Formatting life

Formatting life

Lead review

Formatting life

In their analytical book ‘The New Digital Age’, technology gurus Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen lay out a future without secrets — for the good and the bad.

Picture this rosy scenario for your high-tech future: You awaken because your curtains open automatically, your coffee maker starts brewing and your bed administers a subtle hint in the form of a back massage. Your closet, having scanned your calendar, coughs up a freshly cleaned suit for the big meeting today. You head for the kitchen while reading the day’s news as a translucent holographic display. Thanks to motion detection, it stays right in front of you as you walk.

And when you stub your toe — because you will, pal, if you wander around scanning eye-level holograms — you can use a diagnostics app on your cellphone device to see whether it’s broken. Speaking of your feet, you will have a smartshoe that pinches you to keep you from lingering over breakfast and being late for your meeting. Neither human error nor human nature will interfere with your gratingly perfect morning.

If this is the happiest news delivered by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, imagine what the bad news is like. Actually, you don’t have to: The authors have come up with memorably batty examples. They say that the future will be a tough time to be a Malawian witch doctor because when everyone in the world has access to digital information, the witch doctors’ authority will be contradicted. It will also be hard to be a warlord in eastern Congo, if warlords are touchy about negative publicity.

Maybe they are. The New Digital Age is much more prescient and provocative than it is silly. Its thinking got a little less futuristic when the recent Boston Marathon bombings turned crowdsourcing and cameras into high-speed methods of needle-in-a-haystack detection.

The collaboration between Schmidt, the executive chairman (and formerchief operating officer) of Google, and Cohen, a foreign relations expert and director of Google Ideas, is meant to explore the ways in which technology and diplomacy will intersect. “There is a canyon dividing people who understand technology and people charged with addressing the world’s toughest geopolitical issues, and no one has built a bridge,” they write.

The most frightening and important sections deal with the futures of war and terrorism, and it is here that the authors sound most assured. Until now, they point out, it has been relatively easy to use scare tactics and Web charisma to mobilise acolytes. But a new accountability is coming, and a wired, well-informed public will be able to tell the difference between stardom and wisdom.

“The consequence of having more citizens informed and connected is that they’ll be as critical and discerning about rebels as they are about the government,” the authors write.

This book articulates why any leaders, whether legitimate, revolutionary, self-styled or tyrannical, will need much more elaborate planning skills than they ever had before.
“States will long for the days when they only had to think about foreign and domestic policies in the physical world,” it grimly says. Future political visionaries will have to devise policies for both the real and virtual worlds, and those policies will not necessarily be consistent with each other.

There is already much evidence for the authors’ claim that cyberwarfare and drone strikes are apt to overshadow traditional combat — although technology may yield military uniforms that can generate sounds, camouflage themselves and even self-destruct rather than wind up in enemy hands.

Despite dry, dense prose and occasional weird misfires (will it be joyous or heartbreaking to watch holographic home movies, to have the dead visit your living room?), The New Digital Age throws off many worthwhile provocations.

Some are pop-cultural: It’s no longer true, the authors argue, that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes (per Andy Warhol). Thanks to the unforgiving nature of the Internet, everyone will be famous forever. “It’s only a question,” they say, “of how many people are paying attention, and why.”

Some are global: Making frequent swipes at China (the authors agree with certain experts “that China’s future will not be bright”), this book handicaps the prospects of both rebellion and suppression as if the fate of the world might depend on these things — because it might.

Any reader of The New Digital Age is sure to have a favourite point of contention. Like the book’s view of politics: The authors predict that we can expect many more Herman “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” Cains in the future, candidates with big personalities who become momentarily popular, but cannot withstand tough scrutiny.

Then they advise political consultants to map the brain functions of candidates for a scientific assessment of how well they handle stress and temptation. When a politician makes it past that kind of screening, we will have truly reached the robotic age.

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