Saturday, May 25, 2013

The New Digital Age: Book Review for Mint

An arresting survey of how technology is changing people and their destinies
From the offices of Google, we get Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s opus, The New Digital Age, which imagines a world they believe is but inevitable—a future completely dominated by technology.
The book promises to explore “the future of people, nations and business”, and this view is predominantly seen through the lens of international and national security. To that end, it ends up presenting a somewhat scary view of the future, countering those with a rose-tinted view of the Internet’s healing powers.
Schmidt and Cohen do seem to believe in the positive power of the Internet, introducing, however, an important caveat at the beginning of their book: Five billion new people are going to be getting online, and the “attributes of these users and their problems are much more complex than those of the two billion” already connected. Despite this, they have taken it upon themselves to predict—sometimes in great detail—how these new equations will play out.
From an Indian perspective, much of the book is laying out the world we will inherit. The first chapter, imagining “Our Future Selves”, paints an almost unimaginable-outside-the-movies view of smart homes, driverless cars, personal robots, flexible education, fantastic medical advances, and so on. It is exciting to know that many of these experiments are already under way. But it is important to remember we can’t really predict how things are going to pan out. For example, while the authors praise the possibility of 3D printing as “the perfect partner for advanced manufacturing”, it is best to remember that the first gun has already been manufactured through a 3D printer in the US, with more than 100,000 people having downloaded its blueprint. There is now a mad scramble in the US to delete those files from the Internet, reminding us yet again about the flip side of technological progress.

The book spans a variety of topics—the future of media houses, as “aggregators, custodians and verifiers” in the wake of an instantaneous social media landscape, and how reporters from unsafe locations can be protected because of technological innovation. This brave new world, where virtual identity might trump your physical identity, will raise new dilemmas. Security and privacy will be our immediate concerns.
The real meat of the book, however, is in the discussion over state policing, cyber warfare and cyber terrorism—how technology will endanger and save us at the same time. For example, Cohen and Schmidt talk about India’s massive Unique Identification (UID) Project that is collecting information on 1.2 billion people, including fingerprints and iris scans. But should it “enhance surveillance capacities of the Indian state at the expense of individual freedoms and privacy?” they ask. They conclude that Indians are still hopeful about its many uses—especially in service delivery—although a similar programme was scrapped in the UK owing to privacy concerns.
In an interesting chapter, the authors imagine how the state can turn against its people through technology. They believe it would be possible to discriminate against minorities by erasing them from the country’s Internet, or even limit their online access, thereby denying them access to knowledge. In the context of censorship, each country indulges in some degree of Internet filtering—and a very real picture of the Internet not making this world a global village but remaining very much part and parcel of the concept of a national policy seems to emerge.
The future is already here—with the Chinese experiencing a heavily guarded Internet and Iran cutting itself off from the global Internet as it stands today. Can we imagine separatists in Kashmir offering a totally different version of the Internet to their followers, establishing in the virtual world what they can’t in the physical? Cohen and Schmidt can.
The book examines the transformative role technology can play in reconstruction after a war or a disaster, and its role in helping spark revolutions. And they have their finger on the pulse of these developing countries: Current headlines are filled with news of online crowdsourcing in Pakistan to prove suspected election malpractice.
Yet the book seems to stop short of laying out a digitally bright future. For example, the idea that you can transcend your earthly limitations of birth, geography and station is suddenly crushed by the concept of a digital caste system that might just work to keep you exactly where you are. It seems to me the real challenge of the new digital age might just well be the ability to retain human rights and free expression in an increasingly securitized and corporatized world.
Mahima Kaul is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and writes on online censorship, governance and inclusion.

1 comment:

egg style said...

It seems to me that some cultures that are not in alignment with Uncle Sam's global order and do not instinctively kowtow to the Dominant West want to stay inscrutable: China and Iran, for example.

India is a different case, with inscrutability in operation at cultural-code levels out in the open, but usually below the sensory wavelength of the Anglophonic elite.

The question is: it it always a bad thing for a culture to profess and retain indepdendence? May not be a bad thing, actually.

How many people do you know who read and think exclusively in English have the capacity to think in radical ways [vis-a-vis the incumbent power paradigm]? The funny thing is, even alternate views and thought now have to be presented to the world in English: and that, for any real writer, is the real challenge. The internet is of zero help