Editions : January-March 2014



The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business
By Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen
(Knopf Doubleday, 2013, 337pp)

Reviewed by Astrid S. Haryati

One could be forgiven for having low expectations about finding groundbreaking points and “real meat” in 250-plus pages written by two technology celebrities and shepherded by a glorifying list of supporters including Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger. Yet Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business” surprisingly delivers a cutthroat view on what the future will look like.

The duo of Google’s executive chairman and its director of Google Ideas convincingly diagrams the ways in which technology and diplomacy will intersect. The authors are on point in writing that “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.” This broad strokes statement is predictable, but the details that follow are thoroughly captivating.

The book easily traverses a future world where the role of connectivity is crucial in creating more equality and a better quality of life based on access to innovation. It is a world without a delete button in which identity will become more of a commodity and coping strategies will come through anonymous peer-to-peer communication methods. The two are more assured in articulating the future of states – that with collective online alliances, less paranoid states will allow freer access to the virtual world. This may come with intriguing extra layers such as applying visa requirements when entering a country’s virtual space, both to monitor international visitors and as a revenue-generating exercise.

Several illustrations of our future are also noteworthy. We need to plan for the Balkanization of the Internet, an outcome that may come when nation-states compile enough content to fill their own dedicated cyberspace to serve potentially narrow views. In this environment, Internet asylum seekers may rise in number, physically seeking unimpeded freedom.

Virtual multilateralism will also be a life-changing form in the future political landscape. States and corporations will work more closely together in official alliances based on ideological and political solidarity. The book suggests that nations with a demographic dividend, such as Indonesia, could benefit more from the digital dimension of development assistance and foreign aid, where they will bet on the need for connectivity. For this, we will see future states in the developing world aligning their diplomatic relationships accordingly.

With such power, virtual states will also remove the relevance of scale, and smaller actors can easily have outsized impacts. Groups hounded in the physical world could opt to replicate themselves online with a distinct top-level domain that becomes the base of virtual statehood. Projects can then be built on it in a full-scale act of treason in restive regions and beyond. The big risk will come from breathing even temporary life into it, particularly when we are not aware and are blindsided by its presence.

Digital provocation through cyber-attack capabilities can become low-grade cyberwar in our future, Schmidt and Cohen assert. It is already happening. They single out China for committing serious cyber-attacks and having meager enforcement of intellectual property rights. They also look at the growing Sino- African relationship as a model that will shape the future of public-private partnerships. Yes, technology companies do export their values along with their products.

The most captivating and important sections of the book deal with the future of revolution, terrorism and war. The “Code War,” in which major powers are locked in a simmering conflict, will leave economic and political progress unaffected. This is multipolar engagement that we should expect to see. Clear ideological fault lines will then emerge around freedom of expression, open data and liberalism. In this view, technology will not overtake but will complicate. “States will long for the days when they only had to think about foreign and domestic policies in the physical world,” the authors state.

With all the components of a technological future, the next Arab Spring will also be much easier to start. Many leading this charge will be technologically advanced younger people. Developers will create more constructive vehicles for them than what we know now, with powerful videos, images and messages. This will travel seamlessly to all users, providing women and youth with a greater voice than ever before. With it, virtual town squares and more transnational and inclusive movements will form and deploy simultaneously in many locations.

Despite all of these advantages, the authors point out that technologies will only help find the right leaders, not create them. In a fast-rising revolution, the lack of the gestation period required for a movement to mature and go beyond mobilizing a large population will require leaders to recognize what Henry Kissinger called a “mass consensus.” It will drive the world, and few people will be willing to openly oppose it.

With technology in hand, the estimated 52 percent of the global population that is under age 30 and socioeconomically “at risk” will certainly define our future challenges. A Google Ideas’ study argued that religion and ideology play less of a role in motivating people towards extremism and violence than the absence of a support network, the desire to belong to a group, to rebel, to seek protection or to chase danger and adventure.

In a future where we expect fewer genocides and more harassment, technology will shape the future of conflict. Combat and intervention will be more visible than ever before. Then communication – mobile first – will mentally become a reconstructive prototype of the world we tear apart. Virtual institutions will allow new or shellshocked governments to maintain much of their effectiveness in the delivery of services and still be part of the reconstruction process.

All and all, this is a surprisingly insightful book on the future of diplomacy and technology that details many captivating points better than the broad strokes summed up in its final chapter. I agree with the authors’ final point: the best thing anyone can do to improve quality of life is to drive connectivity and, in this case, technological opportunities. This will help prepare emerging nations to take full advantage of the knowledge economy to be influential drivers of our future.

I am now more alert to the promise and peril of technology in shaping the future political landscape. Personally, it is an important takeaway. Besides that, the tale of two civilizations, as it was told in the book, reminds me of two additional points: don’t misjudge a book by its cover and don’t plan to use the delete button. There won’t be one.

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