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Book Review: The New Digital Age 68

Nerval's Lobster writes "Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen begin their new nonfiction book, The New Digital Age, with a rather bold pronouncement: 'The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.' Subsequent chapters deal with how that experiment will alter life in decades to come, as more and more people around the world connect to the Internet via cheap mobile phones and other devices." Keep reading to see what Nerval's Lobster has to say about the book.
The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business
author Eric Schmidt, Jared Cohen
pages 336
publisher Knopf
rating 7/10
reviewer Nerval's Lobster
ISBN 0307957136
summary A survey of how the coming technological revolutions could look.
The authors aren’t shy in suggesting that the Internet will ultimately change lives for the better. In fact, any other position would have been odd: Schmidt is chairman of Google, and Cohen director of Google Ideas. While they quote a number of very opinionated people throughout the book—including Henry Kissinger, who offers the realpolitik version of “Get off my lawn,” and Android designer Andy Rubin—the pair always come back to the same conclusion: that the cloud will grow, that the cloud will store more data, that the cloud will offer more features, that the cloud is good, good, good.

Of course, Schmidt and Cohen extolling the virtues of the cloud is like two corporate board-members of McDonald’s insisting that burgers are delicious and everyone in the world should eat them three times a day. They talk about data permanence and its effect on attempts to safeguard privacy, but they never suggest IT companies find a way to delete data in a permanent way (even though a number of entities are debating “right to be forgotten” legislation). They suggest that future governments could upload all their data to the cloud for safekeeping, but never really delve into the privacy and security concerns that would come with such a move. One wonders how much the pair’s respective tenures at Google, which profits enormously from data permanence and cloud storage, have affected their vision in these pages.

Indeed, the authors remain so wedded to their thesis—that the Internet will reach the majority of the world’s population in coming years, forcing massive but ultimately positive changes—that they end up making contrarian arguments at moments, depending on context. Midway through the book, for example, they suggest that the prevalence of mobile devices and the cloud will reduce the number of “massacres on a genocidal scale,” although “discrimination will likely worsen and become more personal.” Several pages later, however, the authors suggest that connectivity “encourages and enables altruistic behavior,” and that activism will increase when more people realize they can simply click or tap an onscreen button to contribute to a cause.

Smoothing out these colliding positions would have been a simple matter of acknowledging that human beings are complex, and that different groups will engage in wildly different behaviors with the same tools. But Schmidt and Cohen never dip into the human side of things, or explore the effect of technology on psychology; and as a result, the book at times feels disjointed.

They also fail to mention how the coming ubiquity of the Internet will flood the world with more data “noise.” Instead, they imply that all interactions are useful, regardless of the information being shared. “Activists in the future will benefit from the collective knowledge of other activists and people around the world,” they write at one point, without really digging into the main issue that comes with that connectivity: deciding which 1 percent of inbound “knowledge” is actually useful at that moment.

Along those same lines, they tout crowdsourcing as something that can “produce more comprehensive and accurate information, help track down wanted criminals and create demand for accountability,” without mentioning how such a tool can fail in spectacularly messy ways—witness what happened in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, in which the hive-mind on Reddit seized on innocent bystanders as suspects.

That’s not to say that Schmidt and Cohen avoid all the negatives that will surely come with the next generation of technology. They devote considerable space to the dank underbelly of the future Internet, from virtual “identity kidnappings” to state-sponsored cyber-attacks. Yet they never plunge into some of the thornier ethical and philosophical conundrums attached to some of those situations. Even the ramifications of drone warfare are largely waved away: “Asymmetric encounters in combat will continue to pose unpredictable challenges for even the most sophisticated technologies.” That’s pretty dry language for collateral damage and death.

The New Digital Age is worth reading as a survey of how the future could look. But it may leave you wishing for a book that explored, in a more thorough manner, the inevitable mess that the coming technological revolutions will leave in their wake.

You can purchase The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Book Review: The New Digital Age

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  • by guttentag ( 313541 ) on Thursday April 25, 2013 @07:14PM (#43550997) Journal
    Slashdot's book review guidelines (linked above in the summary) state:

    Important: If you have a relationship (other than as an ordinary reader) to the author or publisher of a book you're reviewing, disclose that relationship. This means not only cases like "My brother, the author, has given me a million dollars to type this review, and is holding me at gunpoint, while dictating to me from the Amazon review he himself wrote," but also "I used to work at this book's publisher, and was a technical reviewer for this book's three chapters on networking," or "The author is a good friend of mine." Better to disclose more than you think necessary (it can always be edited out if sensible; we'll let you know if we think there's an inappropriate conflict of interest) than less than actually necessary. If in doubt, please speak up.

    Yet the author of the review is a "Senior Editor at Slashdot," Nick Kolakowski [] (Twitter [], Literary Gun For Hire []), who writes articles for Slashdot (and other places []) and apparently submits them under the guise of a "user" named Nerval's Lobster. Nerval's Lobster's submissions are "accepted" by the editors nearly every day, and always link to Slashdot's "Business Intelligence" or "Cloud" content... effectively passing off paid content as normal, user-submitted content.

    Two of the three links in the review are to Kolakowski's own "Business Intelligence" articles. The link to the book itself goes to Amazon and contains Slashdot's "Associates ID" [] (slashdot0c-20) to ensure Slashdot gets a cut of any sales this review drives.

    Piece it together:
    1. A Slashdot employee writes a favorable (7/10) review of a book
    2. The same employee submits it under the guise of a normal reader (see the summary which ends with "Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here...")
    3. The editors post the review (because nearly everything "Nerval's Lobster" submits gets accepted by the editors, and it all links back to Slashdot paid content)
    4. Readers believe the review was submitted by a regular reader, and the huge wave of traffic invariably-driven by any Slashdot story results in a fair number of click throughs and purchases
    5. Slashdot gets a referral fee from Amazon for getting people to buy the book from them

    I have no problem with Slashdot staff writing a book review, as long as the relationship is disclosed, per Slashdot's own guidelines. I have no problem with a regular user writing a review and Slashdot making a few bucks by pointing readers to Amazon to buy that book. But he way they did it today makes it look like Kolakowski only wrote the review and the editors only accepted it because their employer is getting a kickback from Amazon. Making money is OK, but disguising paid content as user-submitted content is not. That's not what people come to Slashdot to find--it's a sleight of hand.

    Before you mod me down as a troll, consider that Kolakowski's review points out that one should take the business motivations of the book's authors into account when weighing what they have to say:

    Of course, Schmidt and Cohen extolling the virtues of the cloud is like two corporate board-members of McDonald's insisting that burgers are delicious and everyone in the world should eat them three times a day.

    Slashdot readers should be able to do the same with the authorship of stories and book reviews.

If I had only known, I would have been a locksmith. -- Albert Einstein