The Threats and Opportunities of the Cyberspace

Review of the book The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. 2013. John Murray. London315pp. £25. ISBN 978-I-84854-620-2

To provide a balanced outlook about the threats and opportunities of the telecommunications sector including how it is likely to develop and affect our lives is the objective of The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. Schmidt is the Executive Chairman of Google and Cohen is the Director of Google Ideas. Autumn 2009, in Baghdad, was when this book was conceived. Schmidt, then the CEO of Google, had gone there to discuss with the Iraqis how technology could be used to help in their country’s reconstruction, and Cohen, then an officer at US State Department was assigned to accompany him.

It is a good thing that Schmidt and Cohen carried out their project to completion for The New Digital Age is a useful compendium of developments in communications’ technology, explained through and their applications in society. The list of the themes is extensive: biometric information, cloud computing, cyber-attacks, cyber-capacity, 3-D printing, distributed denial of service (DDoS), drones, free-information activism, haptic technology, holographic images, interactive voice response, robots such as the iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner, intelligent pills, internet, Khan Academy, mobile phones, online identity, online presence, social networking, Skype, supply-chain data, voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP),wikis, Wikipedia, Wikileaks, etc. In describing the uses of technology both by the good and the bad guys, the authors are usually optimist. One of the points they make is that globalization will not be just of products but of ideas, ‘for the best ideas and solutions will have a chance to rise to the top and be seen, considered, explored, funded, adopted and celebrated.’

In May 2013, just as The New Digital Age reached the UK bookstores, Google was receiving some bad press in the UK for its aggressive tax avoidance, and in June Google, along with other major IT players, was accused of collaborating with the electronic monitoring system carried out by the National Security Agency of the United States. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the timing of Schmidt and Cohen’s book (conceived in 2009) and Google’s stretch of bad press are merely coincidental. The launch of the book, involving the customary schedule of television, radio, conference and press interviews, undoubtedly afforded Schmidt the opportunity to address some of the bad publicity directed at Google but it is not the focus of the book itself.

The influence of Google in this book is most likely to be in the choice of the topics left out, notably pornography. As for the topics covered, the authors did a great job of presenting them in the context of how technology affects every aspect of people’s life as well as society itself. The main idea of The New Digital Age is that the dangers of the future are proportional to the information exchange possibilities of new technologies, and they will affect people, business, organizations and the state itself. From this idea comes another one which is the need for people and organizations to remain alert to eventual attacks to identities and information.

The first chapter deals with the future of individuals and their identities wherever they are in our planet, while the second chapter deals with the future of identity, citizenship and reporting. An interesting snip of terminology is the word ‘wikis’, meaning ‘real time collective editing’. So we learn that there are different types of wikis: about people’s consumption habits, about what peoples do, and so on. From wikis Wikipedia, a crowd-sourced information platform that provides a space for collective wisdom (covered in chapter 6), and Wikileaks, an activist organization that promotes free-information, which takes up several pages of chapter 2 and other chapters. Schmidt and Cohen try to provide a balanced appreciation of Wikileaks by stating its good intentions as well as potential pitfalls.

Schmidt and Cohen are generally optimistic with regards to the potential of communications technology. They start by summarizing the positive things that have come from the telecommunication sector such as improving people’s health, education, business and the quality of life in general. They point out how new integrated systems will make things more effective both at work and in our personal lives, freeing our time for other things. How voice recognition will soon allow the instant transcriptions of emails, notes, speeches and school papers, and how gesture recognition is about to move from the gaming sector to more functional areas. Perhaps one of the best prospects of the digital society is its potential to equalize the distribution of opportunities not just to the most competent persons but also to the best ideas. But connectivity also has a negative side. The misuse of the growing database about the habits of individuals is a threat to people’s identity and reputation. Data can be abused to facilitate repression on the part of governments as well as to promote social unrest on the part of power-seeking warlords. Even the big organizations that store data are vulnerable to cyber-attacks. And technology itself is at the core of the strategies to protect the data and to pursue intruders.

The future of the states, in the sense of how they will behave in relation to the continuation of the free internet is the topic of the third chapter, while the fourth chapter provides a vision of the future of political revolutions. The expression balkanization of the internet, a reference to the fragmentation of the old Yugoslavia, which extended itself through the entire Balkan Mountains peninsula of Southeast Europe, is used to designate its possible fragmentation into national internets. In spite of the current support of the continuation of the free internet, the world is divided on the matter and several countries already filter the internet to adjust it to their laws. Another topic raised in this chapter is virtual multilateralism, where future political alliances will be independent of geography, and the multilateral alliances will be formed by countries and corporations. This type of multilateralism will control all foreign aid and all support development. The greater connectivity we have already facilitates the launching of political revolutions and will carry on doing this. However, finishing off the revolution and rebuilding the country is another matter. The classical example mentioned is the Arab Spring, where technology aggregated masses and launched revolutions in various countries but did not lead to any solutions. For that, the authors pointed, actions in the real world are necessary.

The topic of the fifth chapter is terrorism, counter-terrorism and the technology race between them. Although technology has levered terrorism in both the real and the virtual worlds, technology has also helped to fight terrorism in those two fronts, as it is already done through the blocking of specific cell phones in order to stop them from become DEI (improvised explosive devices) detonators. Another example of the use of technology in the virtual world is the use of metadata to track terrorists, cyber-terrorists and criminals. Marketing is at the core of the technological race between the good and the bad guys. Terrorist organizations have learned to use marketing techniques to cultivate a good image to recruit new members. This is exactly what was done by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born extremist cleric affiliated to the Yemen Al Qaeda, whose videos on UTube served as an inspiration to a future generation of terrorists. But al-Awlaki was ultimately defeated by technology: he was killed by a drone attack in 2011.

In the last two chapters that deal with the future of world conflicts and post-conflict reconstruction the authors show that marketing wars are already a recurring phenomenon. They indicate the upcoming of conflicts, such as the attack on the BP compound in Tunisia by Islamic fundamentalists, reacting against the video Innocence of Muslims disseminated in 2012. The suggested solution to avoid marketing wars and the conflicts that result from them is to create a system of data verification capable of separating what is fact and what is marketing. Finally, the seventh chapter shows how telecommunication technology can help in the work of reconstruction of the countries destroyed by conflicts or by nature disasters.

To whom lies the responsibility for the virtual world is not something explicit in this book. However, by showing that technology serves indiscriminately the forces of good and evil, although leaving out pornography and the associated contentious topics that seem to worry people in general, the authors leave an implicit message that the responsibility over the virtual world lies with all of us as individuals. This book’s greatest strength is its cover of terrorism, cyber-terrorism and their threat to societies and business. But societies and organizations are not the only ones who need a defence strategy against the direct and indirect cyber-space threats. As individuals, we all need to defend what we have or what we aspire to. Schmidt and Cohen’s The New Digital Age offers a comprehensible appraisal of the many technologies that operate in the cyber-space as well as a balanced view of its many actors, and for those reasons is a useful book for anyone who values their freedom and their reputation and wishes to safeguard them.
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Joaquina (Jo) Pires-O’Brien is a Brazilian botanist, translator, and writer living in the UK. In 2010 she created the internet magazine PortVitoria: http://www.portvitoria.com aimed at the Hispano-Lusophone communities worldwide.

Acknowledgement: Helen Kirby, reviser