Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review of "The New Digital Age" by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (April 2013) is one of the most exciting books I have read in a long time. It provides a glimpse into the future of governments and societies, shaped by the technologies already on cusp of reality.

As one who has spent a significant amount of time recently thinking about how technology and society will necessitate changes in Singapore's government, I think this book is incredibly important. It is important because we cannot fixate on fixing the present, at the expense of planning for the future. This book paints various scenarios of the future, and provides a basis for us to answer the key questions "So what?" and "What can we do about this?"

So this is the context in which I will share my thoughts on this book. Also because till date, there does not seem to be any detailed thoughtful review out there.

About the Authors
The first indication of the credibility and importance of the book is the authors. Eric Schmidt should need no introduction. As the CEO of Google (2001-present), former CEO of Novell (1997-2001) and engineering jobs at renown places like Bell Labs and PARC, he has an engineering and tech pedigree as good as they come. Jared Cohen is the founder and director of Google Ideas, "a think/do tank that explores how technology can enable people to confront threats in the face of conflict, instability or repression." A Rhodes scholar, he served as a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff from 2006 to 2010. Most notably, he was credited by Condoleeza Rice for leveraging social media as a tool of diplomatic policy. In 2009, he persuaded Twitter to postpone its routine maintenance so as not to disrupt the election protest underway in Iran. Jared is the main author of the book, and writes from a wealth of diplomatic experience, tempered by a deep appreciation of the potential of technology to change the world.

Summary and Key Ideas
The book is neatly organised by various facets of technology, and how they will shape our lives in the future.
  • Ch1: Our Future Selves - This chapter is a whirlwind tour of new technologies, but it also sets up some of the key messages consistent throughout the book: 1) That in the future, connectivity will be power and 2) Connectivity affords people everywhere the opportunity to innovate and make their world better. They also paint in this chapter a lovely picture of a day in the life of our future selves - with all kinds of intelligent devices anticipating your needs, or using your phone to scan your toe for damage when you stub it.
  • Ch2: The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting - Our online identity and reputation will be more important than our offline identity, and we will take much greater measures to protect it. This results from the abundance of shared data about us, and the permanence of that data. "Parent-teacher associations will advocate for privacy and security classes to be taught alongside sex-education classes in their childrens' schools. Such classes will teach students to optimise their privacy-and-security settings." The balance of power between the state and its people will shift, as the people are empowered to have their voices heard, but repressive regimes would have many more tools to target their enemies, as well as monitor the flow of information. There is also a lengthy discussion on the idealism of whistle-blowing, and why it will be very difficult for anyone to establish another Wikileaks.
  • Ch3: The Future of States - One possible outcome of heightened state control of information is the Balkanisation of the Internet. Already practised by Iran and China, this could result in an Internet fractured and filtered by governments, reversing the current trend for globalised information. Cyber Warfare will become increasingly destructive, as demonstrated by STUXNET. Yet the difficulty in attribution will make it difficult to deter, nor can policy makers draw a clear line for what constitutes an act of war.
  • Ch4: The Future of Revolution -  Revolutions will be easier to start, but harder to finish. Technology makes it easier to set up an online presence, and disseminate information. But ultimately, a real revolution depends on a physical presence, physical courage and physical danger. It is easy for a crowd to mass and topple a government, but not so easy to build a new one. Government attempts to clamp down on connectivity will backfire, and I love this line: I didn't like Mubarak, but this wasn't my fight. But then Mubarak took away my internet and he made it my fight. So I went to Tahrir Square. This chapter also includes an interview with PM Lee Hsien Loong, who provides his take on Singapore's "Currygate" affair.
  • Ch5: The Future of Terrorism - It will be more difficult for terrorists to hide their activities in a connected world. But connectivity will open up new vulnerabilities, and the deadliest terrorist of the future may be armed with keyboards and phones instead of guns and bombs. As today, the internet will be a key tool for recruitment.
  • Ch6: The Future of Conflict, Combat and Intervention - The visibility of conflict will continue to increase, and greater efforts will be spent by each party on "marketing" their side of the story. Connectivity will also amplify grievances, "strengthening dissonant perspectives instead of smoothing over their inaccuracies." A single photo or video shot by a camera phone could become a rallying point, and it will be important to develop a system of digital verification to ensure such crowd-sourced "evidence" is not doctored. Similar to terrorists, rebel movement will also move their attacks online. The trend towards robots and drones in warfare will also give rise to new capabilities and moral dilemmas. Can the decision to kill be delegated to a robot? And even with human control, imagine a standoff between an armed robot and a six-year old child with a spray-paint canister ... the robot can either shoot the child, or be disabled, as the six-year-old spray paint over its high-tech cameras and sensory components, blinding it".
  • Ch7: The Future of Reconstruction - In any reconstruction effort, (re)building the communications network should be the top priority. This applies both to rebuilding infrastructure after as disaster and rebuilding a society after a revolution. This forms the backbone for all other efforts, including setting up a functioning government and civil institutions (e.g. providing some sort of national id system) and allowing ground innovations to meet the challenges in the relief zone. Connectivity and awareness will encourage altruistic behaviour, but less credible startups who use the online tools better (e.g. Kony 2012) may divert aid resources away from established players who could use them better. The authors also propose an interesting "guns for handsets scheme" to encourage ex-militants to disarm, and provide them the tools for a new life.
This review by the Huffington Post gives a listing of some of the individual ideas in greater detail.

Critique and Opinion

What's in a Name

First, I must warn that the subtitle is misleading - Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business. This book is of greatest interest to people trying to understand how technology will affect the intersection of society and the state, there is very little about how it will affect personal lives or business. Fortunately for me, this is of great interest to me, but this may not be the case for every reader.

The Problem With Telling the Future

The book is very speculative, and this may make disappoint people hoping for a definitive view. There are a lot of "could", "might", "perhaps". But then again, what book on the future is not speculative? So, don't expect a definitive view because they are technologists, not prophets. Instead, I actually enjoy the approach that the authors have taken. Looking at the trajectory of various technologies, they paint alternative future scenarios, some better some worse, and where possible they discuss deliberate steps that could be taken to bring the world to the more favourable ones. I think this is a useful and practical approach.

Where You Sit Is Where You Stand

This book is written by two people whose combined experiences give them a wealth of insights into technology, foreign policy and the challenges of the developing world. However, we cannot overlook that they are from Google, and as such there is inevitably a corporate agenda behind this. Some of the key repeated messages about the importance of the mobile phone as the gateway to connectivity for the developing world, and the potential of technology to solve many security challenges are undoubtedly there to underscore the importance of the work that Google Ideas is doing in these areas. Nothing wrong with the work, and it is natural that they would want to sell it. Just highlighting that it is a subjective viewpoint. And of course, we must also remember this is an American perspective.

This also introduces some bias into the work, which damages its objectivity. For example, I found it very strange that the chapter on online identity had absolutely no mention of the efforts that rival Facebook, which has also made it its mission to de-anonymise the internet with verifiable online identities, is making in this field.

So What's New?

In fields with which I am familiar, there was very little new information and few surprises. Since I follow closely the developments in the military, communications, and cyber threats, there was very little new factual information to be gained from this book. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Most importantly, in these areas I am familiar with, I was quite comfortable with the authors' assessments of the present, and hence more willing to accept their conjectures about the future. Also, having gained my trust in the areas I know a lot about, I was more willing to place my faith in what they are telling me about those areas I know little about. In particular the important areas such as online identity and the Balkanisation of the internet.

For People

As individuals, the key takeaway from this book is not how snazzy our lives will be in the future, and all the types of electronic prosthetics we will be wearing. Instead, we should take home the importance of our digital identity, and how to safeguard it. We should be thinking hard whether we want to give our kids names which will make them stand out in an internet search, or one that will help them sink below the noise. And of course, whether you want to buy them their domain name now. This is not a pipe dream, already credit companies are using online profiles to replace the traditional credit score.

We might also want to consider the investments that our governments are making in IT infrastructure. What will make the country more efficient? Which will make us more trackable? Ultimately, we each need to decide how comfortable we are balancing efficiency, security and privacy, and whether we agree with our government policy on this.

We may also want to consider our involvement in global causes, given the degree of direct access we now have to contribute and play a role. Along these lines, I've decided to share an essay I wrote on the Individual Responsibility to Protect (R2P), because the time now seems ripe for such ideas, as individuals become more empowered.

For Nations

People in government have to read this book, especially if you have not been keeping a close eye on technology. You will probably find it deeply disturbing, but it will give a good map of the landscape from which you

For Business

As stated above, nothing for you, sorry. But if you are an investor, this might give you a sense of what technologies have military applications, since militaries have pretty deep pockets (until recently).

For Militaries

The book gives a good overview of the issues surrounding autonomous and cyber warfare. There will be a lot of ambiguity, and some of the dilemmas highlighted (e.g. the morality of remote strikes or what constitutes a cyber act of war) need to be carefully deliberated.


If you read this far ... thank you. I must admit first that this review has been a rushed job. I read the audiobook over the week and was very impressed. So in my few spare hours on the weekend, I decided I would write as comprehensive a review as I can to recommend it to friends. Due to my upcoming exam, I have not given it as much consideration as I would have liked (especially the last part). But I hope it has still been helpful, and I will continue to refine it subsequently.