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Tech: Anyone’s handmaiden

books Updated: Aug 17, 2013 11:32 IST
N Madhavan
N Madhavan
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The New Digital Age

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

Hachette Indian

* Rs. 650 * 315 pp

The future is not what it used to be. A century ago, it was electricity. Earlier, it might have been Gutenberg's printing press; and in the misty past, in a jungle somewhere, it was once the wheel.

This century is offering a full platter called the Digital Age, with its possibilities going beyond computers and telecommunications into social media, which has begun to have a profound impact on politics and society.

There is an old saying that whenever a new technology enters, the speed of its impact is overestimated while its magnitude is underestimated. That seems quite appropriate as the digital juggernaut rolls on.

What Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, do in The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business is to try and take educated guesses at what the planet is heading towards. Future-gazing is not easy when a technology envelopes the planet in a mesh of wires and wireless communications.

Perhaps no other technology has spread so fast across the world. Cohen, a Swahili-speaking international scholar who went to Oxford seems to give some kind of a reality check to Schmidt, a Princeton-educated engineer now in the company of ultra-smart Google techies.

Together, with celebrity interviews involving personalities like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, they attempt to extrapolate from emerging events and their own ringside view.

After a sci-fi peek into “Our Future Selves” (robots do the work of a maid and integrated clothing machines dry, fold, press and sort, and software tells you what you wear: you get the drift), the book meanders to less enchanting turf.

If the Arab Spring in Egypt showed the democratising power of Facebook, a Yemeni Islamist inspiring Al Qaeda activists on YouTube shows that technology is neutral to intent — and can be anyone’s handmaiden.

The authors sombrely caution now and again that they have no control on the malintent of those who might abuse digital power. They come up with interesting hypotheses and sketchy predictions.

For instance, new businesses will emerge to protect your privacy in a world where liars and trolls work hard online to damage reputations.

Mobile-phone triggered IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) are a grim reminder of how violence can be perpetrated with the ease with which one sends a text message.

The flip side is how even gunrunners can be spotted and tracked through radio frequency identification (RFID).

In a steady sequence of ifs and buts, Schmidt and Cohen take apart emerging trends on terrorism, identity, reconstruction, nation-states and revolutions.

You could almost picture a James Bond of the Digital Age handling new threats — except that the blondes this time may be unreal holograms.