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daniellclausen

The Lexical Funk!

Daniel has wanted to be a writer ever since he was in elementary school.He has published stories and articles in such magazines as Slipstream, Black Petals, Spindrift, Zygote in my Coffee, and Leading Edge Science Fiction. He has written four books: The Sage and the Scarecrow (a novel), the Lexical Funk (a short story collection), Reejecttion (short story/ essay collection), and The Ghosts of Nagasaki (a novel).

Book Review - The Digital Age (Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously called prediction a kind of charlatanism. Prediction, in his opinion, should be a liberal art -- something creative, entertaining, thought-provoking, but always to be taken with a grain of salt. This is an opinion I share. And thus, it’s a great delight that “The Digital Age,” written by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, and Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, is a creative and exploratory journey into the geopolitics of the digital era (and the digitalization of geopolitics).

 

The book is well-written, well-thought out, and at times provocative. If it comes up short, it is not in the quality of its analysis, but rather in its ability to make one think. Indeed, many of the insights that come from their analysis of technology are the kinds of predictions that someone like me (who has a very shallow tech background) could have thought of. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The book refuses to take the prediction of possible uses of technology too far into the realms of the speculative. Each insight has firm grounding in the present.

 

One problem is that the book often floats between visions of techno-optimism and techno-neutralism. The authors respond to the charge that they are being Pollyannaish in the “Afterword” section of the paperback section by stating definitively that technology is neither “good” nor “bad” but rather neutral. A second close reading of the book is warranted here, but my impression was that the two authors sympathize (more) with the potential positives of greater connectivity and individual empowerment.

 

The book also works between two other extremes -- one of inevitability and techno-determinism (the spread of connectivity is impossible to stop; and connectivity is almost impossible to roll back) and one of geopolitics (which posits the continued presence of strong states). These various views are not irreconcilable -- but many will find the book’s indecisiveness a drawback. The short answer is that the book fails to state clearly what is obvious -- the degree to which any of these various scenarios will unfold is unknowable. And indeed our attempts to find the answer and prevent certain outcomes influences the likelihood that each scenario will occur.

 

Liberal traditions of International Relations which stress the pacific influence of trade, technology, and democratization often gell unevenly with approaches that stress realism and geopolitics- - the influence of state power, relative military power, and geography. What often makes books like “The Digital Age” uncomfortable reading for IR scholars is that they work within both traditions eclectically. Tensions between these two traditions are rarely the subject of overt theoretical exploration, but rather, are worked out through literary techniques. Indeed, the book’s strengths in many ways flows from its ability to bypass theoretical rigor in order to attain literary and journalistic flexibility. Its exploratory chapters and journalistic storytelling make it both more thought-provoking and entertaining. As the book itself testifies: its goal is to contribute to a conversation about the responsible use of digital technologies.

 

What makes the work particularly refreshing is that a book about technology can be -- at least at times -- so thoroughly geopolitical and anti-utopian in its view of technology. There will be no final technological solutions to the problems of geopolitics and political order. Issues of sovereignty, security, competition between nations, competition between ethnic groups will be extended into the realms of technology and these technologies will have disruptive effects on state power and influence. If our lives will be made better in the future, they will certainly be no less geopolitical.


However, the book does best when it sticks to technology. In fact, the book was a much needed introduction to issues of technology for me, and I would imagine many other policymakers who feel they were born a generation too late. In short, this book will be a must-read for technology neophytes like myself with a geopolitics background -- at least for a few more years when yet more disruptive technologies come out. Again, predictive analysis is charlatanism of a necessary kind. It works best when it informs, makes grounded leaps, and makes you think. The book does just that, and thus, is a very good read.