Stephen Colbert: Is this new digital age going to be good?
Eric Schmidt: Yes!
Stephen Colbert: The very first sentence of this damn book is, "The internet is among the few things humans have built that they don’t truly understand." Do you understand the internet?
Eric Schmidt: I do not.
—Eric Schmidt on The Colbert Report, April 2013
The New Digital Age is an odd book. Part of it is style: it reads like a report specially commissioned by the Senate Select Subcommittee on Boring. And as for the "insights" it offers about the future: "The virtual world can make the physical world better, worse or just different." Which is like saying that porridge can be too hot, or too cold, or just right.
In my case, it was also context that made this such a strange read. I was braced for a book like Future Shock by Alvin Toffler or even Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital — one that makes a lot of noise, a rollicking tome that sells not only a vision of the future but a lot of books as well. Instead, it took me multiple readings to reach the state of productive paranoia that must at this point be second nature to Julian Assange: that is, a worldview that sees a technocrat under every bed. In the end, his recent op-ed for the New York Times ("The Banality of 'Don't Be Evil'") was spot-on, I think. Assange called The New Digital Age "a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism." And after looking those words up in the dictionary (well, dictionary.com) I have to agree.
It reads like a report specially commissioned by the Senate Select Subcommittee on Boring
According to Schmidt–Cohen, The New Digital Age was written out of a sense of duty. It's a warning, and it's a call to action. It reads like some dystopian strain of secular American prophecy written in corporate report-speak, heavy on terms of art like "disruption" and "innovation" and "the [SOMETHING] space." This is a future where the dinosaur government, unable to keep pace with technology platforms "even more powerful than most people realize," shares power with multinational tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, "who are moving at an accelerated pace and pushing the boundaries sometimes faster than laws can keep up with." It inspires the same kind of dread that once prompted William Gibson to describe one corporation's effect on society in these terms: "Google [has become] a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world. This is the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before. But empires and nation-states weren’t organs of global human perception. They had their many eyes, certainly, but they didn’t constitute a single multiplex eye for the entire human species."
According to Schmidt–Cohen, the wired world (soon to be the entire world) has embarked on "the largest experiment involving anarchy in history." Now, I know a fair number of anarchists who would probably disagree with this sentiment, especially now that the internet resembles nothing less than a shopping district in which all the public space has been gobbled up by private management companies. But if the authors mean "anarchy" as in "a state of society without government or law, where one can download The New Digital Era for free, without legally purchasing it through the Google Play store" then yes, sure. It's anarchy!
This isn't the only place where the authors' fear of the public is on display. "This is a dangerous model," they weigh in on WikiLeaks. "There is always going to be someone with bad judgment who releases information that will get people killed."
"Unfortunately," the authors of The New Digital Age conclude, "people like Assange and organizations like WikiLeaks will be well placed to take advantage of some of the [worldwide technological] changes in the next decade."
The New York Times was right to ask Julian Assange to comment on The New Digital Age. His book, Cypherpunks (reviewed for The Verge by R.U. Sirius) both foreshadows Schmidt and Cohen's work and serves as a response. Say what you will about Assange's prose — sure, the man is kind of a Debbie Downer — it's obvious that he cares about what happens to the least of us, those of us who are not shareholders. The core of his message is inevitably missing from mainstream press coverage of WikiLeaks: that a just society would protect the weak from the powerful and corrupt. By way of contrast, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen have spent the bulk of their short, happy lives sucking up to power.
While Google's market share and influence have swelled over the years, Eric Schmidt has hobnobbed in Davos, attended sessions of the Bilderberg group, joined the board of the New America Foundation, and amassed a fortune in the process. More or less in parallel, Cohen treated the State Department like a startup, wowing Condi and Hillary with his Twitter proficiency and by throwing around terms like "Public Diplomacy 2.0" and "21st-Century Statecraft," as if they weren't meaningless.
Not bad for a man who was once labeled 'Condi's Party Starter'
Highlights from Cohen's All-American Speakers Bureau bio include positions with the National Counterterrorism Center and the Council on Foreign Relations, and a highly publicized phone date with Jack Dorsey. Not bad for a man who was once labeled "Condi's Party Starter" by The New Yorker, presumably through no fault of his own. Most recently, Cohen was named the director of Google's "think/do" tank, Google Ideas.
Indeed, under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the US State Department at times resembled nothing less than a "think/do" tank for the Hoover Institution, the prominent conservative policy research institute based at Jared Cohen's alma mater, Stanford University. And it's this world of think tanks and foundations that provides the true intellectual center of Schmidt–Cohen's book. Rice knows this world well. She left the faculty of Stanford University to work at the Pentagon (paid for by a fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations) before going to the National Security Council. Now that her government service is done, she's gone back to Stanford.
In her autobiography, Rice mentions how "a terrific staff of 'young guns'" accompanied another member of the Stanford set, Stephen D. Krasner, to the State Department. "One of his most inspired appointments came in 2006," Rice continues, "when he hired the 20-something Jared Cohen," also a Stanford alum. She then goes on to claim credit for the Arab Spring on the State Department’s behalf.
On a December day in 2008 — this was during the bitter end of the Bush presidency — Cohen joined State Department official James Glassman on stage at the New America Foundation to outline their gift to the next administration, and to the world: "A new approach to communicating ... made far easier because of the emergence of Web 2.0, or social networking, technologies. We call our new approach Public Diplomacy 2.0." In a talk that awkwardly referenced both Camus and Derrida, the wonks announced their support for a group of State Department-approved pro-democracy activists under the banner Alliance of Youth Movements.
The first step, of course, was acquiring the URL "movements.org." Next was a series of conferences in New York, London, and Mexico City, complete with corporate sponsorship (including AT&T, Pepsi, MTV, and Howcast) and an onstage appearance by Whoopi Goldberg. But the event that the State Department seemed most excited about was a meeting that took place between American activists and Egyptian dissidents that would go on to play a key role in the tumult that shook Mubarak from power. The meeting took place not in meatspace, but in cyberspace. Specifically in the popular virtual sex hub, Second Life.
Schmidt: I want to talk a little about Thor. Right. The sort of, the whole Navy network and...
Assange: Tor or Thor?
Schmidt: Yeah, actually I mean Tor.
Assange: And Odin as well.
— "Secret" meeting between Eric Schmidt and Julian Assange, transcript released by WikiLeaks in April, 2013
Both Schmidt and Cohen have been burned by WikiLeaks at some point in their careers. In fact, the latest incident — weeks before the publication of The New Digital Age — involves a recording and transcript of a supposedly secret meeting with Julian Assange. Besides Cohen-Schmidt, this meeting was attended by a group of establishment emissaries including Scott Malcomson of the International Crisis Group and Lisa Shields, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
For the next few hours, Schmidt–Cohen would avoid politics, or philosophy, or any of the motivations that prompted the creation of WikiLeaks. Instead they picked their subject's brain regarding things like UDP encryption and Bitcoin (you know, because they couldn't just Google that shit). While the transcript of that interview wasn't meant to be published, it's worth reading nonetheless — if only because throughout the meeting Schmidt and Cohen betray the same narrow-minded focus on technical details that makes The New Digital Age such a frustrating book.
And it is a frustrating book. It's the kind of book where the authors surveyed the sorry state of cellular connectivity in Baghdad, back when Cohen still worked for the State Department and Schmidt was his fancy-pants CEO guest, and could only conclude that "governments [are] dangerously behind the curve" when it comes to understanding and implementing new technology.
Which is true, if you only take it that far. But how narrow-minded do you have to be that you could look at war-torn Baghdad and only think that it would be a great place to introduce Android phones? How full of shit must one be to not even acknowledge the role that two wars (and years of deadly embargoes) played in devastating what William Blum called "one of the most advanced and enlightened nations in the Middle East?" Even if you were to set aside the aerial bombardment and military occupation for a moment, there is still the damage caused by the previous authoritarian regime, one that received tacit approval and sometimes outright support from the United States going back to the Reagan administration.
The State Department-sponsored meeting of Egyptian dissidents took place in Linden Lab's popular virtual sex hub, Second Life
There is an unacknowledged political reality that permeates The New Digital Age, one that assumes that human beings assert no control over their destiny, that regulating people is "good" while regulating business is "bad," that post-modernity means that humankind is destined to be cast adrift in waves of market innovation — submerged, in fact. And that's exactly the kind of thinking that informs the policy recommendations of organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations. It's the political realism that informs the mad politics of someone like Henry Kissinger, who earns pride of place not only as someone who wrote an inside-cover blurb for The New Digital Age (an august group that includes Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Elon Musk) but as someone who — unlike Julian Assange, who was interviewed then dismissed when his testimony proved inconvenient — actually received a few good-sized passages in the text. If this were an intellectually honest book, there would be dialogue, acknowledgement of opposing viewpoints. Instead, this is a manifesto.
Without ever explaining its motivations or acknowledging an alternate viewpoint, The New Digital Age describes a future in which the current trends lead directly to the only possible outcome. That's because, I would suspect, the people who would make those decisions don't want us to realize that we do have other options. In taking this approach, Schmidt–Cohen gave the world a book that sees humanity not as a group of individuals, but as consumers.
If Schmidt and Cohen’s vision of the future comes to pass, it will be because as a society we've never learned to take responsibility for the "innovation" that's imposed on us by those for whom profit motives are the only priority. If you doubt that's the case, ask yourself why they had to install suicide nets at Foxconn, or how the various factions in the Democratic Republic of Congo are funding their civil war.
In the end, if Schmidt and Cohen are right, it's because our machines will have become faster and cheaper, but nothing else will have changed. Then we'll have the lame "end of history" that Francis Fukuyama once depicted, because we drowned in the waves of innovation when we should have been learning to swim.
The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business
by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen