The Radical Optimism of Eric Schmidt

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For some of the world's most most vexing issues, Google executive chairman's response is, literally: "These problems will get themselves resolved."

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Daniel Bayer

Are you worried about the problems in American democracy and the new and possibly deleterious structural features of our information environment? 

Eric Schmidt isn't.

Google's current executive chairman and former CEO spoke today with The Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival about the role his company and his company's ideology has played around the world. What emerged is one of the clearest statements yet about how Schmidt's mind works. The man believes in progress and the eventual triumph of reason over the inanities and insanities of living, breathing humans. Time and again, without offering specifics, Schmidt said in one way or another, "It'll get solved," always in the passive voice. Even absent good actors he can point to, he's sure that they exist.

Eric Schmidt has a very high opinion of mankind.

That opinion remains despite the discovery that some of Google's bets on the power of information to create a more just (and better-for-Google) world have gone awry. Take Google's entry into China five years ago.

"Our theory was that if we put up with the censorship, which we did not like, we would empower the citizens and the citizens would revolt if this stuff was taken away from them," he told Goldberg. Obviously no such thing ended up happening and it was Google that ended up leaving mainland China and moving its servers to Hong Kong. Or as Schmidt described the fate of their theory, "Our experience was [that] we were wrong."

In another instance, Schmidt laid out with real lucidity the incredibly difficult problem of misinformation in a non-factchecked era.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage

"All of us grew up with an assumption that what we were seeing on television, especially in legitimate news, was edited and properly vetted. That's no longer the case. Furthermore, you can anticipate very powerful forces will attempt to do misinformation campaigns to you for one business objective or another," he said. "It will be worth it to them to spend millions of dollars to spend millions of dollars to create fake websites and so forth to convince you that something that is really bad for you is really good for you. Because they have a business interest to do so and the Internet allows that."

Gosh, that sounds bleak! How can we possibly solve this problem? "We have to rank against it," Schmidt said, that is to say, Google should notice disinformation and rank it lower than good information. The only other answer is that "you all have to be aware that searching for something doesn't mean you have believe it."

And how about American politics, which most people at Aspen and everywhere else seem to think are broken. Is Schmidt worried? Nope.

I offer the following exchange in which Goldberg pressed Schmidt on the question of our current political process in the context of the increased speed of communication afforded by the Internet.

"Is there any evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?" Goldberg asked Schmidt.

"I don't think when we built the Internet, we thought that was the problem we were solving. I think most people would agree that more speech is better. The clear outcome of the current situation is that more speech means constant polling, etc," Schmidt said. "There is a lack of deliberative time in our political process. And our political leaders will eventually figure out that they're going to make better decisions if they actually take a break and spend a week thinking about them."

"How is that even possible?" Goldberg countered.

"Well, they actually are elected and they can actually talk to each other," Schmidt said.

"And you have that much faith?"

"Yes. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail," Schmidt finished.

"I'm not speechless that often. It doesn't seem like we're on that trajectory; it doesn't seem like we're moving in the direction of thoughtfulness."

"Well, you know, these problems will get themselves resolved," Schmidt said.

Again, I call attention to Schmidt's syntax: These problems will get themselves resolved. The logic here is that the system will work out the kinks. It's the invisible hand meets Moore's Law and extended to all domains. Schmidt's ideology has inexorable progress at its core.

You have to admire someone with so much hope in humanity, but I worry that the actorlessness of Schmidt's faith will ultimately be its undoing.

At one point, Schmidt had the audience repeat after him the following sentence: "In God we trust, all others have to bring data." This is the deepest and most fervent belief of technocrats, but in the lived experience of politics, it is not he with the most facts or data that wins.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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