World Wide Rule

Posted by Nishant Shah at Jun 14, 2013 05:00 AM |
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Nishant Shah's review of Schmidt and Cohen's book was published in the Indian Express on June 14, 2013.

Click to read the original published in the Indian Express here


Book: The New Digital Age
Author: Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen
Publisher: Hachette
Price: Rs 650
Pages: 315


When I first heard that Eric Schmidt the chairman of Google and Jared Cohen, the director of the techno-political think-tank Google Ideas, are co-authoring a book about our future and how it is going to be re-shaped with the emergence of digital technologies, I must confess I was sceptical. When people who do things that you like start writing about those things, it is not always a pretty picture. Or an easy read. However, like all sceptics, I am only a romantic waiting to be validated. So, when I picked up The New Digital Age I was hoping to be entertained, informed and shaken out of my socks as the gurus of the interwebz spin science fiction futures for our times. Sadly, I have been taught my lesson and have slid back into hardened scepticism.

Here is the short version of the book: Technology is good. Technology is going to be exciting. There are loads of people who haven't had it yet. There are not enough people who have figured out how things work. Everybody needs to go online because no matter what, technologies are here to stay and they are going to be the biggest corpus of power. They write, "There is a canyon dividing people who understand technology and people charged with addressing the world's toughest geopolitical issues, and no one has built a bridge…As global connectivity continues its unprecedented advance, many old institutions and hierarchies will have to adapt or risk becoming obsolete, irrelevant to modern society." So the handful who hold the reigns of the digital (states, corporates, artificial intelligence clusters) are either going to rule the world, or, well, write books about it.

The long version is slightly more nuanced, even though it fails to give us what we have grown to expect of all things Google — the bleeding edge of back and beyond. For a lay person, observations that Schmidt and Cohen make about the future of the digital age might be mildly interesting in the way title credits to your favourite movie can be. Once they have convinced us, many, many times, that the internet is fast and fluid and that it makes things fast and fluid and hence the future we imagine is going to be fast and fluid, the authors tell us that the internet is spawning a new "caste system" of haves, have-nots, and wants-but-does-not-haves.

Citing the internet as "the largest experiment involving anarchy in history" they look at the new negotiations of power around the digital. Virulent viruses from the "Middle East" make their appearance. Predictably wars of censorship and free information in China get due attention. Telcos get a big hand for building the infrastructure which can sell Google phones to people in Somalia. The book offers a straightforward (read military) reading of drones and less-than-expected biased views on cyberterrorism, which at least escapes the jingoism that the USA has been passing off in the service of a surveillance state. And more than anything else, the book shows politicos and governments around the world, that the future is messy, anarchy is at hand, but as long as they put their trust in Big Internet Brothers, the world will be a manageable place.

So while you can clearly see where my review for the book is heading, I must give it its due credit.

There are three things about this book that make it interesting. The first is how Schmidt and Cohen seem to be in a seesaw dialogue with themselves. They realise that five billion people are going to get connected online. They gush a little about what this net-universality is going to mean. And then immediately, they also realise that we have to prepare ourselves for a "Brave New World," which is going to be infinitely more messy and scary. They recognise that the days of anonymity on the Web are gone, with real life identities becoming our primary digital avatars. However, they also hint at a potential future of pseudonymity that propels free speech in countries with authoritarian regimes. This oscillation between the good, the bad, the plain and the incredible, keeps their writing grounded without erring too much either on the side of techno-euphoria or dystopic visions of the future.

Second, and perhaps justly so, the book doles out a lot of useful information not just for the techno-neophytes but also the amateur savant. There are stories about "Currygate" in Singapore, or of what Vodaphone did in Egypt after the Arab Spring, or of the "Human Flesh Search Engine" in China, which offer a comprehensive, if not critical, view of the way things are. Schmidt and Cohen have been everywhere on the ether and they have cyberjockeyed for decades to tell us stories that might be familiar but are still worth the effort of writing.

Third, it is a readable book. It doesn't require you to Telnet your way into obscure meaning sets in the history of computing. It is written for people who are still mystified not only about the past of the Net but also its future, and treads a surprisingly balanced ground in both directions. It is a book you can give to your grandmother, and she might be inspired to get herself a Facebook (or maybe a Google +) account.

But all said and done, I expected more. It is almost as if Schmidt and Cohen are sitting on a minefield of ideas which they want to hint at but don't yet want to share because they might be able to turn it into a new app for the Nexus instead. It is a book that could have been. It wasn't. It is ironic how silent the book is about the role that big corporations play in shaping our techno-futures, and the fact that it is printed on dead-tree books with closed licensing so I couldn't get a free copy online. For people claiming to build new and political futures, the fact that this wisdom could not come out in more accessible forms and formats, speaks a lot about how seriously we can take their views of the future.

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