Book Review: The New Digital Age

As you’re here on this blog there’s a fair chance that you’re interested in technology. So a book written by two of the senior minds at Google is probably a good thing to mention.

The New Digital Age is a collaborative work between Eric Schmidt, long time Google CEO, and Jared Cohen, the Director of Google Ideas and previously advisor to US Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hilary Clinton. Here they lay out their vision for how technology will be used in the future, thankfully avoiding the standard fare of obsessing over the various devices that will emerge.  Instead they focus on how an ever more online world will interact socially, what impact technology will have on emerging nations, and how wars, revolutions, and terrorist activities will be played out with the aid of the internet.

Ideas flow fast and furious, causing the reader to have to slow down and reread many a section to keep up with what’s being stated. It isn’t that the book is badly written, or in any way unclear, it’s simply a dense collection of thoughts on how the world will change, and you really don’t want to miss any of them. It’s true that chapters can feel a little repetitive at times where theories are revisited from different angles – say cyber–terrorism or government oversight – but the multi-layered nature of the subject matter makes this a necessary  way of exploring the themes. The real thrust of the book though is painting a picture of the future where the smartphone,  or rather access to the internet on a mobile device, is the centre of the universe. It’s surprising how many times the simple technology that we take for granted now is the fulcrum for prison control, tracking terrorists, keeping rogue governments in line through public accountability, or even enabling fishermen in the developing world to get fair prices for their catch.

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It’s not often that technologists the calibre of Schmidt and Cohen set out their ideas in such a straightforward and expansive manner, but the New Digital Age is exactly that. You know they’ve seen the secret labs which develop new hardware, their access to Google records also means that they can analyse data that other social scientists could only dream of, and as they have dealt directly with governments all around the world they can speak with real insight into the issues they’ve witnessed first hand.

The New Digital Age is a rare creation, in that it doesn’t feel speculative at all, instead it’s a wisely considered and authoritative map for the path that lies ahead.

This, of course, isn’t always a better, happier, road to take. Whereas they argue that mobile devices mean that citizens can report on their governments quickly and easily – thus causing the officials to be more careful with their abuses – It also demonstrates clearly that doing so will make you an easy to find target of said governments. In the light of the recent Edward Snowden / Prism scandal this only seems more real. An interconnected world is a frightening one when you realise that information and access to the internet are key to the future, but the means for both still resides mainly with those in power. Schmidt and Cohen are more optimistic though, seeing the internet as an incredible opportunity for those who can embrace its potential, with mobile devices freeing them to do that in their natural environments.

I remember reading Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte many years ago and being astounded by the ideas he put forward for the future, many of which we are now finally seeing in everyday life. The New Digital Age has a simliar feel. You don’t really need to be interested in technology to read it, just curious about how societies will use the already existing means of communication and self expression to move the world forward. There are exciting avenues to explore, and some dark passages to hide from, but in the end that’s true in life whether it’s digital or not.

 

The New Digital Age is out now in Hardback from John Murray. If you are in the UK then you can click here to buy a copy, US readers can click here . If you live in any other part of the word, which judging by the latest WordPress stats I’ve been reading many of you are (hooray!), then please head over to your preferred bookseller and purchase a copy of this fascinating book. 

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