Fletcher Features

Google Executives Discuss Increasing Role of Technology

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen spoke about technological advancements and the increasing importance of Internet connectivity during a discussion in Cohen Auditorium yesterday as part of The Fletcher School’s Hitachi Center for Technology and International Affairs Speaker Series.

Provost David Harris introduced Schmidt, Cohen and moderator Bhaskar Chakravorti, explaining that much of the discussion would be based on Schmidt and Cohen’s new book, “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business.”

“They describe the new age of globalization where digital platforms are breaking down barriers and creating an unprecedented level of connectivity,” Harris said. “Individuals have more power. Innovations are coming increasingly from the edges and individuals, not just the technology industry.”

Chakravorti, who serves as senior associate dean for international business and finance at the Fletcher School, asked Schmidt and Cohen how they would define the new digital era.

“Your book talks about these two parallel civilizations -— the analog civilization that has developed for thousands of years ... and then the digital civilization that is relatively young,” Chakravorti said. “The new digital age — how is this different from the old digital age?”

Cohen explained that the “new digital age” will be defined by an incredible increase in global connectivity.

“You’re going to add five billion new people into that global connected populace, but they’re going to be coming online in parts of the world that are autocratic, incredibly poor, violent [and] unstable,” he said. “What they do with those devices is going to be earth shattering to all of us that think that we understand how our devices work.”

The role of technology in international affairs and conflict was a big theme of the discussion. Both Cohen and Schmidt said they believe it will fundamentally alter the way revolutions occur.

“In the future, revolutions will be easier to start and happen faster, but they are going to be much harder to finish,” Cohen said. “It’s very easy for people to organize in virtual town squares with a common idea ... but that seems to be the only thing that people can agree on and after the dictator is unseated, the expectation that change and transformation will happen just as quickly is not met, and then what happens is societies become unraveled.”

The difficulty of finding new leaders has slowed the resolution to these revolutions, according to Cohen. Yet social media has helped bring celebrity-status to new leaders despite their lack of aptitude, Cohen explained. The Internet can also work against these politicians, Schmidt added.

“If every aspect of a person’s life from birth is fully known, including the inevitable mistakes they make at the ages of 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 ... how do you ever emerge above the cacophony?” Schmidt asked. “How do you actually become a true hero? Do you have to lead the military? Do you have to be in prison for 20 years? Do you have to have some special narrative? I don’t think we know yet.”

Schmidt and Cohen both expanded upon this issue of “data permanence” and discussed its potential drawbacks.

“The core problem of data permanence, with a life lived online, is that [for] humans there is a physical maturity,” Schmidt said. “They’re not going to grow up that much faster and you’re still going to make mistakes as a 14-year-old, but now they’re [going to be] there forever.”

Based on these concerns, Chakravorti asked Schmidt and Cohen if the world is bound for a more utopian or dystopian future than was once expected.

“We had this debate and what we concluded was that for the mature-ish democracies [they] will have these crises, like the Snowden example, and they’ll find some balance for these issues,” Schmidt said.

However, Cohen added that less developed countries, including North Korea, could see change if technology infiltrated the region.

“What’s interesting about North Korea is you have a country of 24 million people under horrific conditions and it’s probably the most censored society and certainly the least connected society on earth, but ... it’s the only cult of personality left on earth,” he said. “The notion of cults of personality and totalitarianism that we saw during the Cold War — the Internet has eliminated them like small pox.”

Cohen and Schmidt also answered over 20 questions from audience members, including professors, students and a sixth grader. Many asked questions about how technology will affect middle class jobs.

Despite the increasing presence of technology in everyday lives, Cohen said people will not lose their ability to reason, and companies like Google will not be able to tell them exactly what is right and wrong.

“Human beings are argumentative and opinionated and I think what’s important to us is that, just because we have information about the past available to us, doesn’t mean that we agree on it,” Cohen said. “History itself is interpretive just as the present is and just as the future will be.”

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--Reprinted from Tufts Daily