The New Digital Age


Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I quite like reading tech books in between all the magical realism etc etc. I should say here that this is partly to do with my job but also I think it’s important to know the stories behind the products you’re using everyday and to be informed. My latest tech reading (as an audiobook again) was The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, I think most tech savvy people will know who Eric Schmidt is (he’s the executive chairman of Google), Jared Cohen also works for Google but he used to work for the state department. I was a bit worried at the beginning of this book that it was going to be a 10 hour advertorial for Google, you could almost play a drinking game in one of the earliest sections about how many times they mention driverless cars but it calms down a bit after that. I had hoped this book would be about how we’re currently adapting to digital innovations and what they thought would develop in the near future, I think I had very Western-centric hopes. What the book turned out to be more about was what they thought would happen when the 5 billion who currently aren’t online get online, with many of those people living in failed states, autocracies or just generally impoverished conditions.

There are some sections on how the new digital age will effect Western societies, the section on data permanence, when you think about it, is just scary, due to my age (and I’m not that ancient) only about the last 10 years of my life are online, my teenage years bar a few old school photos knocking about on Facebook put on much later than when they were taken, are a mysterious blank according to the digital world at least. Teenagers today and people in their 20s will have much more of their lives recorded online, my kids will have their entire lives on line and well I hate to imagine what relics from my teens and early 20s could be online now if I’d had the social media to record them, *shudder*. The authors reckoned in the future parents will pick their children’s names depending on how easily searchable they will be, if they want their children to rise to the top of the search rankings they will give them unusual names, if they want to give their children anonymity, they will give them common names. Reading that section prompted a big discussion with the kids reminding them yet again to always use pseudonyms online and to remind them that because of their names once information about them is online it will always be easily found, Boy Lacer who had already apparently googled himself before this discussion then went straight online to see which other family members he could find.

The more global perspective was also, in part, interesting, the section on a perpetual low grade cyberwar was particularly interesting in light of the recent news about Edward Snowden. This book although only recently published, the Snowden story was too new to reach its pages, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to hear Schmidt’s and Cohen’s views. They also looked at how the internet increased the likelihood of revolutions and the state’s attempts to prevent these by controlling access to the internet, with various restricted zones so that the internet no longer became global and instead becomes fragmented. They also looked at the affect of the internet on conflicts, both the positive and negative benefits for terrorists and those that hunt them and how states and factions would utilise marketing wars over social media before and during conflict. They looked at the increased use of robots in warfare, from the drones that are currently in use to eventually replacing soldiers with robots. Schmidt and Cohen were very pro this and also reckoned the public would be, as it would mean less soldiers were in danger. Apparently the use of drones has wide public support in the US, this surprised me a little, as I don’t think they’re that popular here in the UK or maybe that’s just the people I hang out with and the things I choose to read, I am totally for not putting our soldiers in unnecessary danger but I am also against using our technological superiority against an enemy where maybe other means could be used. How do you know for example exactly who is in a building? Also, if we move to using robot soldiers, how can we program in such things as judgement and compassion? And as well, in these economic difficult times, could we afford all these robots, would it lead to a global imbalance where richer countries wage their robots against countries who can only send men to war because they don’t have the technology or the money? Basically I’m a bit of a pacifist.

After destroying the country, with robots or otherwise, Schmidt and Cohen then go on to talk about reconstruction. Now I was getting slightly annoyed by the conflict section but by the reconstruction section I was moving on to getting a bit pissed off, there was too much will and would and not enough could, it sounded like what they were hypothesising was the gospel not a possibility, it reminded me a little of say someone in the 1980s saying by the time we were in 2013 we’d all be going round on hover boards. Schmidt and Cohen argued that the premier importance when reconstructing a country after war or natural disaster would be to get the telecommunication system up and running or if the country didn’t have a (decent) telecommunication system originally, installing one. Yes, I can see the importance of making sure the mobile phones are working, as they’re needed for the relief agencies to coordinate but I dunno satellite phones anyone? It just seemed like they would be using the natural disaster or war as an excuse to get their ‘product’ into the country. I also thought they were over optimistic about the reliability of the technology in developing countries, it’s all very well the network being there but if they can’t charge up the batteries on the phones or data is too expensive or if there are not enough places to repair the phones it’s all pretty useless.

Overall this was an interesting book, it made me think about how we all really do live in two worlds now, the real and the digital. I think this book would be interesting read to anyone who writes thrillers or near future fiction but it’s not the best tech book I’ve read recently.

*** (out of 5)


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