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Review: <i>The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business</i>

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen as smart and plugged-in as it gets. And they have the resources and connections necessary to break new ground. The result is a book full of fresh thinking, tightly researched examples and creative twists that are bound to get the digerati buzzing.
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The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business

By Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

Reviewed by Don Tapscott

Into an air of great anticipation, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen have published The New Digital Age. (Sad to say, my publisher never placed full-page ads in the New York Times.) The book immediately shot to the top of the charts and justly so. The authors are as smart and plugged-in as it gets. And they have the resources and connections necessary to break new ground.

The result is a book full of fresh thinking, tightly researched examples and creative twists that are bound to get the digerati buzzing and cause regular people to reflect deeply about our future.

The book takes an old idea -- that there are both digital and physical worlds -- and extends it, arguing that today nothing less than two civilizations have arrived. One developed over thousands of years and the other is in its infancy. One is a world of old cultures, nation states, governments, institutions, power structures and laws. The other is a dynamic, ungoverned, even anarchistic world where boundaries are porous, rules unclear and where power is resilient and distributed. While these two co-exist, each restraining the negative aspects of the other, they increasingly come into conflict.

In the next 10 years, the number of people using the Internet will grow from 2 billion to 7 billion. We should prepare ourselves for massive disruption.

As Google executives, it would surely cause them and the company grief to take opinions on all the controversial issues involved. So the authors have chosen to predict the future rather than polemicizing about how to achieve it. The upshot is a book packed with predictions on issues such as the future of states, revolution, terrorism, conflict, combat, citizenship and identity. Cleverly these predictions contain many veiled or not-so-veiled opinions about what is to be done.

Familiar concepts and language of the old civilization are extrapolated to the new - producing fresh and often startling concepts that will cause the most diehard digerati to reflect deeply, yet still be accessible to anyone who cares about the future.

You might expect two Google executives paint a rosy picture. Instead we're treated to a future that is dizzying and deeply disturbing. Get ready for:

  • Virtual honor killings. Identity, a citizen's most valuable asset, will exist primarily online. In deeply conservative societies where social shame can be devastating, we could see a kind of "virtual honor killing" -- dedicated efforts to ruin a person's online identity, with material real or fabricated. In some cultures this might incent a young woman's family to kill her.

  • Man-in-the-middle attacks. When an eavesdropper steps in to a two-way communication and intercepts the messages in both directions and modifies the content to manipulate the conversation in a way that each party thinks they are communicating directly with the other.
  • Balkanization. Imagine if a country or even a group of deeply religious Sunni-majority countries -- say Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and Mauritania -- decided to build a "Sunni Web." While still part of the larger Internet, it would become the main source of information, news, history and activity for citizens living in these countries. Their Web would be constrained and limited to a narrow point of view.
  • A decline in confirmation bias. When people, consciously or otherwise, pay more attention to sources of information that confirm or reinforce their existing worldview. Promisingly, a recent Ohio State University study suggests that this effect is weaker than perceived, at least in the American political landscape.
  • Camera drones. Consider a society deeply concerned with privacy saturated with camera-equipped smart phones and inexpensive camera drones. We will need designated "safe zones" where photography requires a subject's consent.
  • Internet asylum seekers. A dissident who can't live freely under one country's autocratic Internet and is refused access to other states' Internets will choose to seek physical asylum in another country to gain virtually an unimpeded freedom on its Internet.
  • Virtual multilateralism. Authoritarian states like Belarus, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and North Korea -- outcasts all -- would benefit from by joining an autocratic cyber union, where censorship, monitoring strategies and technologies could be shared.
  • Virtual sovereignty and statehood. Hounded in both the physical and virtual worlds, groups that lack formal statehood may choose to emulate it online. This opportunity to establish sovereignty virtually may well be a meaningful step to actual statehood. The Kurdish populations in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq might build a Kurdish web as a way to carve out a sort of virtual independence.
  • Discretionary power. With organizations such as WikiLeaks and the many WikiLeaks wannabes that will surely spring up, who gets to decide what material is suitable for release, and what must be redacted, even temporarily? And what happens if the person making these decisions is willing to accept the collateral damage of innocent individuals?
  • Data permanence. What is Tweeted, blogged, or written on someone's Facebook wall can never fully be stricken. This data permanence is an intractable challenge, but the type of political system and level of government control will determine its impact. In an open democracy, it will be a free-for-all in the short term. In a world with no delete button, peer-to-peer networking will become the default mode of operation for anyone looking to operate under or off the radar.
  • Cyber terrorism. Terrorist groups and states will make use of cyber-war tactics, though government will focus on information-gathering than outright destruction. Stealing trade secrets, accessing classified information, infiltrating government systems, disseminating misinformation -- traditional intelligence agency ploys -- will make up the bulk of cyber-attacks between states.
  • Virtual statecraft. States will be wistful for the simpler days of foreign and domestic policy. Power in the physical world is no assurance of power in the digital world. This disparity presents opportunities for small states looking to punch above their weight, and would-be states with lots of courage. Countries will have to navigate through the contradictions that may exist between another nation's physical and virtual foreign and domestic policies.
  • Transnational revolution. Future revolutionary movements will be more transnational and inclusive than many previous revolutions. Language won't be a barrier, as sophisticated translation software will allow dissidents from different languages to collaborate. Communication technologies will allow activists to engage from afar without risk. "Virtual courage" describes how global social media platforms will give potential activists and dissidents confidence that they have an audience, whether or not it is true. We will see "revolution tourists:" people who crawl the web for online protests to join and help amplify just for the thrill of it.
  • Online vigilantism. We will see online mobs seeking individuals by sharing photos and descriptions of criminal or marginal behavior, just as some newspapers wrongly pointed the finger at innocent bystanders in a frenzied quest to be the first to identify the Boston Marathon bombers.
  • A "digital caste system" where "people's experience will be greatly determined by where they fall in the structure." The tiny minority at the top will be largely insulated from the downside of technology by their wealth or location. The two billion already connected are the world's middle class. The next five billion will receive the greatest benefits and the worst drawbacks.
  • The book will cause plenty of debate and that's good. Consider the issue of intellectual property. The book discusses copyright and piracy as if the intellectual property laws of the physical world are completely sensible and automatically applicable to the new world. Rather than making the case for a complete revamp of our laws, which in my view is required, the authors seem to side with the corporations and governments in democratic countries that label our children pirates.

    Schmidt and Cohen argue that privacy is important, but are deeply pessimistic that it can be defended. Among the reasons is that political hawks wait for serious public incidents, such as the Boston Marathon bombs, to ratchet up their demands for cyber oversight. This legitimizes activities such as data-mining, which combines our digital breadcrumbs, such as phone calls, Internet browsing history, Google searches, bank records, credit card purchases, and medical records to inspect and predict the behavior of every citizen.

    They argue that the irresistible benefits of the virtual world are such that we voluntarily relinquish things we value in the physical world, like privacy, personal information and even security. Some might choose to live "off the cyber grid," boycott the digital world, and live a quiet and simple life. Governments will soon view such behavior as suspicious, and will build registries of citizens who behave so oddly. Your non-cyber behavior will attract cyber scrutiny.

    To be sure, we're all giving volunteering more information than we have in the past and governments and corporations everywhere are motivated to collect and exploit as much data as they can. But there are workable policies and approaches individuals and institutions can take to defend this basic right. I wish the authors had talked to Ontario's privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian to learn about her Privacy by Design principles and program that is being adopted broadly to address this issue.

    Privacy by Design argues that privacy cannot be assured solely by compliance with legislation and regulatory frameworks but is the responsibility of every organization to make it into its default modus operandi. The concept argues for a set of principles that can enable individuals to defend privacy and control over their personal information, help companies gaining a sustainable competitive advantage and ensure that governments don't lose trust.

    A book addressing foreign affairs seems incomplete to me without a chapter on global cooperation, problem solving and governance. It's a perfect arena for the authors to develop their core thesis. The physical world has a set of global institutions that came out of the Bretton Woods agreements after the Second World War -- the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN and others culminating in the G8 and G20. These institutions are increasingly ineffective. Contrast these to the new multi-stakeholder networks based on the Internet where tens of millions of people are cooperating to solve problems in new ways. But little is known about this new paradigm in global governance.

    In another section, the book argues correctly that dictators, autocrats and oppressors should be worried. Connectivity provides unprecedented tools to scrutinize, take collective action and topple old regimes. But while there will be more revolutionary activity there will be fewer successful revolutions. The acceleration of the pace of revolution means that movements have a shorter gestation period to create the strategies, organizations and leaders that can not only bring down the old regime but to actually take power. The authors call them revolutionary false starts.

    Rather than simply elaborating on this well-known trend, why not discuss how the emerging leaders could use the same social tools to build consensus, policies, and organizational capacity required to win elections, govern and forge democratic secular societies? There is a great discussion about how the Internet can help in reconstructing societies after disasters. How about a discussion about how it can help revolutionaries actually take power to build a better world?

    The authors write that they are hopeful. "We believe the vast majority of the world will be net beneficiaries of connectivity, experiencing greater efficiency and opportunities and an improved quality of life." They provide ample evidence that the arc of history is a positive one and towards freedom. "In the long run the presence of communications technologies will chip away at the most autocratic governments... it's no coincidence that today's autocracies are the least connected societies in the world."

    I'm hopeful too. But I must confess after reading this deeply disturbing book I'm struck anew by the enormity of the challenge to ensure that this smaller world our children inherit is a better one.

    If you care about the future, and most of us do, read this book. It will give you resolve to take action and perhaps even help you figure out what is to be done.

    A shorter version of this review was originally published in The Toronto Star.

    Don Tapscott's most recent book is Radical Openness -- a TED e-book (with Anthony D Williams). He is Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, currently focused on how the Internet changes global problem solving and governance. Twitter @dtapscott

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