When we read books about the future we should be skeptical. If the authors expect to make money out of it we should be outright incredulous. Eric Schmidt, co-author of this particular look ahead, is the executive chairman of Google and Jared Cohen is the director of Google Ideas.
On top of that the first two pages of their book consist of lengthy and euphoric endorsements by, among others, Richard Branson, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. This is not just hype, it’s a sign that the global establishment wants us to believe in the Schmidt-Cohen vision or, at least, to accept its inevitability.
In fairness, once you have got over these potholes on the road to credibility, the book is serious and informative, though written in very bad, personality-free prose. Furthermore, the book bends over backwards not to sound like a corporate mission statement. In this, it finally fails — I’ll come back to that — but there is enough darkness in this vision to convince the reader that even if the future is Google, it is not necessarily bright.
The introduction and first chapter are more or less what one would expect, an evocation of the gadgets that lie ahead. Virtual reality will make “the online experience as real as real life, or perhaps even better”. Everything will be personalized, tuned to your habits, desires and goals, and “people will have a better way to curate their life stories”.
A description of the average day of a “young, urban professional” in America a few decades from now includes a back massage as you wake, translucent screens that follow you round the apartment and house robots with a program of chores to be completed while you are out. Unfortunately, one prediction — that “haircuts will finally be automated and machine-precise” — points to the problem with all this. It sounds horribly lonely.
But then everything becomes much darker. The key to this is, I assume, Cohen, who is a wonk, formerly at the State Department and now at the Council on Foreign Relations. As a result, the remainder of the book is a generally sober assessment of the next few decades. On the one hand are the changes that seem to be built into web technology (loss of privacy, mob action rather than deliberation); on the other there are the misuses of technology that are likely to occur as, thanks to the internet, expertise finds its way into the wrong hands.
So for example, in the first category, the authors speak of the end of heroes. The arrival of the mass media and stories such as Watergate began the process of ripping away the veil of public grandeur; the internet takes that up several million notches.
“The fallibility of humans over a lifetime,” they write, “will provide an endless series of details online to puncture mythical hero status.”
Not just heroes, of course, but all of us will be vulnerable to cyberexposure, and, should we wish to check out by going “off-grid”, I’m afraid that will only make matters worse. In their chapter on terrorism, the authors point out that governments will be suspicious of anybody who strives to be “online anonymous”. Travel restrictions and — is this even possible? — even more rigorous airline screening will ensue.
States, however, might prove more adept self-isolaters. What the authors call “virtual multilateralism” may emerge as ideological or political solidarity demands the creation of local internets, cut off from the rest of the world. Koryolink, North Korea’s mobile-phone network, already achieves this and Iran is working on the idea of extending this to the internet. Locked inside such a system, users would only be able to see and interact with what was deemed suitable by their rulers.
On the bright side, the future seems less bloody. Instant global communications will, the authors believe, reduce actual bloodshed, but at a price. “We believe that…massacres on a genocidal scale will be harder to conduct, but discrimination will likely worsen and become more personal.”
The internet, they say, will aid tribalization and the marginalization of “disliked communities”.
Sound stuff, but, as I said, they don’t quite succeed in not puffing their own product. It’s a subtle sell. On page 66, for example, they say that the central truth of the technology industry is that “technology is neutral but people are not”. On page 112 they say: “Technology companies export their values along with their products.” The latter is definitely true, the former is not, but it helps Google to make that claim and not to resolve the contradiction.
Equally, they say people have a responsibility to read all those terms and conditions. But why should we? If we don’t agree we don’t get the goodies and, if we don’t get the goodies, we may find airport security rummaging in our body cavities. The terms and conditions are simply ways for the internet companies to disclaim any responsibility for anything. We have to sacrifice our privacy, which is, after all, an aspect of freedom, on these terms or become outlaws.
Hard to read as it may be, this is an important book, partly as an account of what may happen, but mainly as a picture of the present mind-set of Silicon Valley. As such, its undeniable seriousness is undercut by a touch of parochialism and a lot of, perhaps unconscious, intellectual confusion, primarily hinging on that issue of the neutrality or otherwise of the technology. Read but never forget that Google wants not just to sell you stuff but also to make sure you have no choice but to buy.
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