Book of the week: The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, and Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, sketch a convincing vision of a world transformed by technology.

(Knopf, $27)

“When it comes to books forecasting the future, tech statesmen like Eric Schmidt don’t have a stellar track record,” said Rich Jaroslovsky in Too many CEOs have become so enamored of their reputation as visionaries that they’ve missed major changes happening right under their noses. Yet Schmidt, Google’s chairman, appears to have bucked the trend. His book—co-authored with Jared Cohen of Google Ideas, the company’s think tank—sketches a vision of a world transformed by technology that’s convincing because it’s “not particularly pretty.” The Internet, they write, “is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.” As 5 billion currently unplugged citizens of the planet gain access to this powerful tool, there’s no telling, the authors admit, whether it’ll be used primarily for good or evil.

Readers won’t feel shortchanged on predictions for George Jetson–style wonders, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. In Schmidt and Cohen’s future, we’ll absorb our dose of the morning news on holographic displays, and we’ll wear “smart shoes” that pinch our toes if we linger too long over our morning coffee. But the book is “much more provocative than it is silly.” Focused on the ways technology and geopolitics intersect, it describes a great divide between those in power and those who understand how the Web works. The authors predict that both traditional powers and the leaders of uprisings will be held to new standards of accountability by a better-informed, more readily mobilized public, but they concede that the dynamic could be volatile. The fate of the world, they write, could rest on whether the Web triggers rebellion in China or a more aggressive authoritarianism.

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If only Schmidt and Cohen had taken a harder look at corporate giants like the one they work for, said Stephen Shankland in Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google are assuming a lot of the power that the Web is taking away from the state, yet we hear little about the dangers of that trend. Given that we are moving more and more of our lives online—creating a huge searchable depository of data about our friends, our health, and our passing thoughts—“it’s almost laughable when the authors advise us to make sure we read the terms and conditions of website usage carefully.” Even the authors must be aware that trusting these Goliaths isn’t smart strategy.

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