TOPICS > Science

Google’s Schmidt and Cohen Discuss Promise and Pitfalls of the Digital Future

May 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Google's Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen explore the intersection of technology and democracy in their new book, "The Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business." Judy Woodruff talks to the authors about the promise and pitfalls of the digital future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: what a high- tech future may mean for your standard of living, personal privacy and how governments deal with their citizenry, a big subject, to be sure.

But those visions are the focus of a book called “The New Digital Age” by Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and his co-author, Jared Cohen, who recently worked at the State Department. He’s now at Google as well.

I sat down with them in Washington recently.

Eric Schmidt, Jared Cohen, welcome to the NewsHour.

ERIC SCHMIDT, Google: Thank you for having us.

JARED COHEN, Google Ideas: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you describe in the book connectivity, technology as a force for good, something that’s going to improve the quality of human life. How can you be so sure?

ERIC SCHMIDT: You know, we’re going from a time when people had almost no information to the whole world being fully interconnected, with all the world’s information available to another five billion people who are joining us.

That means they will solve their medical problems, their health problems, obviously, economic problems. It will make the world safer. It will help our exports and the globalization that is going on around us. But there are issues. But, overwhelmingly, it’s a good thing.

JARED COHEN: Well, if you think, 57 percent of the world’s population lives under some kind of an autocracy.

Those 57 percent of the world’s population in the future will have more choices, more options. They will be able to be witnesses with their smartphones in the face of atrocities. They will be more empowered than at any other time in human history. Now, as Eric mentioned, that is not necessarily a silver bullet answer to all the world’s problems, but it is an important change that is going to take place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, of course, there is the dark side. And you spend a lot of time in the book writing about it. We have been forcefully reminded of it in the last few weeks with what happened to Boston, two young men who, thanks to the Web, to the Internet, were able to not only have their ideology converted, but also to get information on how to make bombs.

What about that side?

ERIC SCHMIDT: So, my question, of course, is how many plots were foiled before that of others whose activities were seen by the police before they did something terrible?

And, indeed, the problem of the sort of the lone — the lone young man who has been radicalized is not a fully solved one. But with this technology, we can detect this kind of behavior. We can give these people choices. We can get them educated better. And I believe that there will be fewer such attacks as a result. We will foil more of them in the future. Thank God the Boston police did such a good job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean by finding them ahead of time and …

ERIC SCHMIDT: Finding them ahead of time, by seeing what they’re doing.

It’s very, very difficult to do the kinds of things that these people were trying to do, and ultimately were successful, without leaving a digital track.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you still have, Jared Cohen, these terrorist jihadist websites which are so easily available. They’re now proliferating, we’re told, by the thousands out there.

JARED COHEN: Well, I like to compare and contrast this to the old model of back-alley religious madrassas, where extremism is preached in the tribal areas in Pakistan, maybe the slums of Riyadh, where there’s no opportunity for a counternarrative to emerge, where there’s no visibility into where radicalization is taking place.

If people are trying to radicalize at-risk young people, you would much prefer them doing it out in the open, where it can be challenged, where it can be seen by everybody from law enforcement to just citizens that oppose it. And the diversity of opinions cannot be escaped, even in the most radicalized environments, when the entire world is online.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, you have — Eric Schmidt, you have repressive governments who look at all this, in free-flowing information, people feeling empowered, and they see it as a threat, whether it’s a country like China or North Korea or any other number of countries where leaders want to keep control over what’s going on in their country.

ERIC SCHMIDT: You know, this shift of — the shift has a bias, and that bias is an empowerment bias. It empowers the citizen of a country.

And a sort of rough — rough balance emerges in a democracy, where the more empowered citizens have a better say in what the government is doing. The government changes its policies and so forth. But in an authoritarian government, one which is not held accountable by its citizens, the citizens just get more unhappy. Their expectations get higher. They know more about the corruption, as they define it, that goes on in their government, and it becomes a significant threat to these governments.

They will try to block the Internet. They will try to slow it down. Indeed, 35 countries now are blocking Google in one form or another, and it’s a constant problem for us and I’m sure for other Internet companies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And particularly in, say, a country like China, where you have, what is it, over two billion people, a government determined to keep control of the information. Not only that, there’s all the cyber-spying that is going on, snooping into what Western governments and businesses are doing. Where do you see that headed?

JARED COHEN: Well, it’s important to understand there’s three things that China is really doing right now.

They’re stealing intellectual property. They’re restricting the civil liberties of their population. But, internationally, they’re also testing the waters to see what they can get away with in terms of nefarious cyber-activity.

But there’s a larger point here, which is, one, China is certainly not the only country — country doing this, but the vast majority of the world’s technological infrastructure has not yet been built. And for states that are coming online, many of which are autocratic, they have two options. They can build it based on open principles or built it based on closed and autocratic principles.

And there’s only so many countries whose companies have the ability to build that infrastructure. We have to ensure that the rest of the world comes online with technology that is conducive to the free flow of information. Otherwise, it is going to be difficult, and, otherwise, the autocrats will have an extra edge.

ERIC SCHMIDT: And a situation where the Internet is balkanized, literally blocked, becoming piecemeal, is one which doesn’t serve the interests of the United States, doesn’t serve the citizens of the world. It may serve the governments, but it ultimately means less information, less freedom, less markets, less trade, less innovation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s broaden this out and just talk about individuals as they’re affected by this brave new world of a hyper-connected Internet technology.

Eric Schmidt, is there even going to be such a thing as privacy?

ERIC SCHMIDT: Well, of course there is.

And privacy becomes more important in this new interconnected world because we need privacy. We all — everyone wants it. And I think you’re going to have to fight for it, that it’s going to be important, right, to say, I want my privacy, I don’t want the government snooping on me for this reason or that.

I’m not as worried about the mature Western countries, which have a history of privacy legislation. But I’m very worried — we talk a lot about this in the book — about countries that don’t have a history of privacy or individual rights. In a country that is sort of a police state, the notion of personal privacy is sort of a foreign concept.

So, when they get all connected, the governments will then put in snooping software, they will track everybody under the guise of police and normal activities, without any civil liberties protections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But in terms of here in the United States, I mean, people — you already see a generational divide, don’t you, on this question of privacy?

JARED COHEN: Well, it’s interesting that you mention generational, because one of the things — Eric is — you have one author who is a parent, the other author who is maybe an aspiring parent.

And so one of the things we have done in the 30-plus countries we traveled to for this book is talk to a lot of parents about this issue of online privacy and security. And whether you’re in the United States, or in Asia, or in Africa, parents are observing that their children are coming online earlier and faster than ever before.

And our logic is, when it comes to protecting privacy and security, you have to start younger and younger. Parents need to literally talk to their kids about the importance of online privacy and security years before they even talk to them about the birds and the bees.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the — and this is kind of connected to this, Eric, is the loss of human contact.

The more we do everything in front of a screen or in front of a handheld device, a smartphone, the less person-to-person connection there is. How much does that worry you?

ERIC SCHMIDT: So, this was an issue when the telephone came out. If you go back to the history of communications, everyone has had this concern. Yet, humanity has flourished during this period.

So, it looks to us like the connectivity of these devices and so forth amplify human communication. They allow you to get more things done. But we don’t see people spending less time with their loved ones as a result. They may just share it a little bit with their distractions that are going on, but there’s an off button for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your message to folks who are out there, some very comfortable with technology, others literally frightened of it, feeling that they are way behind when it comes to understanding where we are?

ERIC SCHMIDT: The good news is that, in my professional career, computers have gone from being essentially impossible to use to being very, very useful at many, many tasks.

You think about the ease of use with which you can watch a video, answer a question, sort of navigate, the new mobile phones and tablets are just so much better than anything that preceded them, and that’s going to continue. Eventually, these devices will become very good at anticipating — this is, again, with your permission — the things that you care about.

You will carry them around. They will make interesting suggestions. They will become sort of your best digital friend and make your life fundamentally better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eric Schmidt, Jared Cohen, thank you very much.

JARED COHEN: Thank you.

ERIC SCHMIDT: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch more of our conversation online, where we discuss what it will mean when the poorest people in the most remote regions of the world gain access to the Web.