Towards the new caste system: looking back at The New Digital Age

The New Digital Age, coverThis is a tricky book to categorize and review, because it’s not clear what The New Digital Age is supposed to be. I think I figured it out in the end, but that doesn’t help too much.

The book seems to be a futures work, exploring what’s coming next with technology. But it’s also written by two people whose identities call that into question: Jared Cohen, the head of Google’s Ideas lab (now “Jigsaw”), and Eric Schmidt, the head of Google (and now Alphabet). Cohen did some work in foreign policy circles, which leads the reader to view New Digital Age as about geopolitics, which it also is. Indeed, much of the book is about politics. Schmidt’s co-authorship makes us consider this a kind of corporate manifesto or vision statement, which the book also is, although more quietly. That’s quite a multi-headed beast to take home from the library (an institution pretty much invisible in the book).

So how does NDA (heh heh) work? Each chapter focuses on likely technological developments in the near and medium-term future within a specific domain: identity, journalism, international relations, revolutions, terrorism, war, and national reconstruction. The time scale is a bit hard to parse; I’m guessing somewhere between tomorrow and 2050. It’s not a scholarly book, as it doesn’t engage with debates and soft-pedals research. It’s more like a big, rich op-ed, or series of blog posts.

There are some fun futures ideas, like parents picking childrens’ names based on how they work with search engines (37-8). I might use their “virtual kidnapping” term (154), which neatly adds pungency to the problem of identity theft. We could see international data verification monitoring teams (194) and the informative haptic battle dress (203-4) occur. International treaties regulating drones (208) seem likely, as are increasingly engaging shadow or exile governments (229-230)..

NDA takes pains to not be too optimistic or utopian. Although the authors conclude on a note of networked technology bringing humanity more good than ill, each chapter offers problems that Android can’t solve. Nations will be balkanized (92). Cyberwar will ramp up (103ff). Revolutions will be partly sparked by digital tools, but end messily (130ff). “Generally, the logic of security will always trump privacy concerns.” (175) The efficacy of phones-for-arms deals is “unclear” (248). We will all likely live within a “digital caste system” (!) (254).

The book has multiple contradictions and strange passages. Early on (54) it suggests criminal processes will move from the local to the global; later on (249-50), the reverse. Social media barely appears (perhaps a reaction to the spectacular flameout of G+). For instance, a futures-oriented discussion of communication about diaspora populations (223-4, 230) ignores how crucial is social media to already making that happen.

Education – a major focus for my attention – barely appears in the book, which is odd, given Silicon Valley’s interest in revising .edu, and Democrats’ putative support for schooling. We get a brief glance towards the Khan Foundation (21) and not much more. Libraries don’t exist – not in the future, but in the text. Ditto museums. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this.

Also lacking is any serious discussion of economics. We don’t learn much about transformations to labor or finance. Labor unions don’t appear. (Cf the caste comment?)

NDA has an odd fascination with political figures. It draws on Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame without really mentioning the many problems of his often horrific regime (245ff) . Like Hillary Clinton, Schmidt and Cohen rely fondly and uncritically on Henry Kissinger (148ff). The authors are far more skeptical of Julian Assange. Kissinger over Assange: now there’s a political stance in a nutshell.

What is perhaps most disappointing is how pedestrian the book turns out to be. Almost all of its points and references are familiar to anyone paying attention to technology. Yes, drones are becoming more important. Hacking is rising. Many governments are using the internet to crack down on dissidents. Terrorists and insurgents are likely to combine virtual with physical attacks. Etc. NDA seems intended not for technologists, but for tech-clueless policymakers.

So what does this tell us about Google? Explicitly, not much. The book doesn’t reference Google’s sprawling digital empires, not does it criticize the entity’s major competitors, Apple and Facebook. Few companies appear, actually. There isn’t much about current business or economics. Instead NDA celebrates entrepreneurship and business opportunities to come. Is that the voice of a Google seeing itself beyond mere competition, becoming a force of nature? Along those lines, the book repeatedly insists on internet connections growing, suggesting Google will keep on with its various projects (Fiber, Loon) to boost people online. Recurring recommendations in favor of strong, persistent digital ID, like India’s Aadhaar (78), imply that Google hasn’t given up on that drive, no matter what happened with Google+.

But this book isn’t just about Google. It’s very much about America as superpower. As Assange fumes in his review,

“The New Digital Age” is a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the 21st century.

Jared Cohen worked for both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the latter close to Hillary Clinton. So NDA really tells us much about what a likely Clinton(2) White House will try to accomplish. That includes an aggressive foreign policy (don’t miss the Kissinger link), expanding internet connections, trying to forestall radicalization, growing state power (note the Steven Pinker-informed chapter 6), and accepting both data and income inequality (don’t miss that caste system line). I wonder if NDA actually points to stepping back from Responsibility to Protect and towards a concern with ethnic and gender identity:

We believe that, in the future, massacres on a genocidal scale will be harder to conduct, but discrimination will likely worsen and become more personal. (184)

We’ve seen strong signals of the latter in the Clinton primary campaign this past year.

Put Google and the Department of State together and you have a glimpse of emerging and aspirational American hyperpower: confident, thoroughly global, combining virtual technology with soft and very hard power. Or that’s the vision offered by these two authors. Consider it a pitch for positions and influence within the second term Obama administration (the book appeared in 2013), or for next year’s Hillary Clinton administration.

So can I recommend The New Digital Age? Sort of. NDA is a fascinating historical document, pointing to the confluence of digital business and American governmental power. It’s a post-utopian book, showing us a different way forward than some Silicon Valley boosters commend.

If you are a policymaker, or someone who feels unfamiliar with current technology trends, the book will be useful.

(also posted to Goodreads)

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6 Responses to Towards the new caste system: looking back at The New Digital Age

  1. Old Eagle Eye here – Castle?

    Towards the new castle system: looking back at The New Digital Age

    “Cohen did some work in foreign policy circles, which leads the reader to view *New Digital Age* as about geopolitics, which [it] also is.”

    Peace & Resistance

    Mark Corbett Wilson

    “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” ~ Eric Hoffer

    On Sun, Jun 19, 2016 at 9:18 AM, Bryan Alexander wrote:

    > Bryan Alexander posted: “This is a tricky book to categorize and review, > because it’s not clear what The New Digital Age is supposed to be. I think > I figured it out in the end, but that doesn’t help too much. The book seems > to be a futures work, exploring what’s coming next wi” >

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    Red flags pop up all over, information gaps more like chasms — perhaps all the more reason to read it. On the other hand, I doubt how useful it would be as a basic intro for unfamiliar, less aware readers. Alas, probably no worse than getting it from main stream and popular media

  3. MCCarthy was right. The US lost 14th Amendment property ownership rights with Prohibition and the present POTUS annihilated the 4th. HRC will knock off the 1st and 2nd. Kissinger was right, the end of US constitutional rights took a little longer. The new people might be able to adapt but the adult Americans will be losers, unable to accept that to be a winner you must be a criminal.

  4. Pingback: Building an American caste system, part 1: rural folk | Bryan Alexander

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