet” and manage who has access. This is incorrect, though. In reality, the way the internet is designed lends itself to being manipulated in more ways than just shutting it down. “The Domain Name System, with its top-down hierarchy, is a protocol that enables control,” the media researchers Dave Everitt and Simon Mills have argued. “This protocol enables companies to appropriate the content created by its users — the antithesis of an open, democratic network. When we recognize this, we see that the purported democratic nature of Web 2.0 must necessarily be false at an ontological level.” Schmidt and Cohen are blind to the politics embedded in the very fabric of any given technology’s makeup –– a convenient stance, considering their roles as executives at one of the most influential tech corporations. This causes them to spend far too little time scrutinizing and asking critical questions about the digital devices and connectivity they praise.
One of Schmidt and Cohen’s goals in The New Digital Age is to meld their individual areas of expertise into a new way of thinking about foreign policy: a Digi-Realpolitik, if you will. “[States] will have to practice two versions of their domestic and foreign policies,” in their view,
one for the physical, “real” world, and one for the virtual world that exists online. These policies may appear contradictory at times — governments might crack down in one realm while allowing certain behavior in another; they may go to war in cyberspace but maintain the peace in the physical world.
Much of the book draws weirdly direct analogies between the geopolitics of the “real world” as it currently exists and their vision of how the “virtual world” of the internet will develop.
Schmidt and Cohen, like many tech-company executives, fear that the internet will undergo balkanization caused by government filtering and other restrictions. There will then be a “Russian Internet” and “American Internet” that coexist, but remain separate; inevitably, “each state’s Internet would take on its national characteristics.” You’ll be able to travel between them, but only if your internet passport and virtual visas are in order; otherwise, the digital border guards will turn you away. We can even expect situations where, “[a] dissident who can’t live freely under an autocratic Internet and is refused access to other states’ Internets will choose to seek physical asylum in another country to gain virtual freedom on its Internet.” Apparently there will even be a whole digital government, with its own ministers, tasked with overseeing and governing the new virtual state.
The virtual-physical separation doesn’t stop at the level of nation-states:
The vast majority of us will increasingly find ourselves living, working and being governed in two worlds at once […] Sometimes these worlds will constrain each other; sometimes they will clash; sometimes they will intensify, accelerate and exacerbate phenomena in the other world so that a difference in degree will become a difference in kind.
The key point here is that, for Schmidt and Cohen, the physical and the virtual are, at their base level, different worlds –– worlds that interact with and effect each other, but that are nonetheless distinct.
But drawing hard demarcations between an existence based in physical atoms and one based in digital bits, however commonsensical it might seem, is a good method for misunderstanding the ways that people live with and through digital technologies. To treat the “virtual world” as some kind of ontologically distinct realm is to fall prey to what the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has called “digital dualism.” “[D]igital dualists conceptualize the Web similar to the film The Matrix where the on and offline are separate spaces,” Jurgenson argues.
Alternatively, the augmented reality perspective holds that our reality is the blurring of the on and offline. […] Our augmented reality is one where the politics, structures and inequalities of the physical world are part of the very essence of the digital domain; a domain built by human beings with histories, standpoints, interests, morals and biases.
The New Digital Age seems to imagine that we have opened a portal to a Narnia-like “virtual world” where we must now learn to conduct foreign policy and discover how to live. Schmidt and Cohen are right that states and individuals alike will need to learn new ways of using (and, sometimes, rejecting) digital technologies in order to empower us to create a more desirable world. But separating atoms from bits is not the way to get there. Not only does it deny that a digital existence ultimately means nothing without the context of a human being’s embodied way of life, but it also leads to absurd conclusions and statements, such as calling the internet “the largest experiment involving anarchy in history” because it’s “an online world that is not truly bound by terrestrial laws.” Something tells me that argument wouldn’t exactly be a showstopper in a court. To think that the “virtual” is somehow immune to legal statues and regulations makes absolutely no sense. Yet Schmidt and Cohen are too caught up in dualistic logic to see that the digital is an enmeshed part of our lives, and not something separate.
Ultimately, the futurism of The New Digital Age is built on a faulty foundation. Digital technologies do not develop in a deterministic manner; they are not merely neutral tools, and they do not, in and of themselves, construct a new world. Yet this basic unsoundness won’t dissuade powerful figures like Schmidt and Cohen from peddling the ideas contained within their book to political actors and fellow corporate executives, thus making the world conform to their vision after all. The future, in other words, is theirs; we just live in it.