Our Future Might Be Bright: The Tentative, Rosy Predictions of Google's Eric Schmidt

The rhetoric Schmidt and his co-author Jared Cohen employ in their new book is clever but misleading.
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At a protest in Turkey against the Syrian regime, a demonstrator takes pictures with her mobile phone which is painted with the colours of the Syrian independence flag. (Reuters)

A new book by Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen plots out the future of digital technology, with an emphasis on global affairs. The New Digital Age foresees, in the not too distant future that, though wars may become more common as the costs to engage decrease, death tolls will fall as robot soldiers take to the battlefield. The book envisions whole governments being backed up in the online cloud where data becomes less vulnerable to physical disaster. Other chapters from the book consider the evolution of citizenship, states, revolution, terrorism, and foreign aid as impacted by digital technologies. The authors conclude that the new digital age is unpredictable, but that on the whole, it will be a brighter place because of electronic technology.

That the book delves so deeply into technology's impact on the world stage is no surprise given the authors' other interests. Cohen was an adviser to Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton at the State Department, and Schmidt seems to be embracing a role as corporate statesman, having just made high-profile trips to North Korea and Myanmar.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that the bookhighlights the negative potential of technology almost as much as the positive. Despite the authors' perch in the technology industry, Digital Age spends page after page painting a frightening future of state-of-the-art technology in the hands of terrorists and oppressive governments. The book's marketing fixates on it: The dust jacket cover advertises the authors' "nuanced vision." An accompanying Wall Street Journal article is headlined "The Dark Side of the Digital Revolution."

Unfortunately, the book is only the latest in what seems to be a growing strain of punditry: Technology proponents conceding technology's dark side so that they can disarm readers into accepting their worldview, one in which the advance of technology is still the key to a better future. Concession is the tactic of a sly communicator, whether he's a former CEO or a diplomat.

Schmidt and Cohen's writing is full of concession-assertion pairs that contradict themselves. Sentences start with a cautionary hedge and end with an over-optimistic claim. In the following, I call out the incongruities and offer translation:

  • "The case for optimism lies not in sci-fi gadgets or holograms [hedge], but in the check that technology and connectivity bring against the abuses, suffering and destruction in our world [optimistic claim]." Translation: The case for optimism is not in gadgets, but it's in gadgets.
  • "We cannot eliminate inequality or abuse of power [hedge], but through technological inclusion we can help transfer power into the hands of individual people and trust that they will take it from there [optimistic claim]." Translation: We cannot eliminate inequality or abuse, but with technology we actually can (or at least, we "trust" that others can).
  • "For all the complications this revolution brings [hedge], no country is worse off because of the Internet [optimistic claim]." Translation: No country is worse off because of the Internet.
  • "[The] digital future can be bright indeed [optimistic claim], despite its dark side [hedge]."

Their entire argument rests on the word "can." The logic of "can" is that the digital future might be bright, but it also might not be. You can't argue with "can," because "can" doesn't commit. Yet, the nuance of "can" is one of hope and possibility: The digital future can be bright! With one word, they dismiss their own caveats without having to deny them. "Can" allows them to have their cake and eat it, too. Their conclusion, despite the cautionary tales, is that technology saves. The rhetoric is clever but misleading.

It's misleading because technology is not where the answers lie, even when the problems involve technology. Like others who are in technology's thrall, Schmidt and Cohen can't see without their Google goggles. As I previously argued in the contexts of the Arab Spring and global development, what matters in global governance is leadership, political will, institutions, and citizen participation. These are social forces that can be amplified by technology, but they're not directed by them.

For example, today we wrestle with the morality of drones, a precursor to the robotic military that is discussed in The New Digital Age. What are the right terms of their use? Is it okay to kill people in countries with which we aren't at war? Under what circumstances? How many civilian casualties are permissible? And if that number is greater than zero, how does that differ ethically from murder? Or, even under the rules of realpolitik where morality takes a back seat to expedience, should we usher in a world where nations perform anonymous remote strikes on one another's citizens?

As even Schmidt and Cohen acknowledge in parts, these are moral questions and ethical questions and political questions and possibly military questions. But they're definitely not technology questions. They're about when it's right or prudent to take a life, whatever the weapon of destruction. Technology doesn't help us answer these questions, no matter how heat-seeking, turbo-charged, or holographic it is. Technology doesn't solve the problems it itself poses.

So when confronted by technology's dark side, the appropriate response is neither to retreat to an anti-technology Luddism nor to succumb to the pro-technology hype of corporations seeking their own form of world domination. (The New Digital Age is unsurprisingly mute on issues of corporate power exceeding state power -- the former beholden only to shareholders, while the latter is at least in theory responsive to citizens.) The right response is extra-technological: to double down on good governance, human rights, and social justice.

Schmidt and Cohen are right about one thing: "The digital revolution will continue." But while technology will cause great change, our biggest challenges will require changes in us, as people and societies. Fancy gadgets won't turn around a failing for-profit -- even in our tech-drenched world, leadership, management, and employee capacity are what matter. Similarly, fancy gadgets won't rescue a world intent on resource extraction, climate change, extreme inequality, and ongoing conflict -- even in a tech-immersed future, leadership, institutions, and global activism are what matter. The technological tools of leadership and activism are a distant concern relative to whether there is good leadership and activism in the first place.




Routine disclosure: Kentaro Toyama is a former Microsoft employee.

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Kentaro Toyama is a visiting scholar at the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley. He is working on a book tentatively titled Wisdom in Global Development: A Different Kind of Growth. For more information, see KentaroToyama.org. More

Kentaro Toyama is a visiting scholar at the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley. He is a leading researcher on international development, who focuses on the potential and the limits of information technology to address the challenges of global poverty (about which he writes a blog here). Toyama graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in computer science and Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in physics. He is working on a book tentatively titled Wisdom in Global Development: A Different Kind of Growth. For more information, see KentaroToyama.org, and follow him on Twitter: @kentarotoyama.
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