TECH

Jared Cohen, 'The New Digital Age' Co-Author, Discusses The Future Of The Internet

04/27/2013 08:44 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2013
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Jared Cohen has been traveling to the Middle East and Africa since he was a child, first to satisfy his "addiction" to travel, and later, as adviser to former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, to study how technology impacts those areas. In 2010, he joined Google and is now the director of Google Ideas, a think tank dedicated to confronting global problems with technology.

Cohen was recently named to Time magazine's annual list of "100 Most Influential People In The World," just in time for the release of his new book, which he co-authored with Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman. The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, which hits shelves on Tuesday, discusses how billions of people connecting to the Internet will affect global politics, society and the economy.

The Huffington Post spoke with Cohen at Google Ideas' headquarters in New York, where he discussed online privacy, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and the future of the Internet.

The New Digital Age starts out pretty optimistic about this new wave of digital technology, but later in the book, things get pretty dark, especially in your chapter on terrorism.

What we tried to do in the book is not engage in the debate about whether technology is good or bad, because it's not a relevant debate when technology is coming and coming fast. You can sit and debate if it's good or bad, but it doesn't change the fact that 5 billion people are connecting to the Internet. What we tried to do was capture what that's going to look like in the next decade, for good and for ill.

Where do you and Eric Schmidt stand on the future of online privacy?

We actually state pretty boldly that in the future there will be this absence of a delete button that's going to present a challenge to citizens around the world.

Even for kids?

We've talked to parents in New York, Saudi Arabia, Africa, and it becomes very clear that their children are using technology at a pace that's faster than their physical maturity process, so kids are using technology earlier and faster. Our conclusion in the book is that parents need to talk to their kids and start early about the importance of online privacy and security, years before they even talk about the birds and the bees.

I remember in health class in elementary school where, you know, they scare you away from using drugs, they scare you away from having unsafe sexual activity, they scare you away from using alcohol and tobacco. This is part of that conversation.

What's Google's role in the future of online privacy?

I mean there's obviously shared responsibility over privacy and communication in a company. I think companies need to put up tools that put privacy and security in the hands of their users and make it easy to understand those tools. In Google’s case, two step verification is a perfect example of this.

Part of the responsibility of the technology industry is to anticipate the challenges of the vast majority of its future users and proactively start thinking about them now, and proactively build products that address those challenges.

Speaking of privacy, in your book, you didn't hide your disapproval of Julian Assange.

Our fundamental critique of Assange is that -- who is he to play the role of God in determining what should be known publicly and what should not be known publicly? There are laws in place that provide a process with which people can get documents from classified to unclassified. And who is he to decide that process doesn't work and that he's going to indiscriminately leak information that could get people killed?

According to the introduction of the book, the Internet is the world’s "largest experiment in anarchy." But you come across as incredibly optimistic about that. Hooray for anarchy?

Here's my view: cyberspace is the world's largest ungoverned space. I fundamentally believe there's no country in the world that's worse with the arrival of the Internet. There's some countries that've gone downhill, but it's not because of the Internet. You connect 5 billion people in the next decade to cyberspace, that becomes even more true.

What becomes complicated is how [autocratic] regimes deal with this. The 57 percent of the world's population that's living under autocracy will go from offline to online. That's going to be very confusing for the regimes because they're going to find that a population of 20 million people in the physical world really looks like a population of 500 million people online. What dictators will try to do is replicate the laws of the physical world in cyberspace, and they're going to find that very difficult to do.

But can't autocracies keep the Internet out?

Less than 1 percent of the population of Myanmar has access to the Internet, but everyone you talk to has heard of the Internet and has some idea of the concept and the value system. Why? Because of advertising. There's one country in the world that has an absence of advertising, and that's North Korea. There's one ad in the entire country, and it's a billboard inside of the airport for cars. Everything else is creepy pictures of the dictator and landscapes.

So what that means is the vast majority of the world's population, the 5 billion people we talk about in the book, they will come to know the Internet as an idea and as a concept years before they come to experience it as a user. What that means is in the spirit of autocrats trying to control the Internet, one could argue that the Internet is the best exporter of democratic values in the entire world, and it's already permeated societies.

So does technology enable revolution?

I'll say that technology will make revolutions start happening faster, but it'll make them harder to finish. Technology can't create leaders and cause institutions to appear.

Alright. But what do kids in Iran know about their phones that kids in America don't?

[When I was in Iran] I saw all these young people using devices that I used, but in different ways. What I realized is they were actually reading the instruction manuals. A phone means something different to them than what it means to me. They have their civil liberties restricted, and every functionality of that device matters.

They used Bluetooth in Iran to call and text complete strangers in busy bazaars, just to have a good time. We think of Bluetooth as that device that lets you talk and drive at the same time, but Iranians used it to basically call and text complete strangers that were standing 30 feet from them, and they didn't even know where the call was coming from. You wouldn't do that in the U.S. because it'd be bizarre and out of the norm. But when inter-gender interaction is frowned upon, that's what people do, they innovate.

Fast-forward to 2009, when the government shut down the phones and Internet, you had clusters of people with Bluetooth-capable devices. Not surprisingly, they started sharing content with people who were within range.

I imagine these would-be revolutionaries are surveilled by their governments. How are they going to find privacy in this world without a delete button?

One of the things you can sort of imagine [in the future] is people selling black market identities. Either to criminals or witnesses or whistleblowers -- you literally create a whole fake identity for someone that they can use in all their interactions. Pictures, everything. The challenge is it works as long as you don't get photographed.

What problems can digital technology not fix?

It's not a panacea, there are problems in the world that technology can't fix. You can't fix water shortages, you can't storm a Ministry of the Interior with a cell phone, you can't magically create leaders and institutions overnight, you can't eat it, you can't shield a bullet. But the power of information, which is itself produced by these devices, ultimately gives people options and choices.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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