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Google Chairman Schmidt and Director Cohen Discuss New Book on The Digital Age

By Anne Panek '14  |  may, 2013, Issue 2
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(L-R) Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen share their thoughts with moderator Steve Edwards.


Presenting an articulate perspective on the sociopolitical impact of mobile technology on developing countries is, as they say, a topic best left to the professionals. And indeed, this was the case when Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, and Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, visited the Harper Center on May 15 to discuss concepts from their book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Businesses.

Schmidt and Cohen, no strangers to tackling big decisions in the public space, comfortably answered questions ranging from diplomacy and dictatorships to cyber security and digital identities posed by moderator Steve Edwards, the Deputy Director of Programming at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, and by the audience. The duo built on each other's responses, shedding light on where their perspectives diverged, with Schmidt often breaking down some of the finer points that Cohen had a preference to state in more direct fashion.

According to Cohen, the book was conceived as a way to move the tired "is technology good or bad?" debate into a straightforward discussion on its five- to ten-year impact. In fact, the inevitable proliferation of technology to the far corners of the world is a basic assumption in the book, indicating that this also familiar topic should no longer be up for discussion.

The two traveled to more than 30 countries to gather material, interviewing connected leaders and resource-starved households alike. They found that mobile technology, in particular, was creating huge changes - "dramatic, life-changing events," according to Schmidt. The largest benefit to expansive technology is the creation of anxiety and doubt among oppressed populations. Increasing the availability of independent sources of information will continue to create pressure on dictatorships and other domineering regimes. In addition, virtual citizens with multiple vocal online aliases will outnumber actual country populations, making it even more difficult for oppressive leaders to keep citizens in check. In the future, two foreign policies will be necessary: one for the "real world" and another for cyberspace.

"It's possible that the advent of information sources will keep crazy people from taking advantage of situations," Cohen stated. According to the authors, ill-intentioned groups may exaggerate their membership to increase publicity and encourage new followers online. However, if reputable online resources can't corroborate their claims, well, that's going to be a problem. The internet leaves little places left to hide.

Another advantage of online and mobile technology is afforded to countries historically weaker in terms of military power. They can "reset their abilities" by establishing a strong virtual presence and creating interdependencies with other, more powerful, governments and groups. Cohen cited Estonia as a country that had leapfrogged to a much more advantageous political situation primarily due to its use of online resources. In fact, the leader of Estonia promotes this idea by signing his correspondence "e-President."

While the timing for the realization of these somewhat utopian visions is unknown, Schmidt and Cohen didn't shy away from addressing some of the very real conflicts occurring right now.

"We made a decision that we cannot work under their system," was Schmidt's sobering answer to a question about the recent hacking of Gmail accounts by China and its censorship policy. Elaborating, he noted that China is the only country that employs active, dynamic censorship; online entities are given 30 minutes to remove material that is deemed offensive. The "Great Chinese Firewall" has become an unfortunate reality where machine learning is likely being used to find and shut down encrypted traffic.

The discussion took a more colorful turn when the topic of digital identities was addressed. "I'm very upset about people putting their sonograms online," Cohen stated, somewhat tempering the statement with a laugh. He explained that parents are creating their child's digital identity before he or she is even born – or even has a choice in the matter. To put it in perspective, he noted that the very young age of internet users is causing a mature discussion on digital identity to occur even earlier than the discussion of sex that most parents typically associate with their children coming of age.

So what can technology users do to protect themselves online? "Use Chrome," was Schmidt's deadpan, yet serious answer.

Nearly 400 attendees from the Booth School of Business, Harris School of Public Policy, Law School and the College attended the event. Shivani Jain, the event chair, provided her impression of the talk: "I personally was pleasantly surprised by the blatant honesty of the speakers. Their perspectives helped get insight into the realities that we sometimes don't realize because people are too afraid to talk about them."

Last Updated 5/28/13
Last Updated 5/28/13