THE New Digital Age comes bearing endorsements on its inside covers from men who have strutted the world stage: Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Michael Bloomberg are just four.
The book’s subtitle is “Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business”, and the implication is clear: people who have already done that recognise the truth in Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s vision. The web will change all our lives.
On the front of this book, given rather more prominence, the endorsements come from Richard Branson and “Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs”. Without wishing to diminish either of their achievements, neither has been a president or a prime minister. What the book’s jacket is saying seems simple: this is what the smartest guys in business and Silicon Valley think the world is going to look like in the future. The suggestion is more nuanced: our leaders need to know this stuff, because they will be following, whether they like it or not.
Indeed, Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and Cohen, a former adviser to both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton and now the director of Google Ideas, a techno-political thinktank, are explicit: “The internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.” Their chapters cover “Our Future Selves”, and the “Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting”, followed by such minor matters as “States”, “Terrorism” and “Revolution”.
What is curious, however, is the nagging sense that this is a book for people who want to read a book about the internet, rather than those who truly understand “digital”. It makes the point again and again that the web makes everything faster and more fluid. But it also tries to offer an overview that is still relevant by the time it’s been printed on the paper the web is rendering redundant. That means there is plenty of history about the Stuxnet computer virus, which damaged Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, and there’s also much suggesting what life will look like in a few years’ time.
For the casual reader, these stories might be new, and sentences such as “work – which you’ll get to by driverless car of course” might seem outlandish. But for the enthusiastic amateur, never mind the expert, this seems rather too much like the obvious. Similarly, the idea that states will need separate digital and physical foreign policies is so old-fashioned that even Whitehall has already tried it and moved on to a more integrated approach.
As The New Digital Age repeats frequently, despite public fears we are not yet building some kind of lunatic world based on the writings of Isaac Asimov. Technology is becoming more integrated into all our lives, and it is built to serve our needs. While the pace might be rapid, much of the appearance of fundamental change is simply today’s version of young people seeming to speak a different language from their parents. Perhaps this is a book for those parents.
The writers are at their most persuasive when talking about the link between people and technology: their faith in human ingenuity leads to an optimistic vision, suggesting that oppressed people might find virtual statehood on the internet, and examining what increased freedom will do to repressed cultures. The conclusion, overall, is that “anyone passionate about economic prosperity, human rights, social justice, education or self-determination should consider how connectivity can help us reach those goals or even move beyond them”.
That’s laudable, but many readers will want to know what “moving beyond” such goals will look like. If anything can achieve such a deed, it is the internet, and if anyone could tell us how it will work, it is these authors.
So while The New Digital Age is engrossing, it is not a dispatch from the bleeding edge of progress. It is, however, a clear and thorough thesis suggesting that the world we are forging with the web is a better one than we have at the moment.
Indeed, at one point, Schmidt and Cohen call that future “a brave new world”, apparently without awareness of the irony of Shakespeare’s phrase from The Tempest. It would be easy to cite that as a classic example of the web rushing headlong forward and forgetting our past; perhaps, though, it is more an example of the authors’ benefiting inadvertently from history. Thus, like the web itself, The New Digital Age is more than the sum of its parts.
The New Digital Age
Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen