Monday, May 20, 2013

The New Digital Age

Start reading this book, and the breathless descriptions of what will happen in the future will catch you off guard. This book sounds like two men describing the new digital age as utopia, everything better and brighter and more beautiful. At first, it's almost relentless. I caught myself saying over and over, "Yeah, right... like all of this is every going to come true, or be as wonderful as the authors seems to be arguing it will be."

But then you keep reading. And you realize this isn't wish fulfillment per se (although in a certain sense all futuristic prognostications are wish fulfillment), but rather an amazing brainstorming session describing what the future in all likelihood really will look like, envisioned by two authors who know more about the impact of digital media on geopolitics and culture than almost anyone else.

I'm reminded of that notorious quote by an aide of Karl Rove's. The aide said that guys like [the reporter interviewing him] were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Well, if anyone is an empire, Google is an empire. It's a benevolent empire. Their motto is, "Don't be evil," after all. But they are an empire.

So if you want to catch up with reality as it is being created, you need to read this book.

If you keep reading, you'll also discover that this is not utopia Schmidt and Cohen are describing. Different economies, different nations, different cultures, are going to embrace and relate to new digital media in different ways. But in each case, again, the authors are fairly convinced the kinds of technologies they are stewarding into being will have the net effect of improving and even perfecting reality.

In this sense, the subtitle has a double meaning. First, it is simply true that digital media is reshaping the future of people, nations and businesses. But it is also true, for better or worse, that Schmidt's and Cohen's peculiar approach to digital media is itself steadily reshaping the future.

These two are in the business of creating the future they imagine. That they have actually taken the time to write down on some scraps of paper the visions they are currently enacting is remarkable.

Disbelieve it if you will. Argue with it you must. But what you can't do is discount that Google is doing its level best to make what is described in this book not as an alternative future but a future-present reality.

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