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Interview: Jared Cohen and The New Digital Age

8 May 2013

11:29 AM

8 May 2013

11:29 AM

Jared Cohen is Director of Google Ideas, a think tank set up by Google dedicated to understanding global challenges by applying technological solutions. Cohen is also an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He previously served as a member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, working as a close advisor with two former Secretaries of States, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, focusing on the Middle East, South Asia and counter terrorism.

Cohen has co-written, together with Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, The New Digital Age; a book that examines a number of different challenges that will arise as cyberspace drastically changes in the coming decade. The book asks two central questions. How will states continue to operate in both the cyber and physical world? And how will five billion additional internet users affect the global community in the near future?

Over an hour-long ‘Google Hangout’ conversation, I caught up with Cohen to discuss some of these tech/global security matters. As the book is co-written, Cohen’s repeated use of the word ‘we’ represents his own views, as well as those of Eric Schmidt also.

You guys forecast that in the next decade, the world’s virtual population will outnumber the physical population. How drastic will that data revolution be for empowering citizens around the globe?

Well there is not a single country on Earth that is worse off because of the internet. That is our starting premise, and we believe that it’s a hard thing to refute. When we talk about the virtual population exceeding the physical population, it’s because every individual is going to have a virtual entourage. Now imagine that you are a dissident. It’s more than just your professional and social strategy at stake. It’s literarily about survival. The stakes are really high in terms of what you say and do online. 57 per cent of the world’s population is still living under autocracy. In some respects, it’s almost like a global version of the American dream: where if you get access to the internet, you will be economically better off, freer, and overall you will be in a better position.

How do you believe regimes in autocratic states will adapt as citizens in these countries become connected to the web?

In a world without the internet, a repressive regime can use the military, create news blackouts, and make it look to the people like their voice is not as loud as it is in reality.

That changes when an entire population migrates online. For repressive regimes, the room for error and miscalculation goes up dramatically in a world where their population is online. States are going to have a really difficult time managing this. That is ultimately a good thing for citizens. That is not to trivialize, and say that in the future citizens with the internet won’t be repressed, surveyed, or monitored by their regimes. But it gets a lot harder to monitor 1.3 billion people than it does 600 million people.

You define collective editing as ‘states forming communities of interest to edit the web together based on shared values or geopolitics’.  How widespread is this going to become?

Because the internet is the world’s largest ungoverned space, the concern is that likeminded people will form together and edit the web. So you can imagine states banding together to edit a web based on Sharia law, or a normative view around a minority group.

These are some of the darker examples. It’s the same concept of what you see in the physical world: where states that are likeminded on certain issues, base alliances around economics, politics, and the military. Well, so too will states build alliances about what they want their cyberspace to look like. The difference being that it won’t be determined by geography, but by norms, and values.


So the natural reaction to collective editing will be something like a Hanseatic League for cyberspace. This will be built around principles of free expression and cyber openness.

How divided is the internet likely to become in the coming decade? Will there be visa requirements to log onto websites in other countries?

Cyberspace is not a parallel universe. It’s really just an extension of the world that we know today. This inevitably means that we could see a balkanization of the web, along similar boundaries and borders we see today in the physical world. But there are ways that we can prevent that. Mainly by ensuring that infrastructure in the future is based around free and open principles. All autocratic countries throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia are in unexpected transitions, and rapid extension of mobile and internet access. This is the best thing that can happen to them. Once a population has an opportunity to experience what that is like, it becomes difficult for a government to go backwards, without paying a significant price for it domestically, and even internationally.

Will the US be the first country to create a Department for Cyber War?

Well right now the US government already has Cyber Command. There is no doubt that states are going to have to organizationally adapt to how they think about this.

We fundamentally believe that states will have two foreign policies and two domestic policies: one for the physical world, and one for the cyber world. And they wont always look the same. So if you look at the relationship between the US and China right now, in the physical world, it’s complex, but by all accounts the two countries are allies. Then look at their relationship in cyberspace: it’s as adversarial as you could possibly imagine. So at some point, what happens in cyberspace has the potential to spill over into the physical world.

Can you define the term virtual genocide, and discuss how having access to data could lead to isolating minority groups?

As individuals are increasingly spending their time between the physical and the digital world, it’s a situation where their content gets filtered off the web: they get sent viruses, and they are basically tormented online.

Again, it’s much harder to protect people in the street, given that we know how reluctant states are to send troops into harm’s way. But the beautiful part of combating this sort of discrimination online is you can send engineers into cyberspace, without putting human beings into harm’s way.

So you can imagine some dictator seeking to move into cyberspace. But as they start doing that, dissident groups, and human rights organisations will begin to take up that cause. The advantages are that they will have engineers on their side.  What will happen then will be a sort of right to protect, led by engineers in cyberspace.

How is technology changing both governments and citizens’ attitude to war?

The whole notion of human beings being removed from the battlefield has an upside and a downside to it. The upside: [drones are]more precise and less risky. The downside: where there is less risk, some states will be more eager to use [drones]. Our view is that as automated warfare and drones proliferate, there needs to be some kind of international regulation around this. We imagine something similar to the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks) around certain types of drones. Basically where states will agree to limit certain types of drones in their arsenal.

In Who Owns The Future Jaron Lanier (Spectator interview here) argues that companies like Google, with the fastest networks, are widening the gaps between the rich and the poor.  What is your opinion of this?

I don’t think that any human being has been worse off since access to the internet. Rich people certainly do get better bandwidth, and poor people get bad bandwidth. But the poor still have more information and more tools than they did before these devices. Just because bandwidth and connectivity looks different to different people, it doesn’t mean that they are not also better off.

If one wants to critique the evaporation of the middle class, or a growing gap between rich and poor, well, that is a larger critique of how global society works. I don’t believe that the internet exacerbates that. Actually, I believe that the internet helps address that issue.

But you do admit in this book that as technology increases, the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger?

We are optimistic about the future, but honest about the challenges. We admit that technology alone is not going to solve water shortages, food supply and so on. Power and electricity are going to remain a huge problem in some of the poorest parts of the world. So when we say that the whole world is going to be connected, it means different things in different communities.

Eric and I both believe that the developing world will be at the centre of discovering new uses of existing technologies. Today just some examples of that include women in India turning on irrigation systems through their mobile phones. But in the future that could be a group of dissidents in one country that will be able to export their tactics to another.

What is the general consensus at Google in terms of how technology and human beings will interact in the future: is there a sense that humans are always in the driving seat when it comes to technology? Or is there a danger that if Moore’s Law keeps going, technology could overtake the human mind?

Our belief is that human beings and computers in the future will split duties in accordance with what they are good at. But what a human being has, that a computer does not, is judgment. Computers can help access risk, make recommendations, but this doesn’t change the fact that in the future, human beings are accountable for their actions: legally, socially, politically, emotionally, and physically. To the extent that computers play a more robust role: they are designed to help guide us, but ultimately, the responsibility for what happens in our future worlds resides with us as human beings.

The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen is published by John Murray £25.


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