Promise and Peril of the Digital Age
As mobile technology continues its rapid spread around the world, the prospects for it to foster revolution and positive change are increasing, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, told a Tufts audience on Feb. 26.
The new technology has created “a massive shift of power to individuals,” Schmidt said. He predicted that 3 billion more people getting smartphones over the next five years “is a one-time way of changing the power structure, with enormous implications, most of which are positive—but not all.” For poor people the world over, “the mobile phone is the solution to education, entertainment, safety and so forth, just in that one device.”
Schmidt and Jared Cohen, founder and director of Google Ideas, are co-authors of The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses and Our Lives; they spoke at Tufts as part of the Fletcher School’s Hitachi Center for Technology and International Affairs speaker series to a packed Cohen Auditorium. Bhaskar Chakravorti, senior associate dean for international business and finance at the Fletcher School, moderated the discussion.
The smartphone “is the first technology to allow an individual to own, develop and disseminate content without having to rely on an intermediary,” Cohen said. With so many more people coming online in parts of the world “that are autocratic, incredibly poor, violent, unstable . . . what they do with those devices is going to be earth-shattering to all of us who think we know how our devices work.”
Technology will change world politics, the Google executives argued. “In the future, revolutions will be easier to start and happen faster, but will be much harder to finish,” said Cohen. “What we’ve seen from the Arab Spring, the Ukraine and various other examples is that it’s very easy for people to organize in virtual town squares around the common idea of ‘We don’t like this particular dictator. Let’s get him out of power.’ But that seems to be the only thing people agree on, and after the dictator is unseated, the expectation that change and transformation will happen just as quickly is not met.”
That might lead to a situation in which “the number of people in these revolutions is smaller, but maybe [the revolutions] are going to occur more frequently,” Schmidt noted. “I think it’s fair to say there will be . . . more of this participation in the streets, more activists and so forth, because people are not seeing the opportunities” for the better life they have come to expect, thanks to widespread access to news and information.
How new leaders will emerge is also unclear, especially with the advent of data permanence—the digital record of people’s lives that will forever be available. “If every aspect of a person’s life from birth is fully known, including the inevitable mistakes they make at the age of 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 . . . how do you ever emerge above the cacophony? How do you become a true hero?” Schmidt asked.
On a more personal level, data permanence is something that parents will have to warn their children about, much as they tell them to look before crossing the street. “The core problem of data permanence, with a life lived online, is that we humans are not going to grow up that much faster,” Schmidt said. “You’re still going to make a lot of mistakes as a 14-year-old, but now they are there forever. How do we deal with this issue?”
Following their talk, Schmidt and Cohen took wide-ranging questions for more than an hour from students in the audience. Asked about Google’s role in the new digital world, Schmidt replied, “We see ourselves as an organizer of information, and not as a censor and not as a judgment center.” He added later: “Our job is to get you so much information that you’re sort of overloaded with this idea and that idea and so forth and so on, but it’s your responsibility—[based on] your culture, your education, your values, your family—to . . . navigate that.”
Another student asked about automation that displaces workers. Schmidt said it concerned him, and urged students to help solve the problem by becoming entrepreneurs—creating new jobs in the process. He also suggested that people “figure out ways to educate [themselves] about ways to work with robots. It’s my guess—I don’t know—that there’s not a class at Tufts that is entirely about working with robots. And yet that may be the most important class to be invented and taught in the next decade, because people who work with robots will have much higher income than the ones that don’t.” (Note to Schmidt: The School of Engineering offers a robotics course.)
Schmidt and Cohen also said that technology could be weakening our ability to communicate effectively. “One of the things I’m worried about is our writing abilities,” Cohen said. “We don’t know the sociological impact of [technology] long term. Is it like learning another language at a young age?”
“My guess—and I think this will be debated for a long time—is that humans are very communicative, and so the fact that you’re talking to more people with shorter bursts of communication is probably net neutral to positive,” Schmidt said.
“But I also worry about deep reading. I fly all the time, and when I used to get on a plane, I had nothing to do, so I’d read a book. Now I spend all my time being online, doing my emails, interacting and all that, and the book doesn’t get read. I think we’ve got to work on that.” To laughter from the audience, Schmidt and Cohen quickly then plugged their book, which is coming out in paperback next week.
Taylor McNeil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.