The New Digital Age explores the impact of internet connectivity and digital media on society. The book witnesses changes that have already occurred, reviews current trends, and tries to predict some future moves.
Written by Eric Schmidt, a tech executive, and Jared Cohen, a former foreign policy advisor, the book focuses on the impact of technology at the political and societal level, not so much at the individual level (only the first chapter “Our future selves” is about it). I applaud this ambitious agenda.
People interested in technology and cyber criminality (e.g. TED talks, Wired) might be familiar with some of the observations and speculations in the book. The novelty that it carries will depend on the background of the reader. Some of the predictions are however unique to the authors, and they do not hesitate to give their personal opinions. This gives a special edge to the matter.
The trends and predictions are usually backed up with short annectodical evidences that are interesting in themselves. The overall discussion remains however usually quite abstract, which at times gives the impression that it lacks substance. This is to be expected from such a book, though. Prediction and precision don’t match up very well.
My main criticism of the book is that while the chapters tell a consistent story of how society evolves with periods of peacetime, revolution, conflict, and reconstruction, the chapter internals do not enjoy such a coherent treatment. The predictions that they discuss appear to exist more by accident than as the outcome of a thorough analysis. For instance, I do not recall reading anything about electronic voting. This seems to me like an unavoidable topic for such a book.
The book gives also a slight feeling of redundancy. Certain topics are discussed from a different point of view from chapter to chapter. For instance, the tension between privacy and security is discussed under the perspective of state organization, militantism, counter terrorism, etc. An improvement for a second edition would be to provide a roadmap of recurring topics and their treatment in each chapter. That would give a high-level view of the content, and would avoid this unpleasant feeling of redundancy.
While the positions in the book are relatively balanced, the overall tone is inevitably biased towards US policy, which is no suprise given Jared Cohen’s background. Also, the book emphasizes tracking and surveillance a lot and will make proponents of an anonymous internet uneasy.
Overall, I liked the book. The themes addressed are very relevant and it sharpened my understanding of the role of technology in modern society. What the future will really bring, nobody knows.