South by Southwest
Global implications of the New Digital Age

Technology has always had a profound effect on the world, and current advancements are reshaping human society in ways that were never imagined. How modern technology is impacting the world and what the future holds were some of the themes covered by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their book The New Digital Age. In a highly-anticipated discussion at SXSW, Schmidt and Cohen spoke in front of a packed house and dished on current trends and the potential impact that technology could have on human and civil rights, privacy, and war.

Due to lower prices and wider network availability, about two billion people are expected to join the mobile-equipped population in the next three to five years, project Schmidt and Cohen. This influx of the newly-connected will have an enormous impact in many ways; not to be ignored is the potential effect on political trends and events. While events like the Arab Spring and the recent uprisings in Venezuela and Ukraine may shift the conversation otherwise, Schmidt remains optimistic that this powerful new stream of users will yield positive outcomes.

But Schmidt and Cohen are certainly aware of the potential roadblocks. As positive freedom, and freedom of expression, becomes available and within reach where it may not have before, powerful, oppressive governments will aim to strengthen censorship. This has already happened, as Cohen pointed out; last year in Damascus, in an effort to prevent the opposition’s online activities, the government set up checkpoints where people were asked to hand in their phones and all log-in credentials. There are powerful proponents of this proliferation of data and connectivity. But like any great challenge, a staunch opposition exists.

Different issues arise, however, even when there is no direct opposition in place. As an example of the social and national interplay of technology, Schmidt brought up Somalia, where there is no official government. But much of the population does have smartphones, and young people use their phones to inform each other of the location of approaching gangs, provide tips to avoid NATO bombings and coordinate meetups. But the smartphone and its data connection can be a burden as well; if a member of one group is captured by a rival, the benefit of having a smartphone and a data connection can be used against them. Impersonations and false information risks horrific outcomes.

New data has an impact on a national level, but also on a more personal level. Here in the U.S., we saw the backlash the National Security Administration received when the Edward Snowden leaks became national news. Although many were aware of this already, the NSA crisis went to further enlighten us that data is permanent, that everything we do online is recorded and stored without an expiration date and without a delete button. Schmidt and Cohen urged the audience to think twice before they post or comment, because everything is permanent. This holds true especially for children, who are coming online at younger ages than ever before. The duo proposed that these days, a conversation on what to post and what not to may be one that parents have with their children before the one on the birds and the bees. Americans are already well-versed on how recklessness with technology can derail the career of a politician, and it’s possible that our future leaders will be regretting something they posted on Facebook or Twitter when they were a teenager. Schmidt and Cohen believe that mishaps by high-profile leaders could lead to a-ha moments for young folks.

More and more people throughout the world are becoming connected every day. It’s difficult to comprehend, but in the coming years there will be even more information out there. We may soon start hearing about more injustices that we were previously unaware of. This will provide insights and give us more knowledge. What we do with that knowledge will be what defines this era of digital revolution.

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