When Cohen was a young staffer at the State Department, he was criticized by Morozov and others for displaying a naiveté about the role of Twitter in revolutions in the Middle East. For his part, Schmidt’s frequent soundbites, as they are scornfully quoted throughout Morozov’s book, make him sound like kind of a Google-eyed goof. So, full disclosure, I did not expect to like this book. Just as Gavin Newsom’s book was a commercial for Gavin Newsom, I suspected this would be a commercial for Google—where Eric Schmidt is now executive chairman and Cohen now directs Google Ideas. Instead, it is a rigorously researched, neutral, and clear-headed exercise in political science, one in which Google is rarely mentioned.
The book grew out of an essay Schmidt and Cohen wrote together for Foreign Affairs in late 2010. The context in which their collaboration began is rather telling: They met in 2009, in Baghdad, “engaging with Iraqis around the critical question of how technology can be used to help rebuild a society.” (Schmidt also raised eyebrows with visits to North Korea and Myanmar earlier this year.) They say they were surprised to see mobile devices everywhere in Baghdad, even while most people had limited access to electricity, food, and drinking water.
Fittingly, their project here focuses less on the two billion of us who are already online, and more on anticipating the other five billion people across the world who will be coming online in the near future. For those newcomers, both the promise and perils of technology are much greater than they are for us—which in turn makes it all the more vital that companies, governments, and everyone else stop and think now about how to help mitigate the negative effects of that transition. Of the five billion newcomers, Schmidt and Cohen write:
They’ll receive the greatest benefits from connectivity but also face the worst drawbacks of the digital age. It is this population that will drive the revolutions and challenge the police states, and they’ll also be the people tracked by their governments, harassed by online hate mobs and disoriented by marketing wars.
What makes this book so thorough is the authors’ insistence on showing the negative aspects of every technological innovation alongside the positive ones. “Technology is an equal-opportunity enabler,” they write: It empowers diplomats and terrorists alike. Stuxnet was the first major cyberattack to do real damage in the physical world, but not the last. Political revolutions will be easier to start, but riskier, and harder to finish successfully. “To summarize,” Schmidt and Cohen write, “States will long for the days when they only had to think about foreign and domestic policies in the physical world.”
Unlike Morozov or Lanier, Schmidt and Cohen deal with the details of how digital technology will likely alter political and economic relationships, rather than presenting abstract philosophies about it. Both types of books are exciting to read, but because Schmidt and Cohen focus so much on the potential problems ahead, theirs feels more grounded in reality. And unlike Newsom, it doesn’t feel like Schmidt and Cohen are trying to use their book to present themselves as thought leaders or to burnish their public image.
Then again, because of their positions at Google, they already are de facto leaders in the industry. They don’t need to sell themselves or their ideas—the world has already bought in. So why did they write this book, and why is it so good? While this book isn’t a commercial for Google, it is true that many of the ideas they discuss in this book—namely the importance of more powerful encryption tools overseas, especially to news organizations, and the incredible role that real-time translation software will play in reshaping how people do business across the world—will most likely be ideas that Google will lead the way on, and therefore profit from.