When Google Inc. executive chairman Eric Schmidt and his co-author Jared Cohen travelled to North Korea as part of their research for a new book on the future of technology, they faced an unusual challenge.
“We wanted to describe to the [North Korean] traffic cops that they were Internet sensations,” said Mr. Cohen. “But that’s hard to do when [they] not only don’t know what YouTube is, they don’t know what the Internet is.”
Mr. Cohen, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the head of the Google Ideas think tank, visited some 30 countries with Mr. Schmidt to collect information for a book titled, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business .
Amid a sea of books predicting the myriad ways technology will change the world, The New Digital Age is doubly important. First, it represents perhaps the most optimistic forecast of technology’s impact on everything from democracy to privacy to cyber-security.
“We’ve always had the view that no country in the world is worse off as result of the Internet,” Mr. Cohen said. “There’s a wonderful case for optimism.”
Second, the book represents the de facto view of two of Google’s most senior employees about the intersection of technology and society. As such, it is perhaps the clearest explanation of exactly how Google sees the world.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Cohen touched on a number of areas where he and Mr. Schmidt believe the Internet will have a significant impact over the coming years.
“One of our arguments is that the terrorists of the future will operate in a world where everybody’s connected,” Mr. Cohen said. “It’s hard to imagine terror groups in the future not using technology and still being relevant, but by doing so they leave a digital trail.”
Mr. Cohen’s interview happened to coincide with the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, and he used the incident to illustrate the vast amount of information that was collected by the countless smartphone cameras on the scene – information that law enforcement officials used to quickly pinpoint the bombing suspects.
“Every evil deed can be caught on camera, and we can work together to bring people to justice,” Mr. Cohen said. “We just never had so many witnesses before.”
The central thesis of The New Digital Age concerns “the next five billion,” meaning the remaining portion of the world’s population that has yet to access the Internet. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Schmidt believe this onslaught of new Internet users – the vast majority from the developing world – will happen very quickly, with positive but uneven effects. Poorer or more-repressed populations, for example, will benefit greatly from access to myriad unfettered communication tools, even as their governments seek to clamp down on their ability to express themselves. Still, Mr. Cohen contends the pros of increased connectivity greatly outweigh the cons.
“It’s going to be a very turbulent next decade if you’re a dictator or an autocracy,” he said.
Part of Mr. Cohen’s research for the book took him to countries such as Myanmar, where unrestricted Internet access is far from commonplace. But that doesn’t mean the local population isn’t aware of the technology.
“What was interesting to us, for the next five billion people connecting, is that the Internet is so ubiquitous that they understand it as a concept before they experience it as a tool.”
It is on the topic of state online actors where The New Digital Age is often the least optimistic. The book comes at a time when cyber-warfare and espionage between states has morphed from a low-level annoyance to an overt fight, highlighted by such incidents as the allegedly American-built Stuxnet virus and accusations of rampant invasion of Western corporate computers by Chinese hackers.
Mr. Cohen contends that, eventually, such battles might become so violent that they break out of their digital confines.
“What we talked about in the book is that states are often willing to do in cyber-space what they wouldn’t do in the physical world,” Mr. Cohen said, listing everything from intellectual property theft to the repression of civil liberties.
“At what point does a state engage in a cyber attack so significant that it warrants a physical world response?”
The concept of escalating cyber-warfare meshes with the book’s prediction that the future of the Internet as a single, cohesive unit could itself be in jeopardy.
“Think about how hard a time states have in implementing the laws of the physical world,” Mr. Cohen said. “The natural inclination, particularly for autocratic governments, is to balkanize the Internet.
“We hope that doesn’t happen, but we have to have an honest conversation about it.”