Google’s Technocratic Aspirations?

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen recently released The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, a roadmap for how the internet and technology can shape the development of global and local communities.  Schmidt and Cohen argue that technological innovation can bring powerful social and economic change to all peoples, especially the marginalized, and they make the case that governments must be well-versed in how technology can alter the political dynamic of how countries and communities operate.  The Guardian and Kirkus both gave the book positive, if largely unsubstantiated, reviews.

Julian Assange wrote a scathing review of the book in a recent New York Times article, arguing that Schmidt and Cohen present “a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism.”  Assange argues:  “The New Digital Age” is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary — the one company that can answer the question “Where should America go?”… Google, which started out as an expression of independent Californian graduate student culture — a decent, humane and playful culture — has, as it encountered the big, bad world, thrown its lot in with traditional Washington power elements, from the State Department to the National Security Agency.”

Assange’s commentary has looked increasingly prescient as Google’s relationship with the government has become more prominent in recent months.  The revelation of the PRISM program, with which Google has denied participation, raises the specter of a more extensive connection between the two than most people would have liked to imagine.  Schmidt led a delegation of U.S. diplomats to North Korea last January, arguing for increased adoption of internet resources for greater development.  (You can read his daughter’s fascinating write-up of the trip here.)  And the introduction of Google Glass has raised critical questions of public privacy, questions that will almost certainly lead to legal battles in the near future over covert video recording.

The Verge echoes Assange’s criticisms in their write-up for the book, casting the authors as businessmen looking for the next hot market instead of pursuing substantive change.  “It is a frustrating book. It’s the kind of book where the authors surveyed the sorry state of cellular connectivity in Baghdad… and could only conclude that ‘governments [are] dangerously behind the curve when it comes to understanding and implementing new technology.’  Which is true, if you only take it that far. But how narrow-minded do you have to be that you could look at war-torn Baghdad and only think that it would be a great place to introduce Android phones?”

Susan Davis, president of the largest NGO in the world, recently wrote about the ability for technology to actually make an impact on alleviating poverty.  Her takeaway: “The prospect of billions rising up from poverty with nothing more than gadgets is indeed a fanciful notion — and not a helpful one, either. But the evidence says that when we tether enthusiasm to reality, the reality starts to budge.”  Despite Assange’s fears of commercial imperialism, Google has the potential to be a major provider of basic equipment in this tethering process.  Davis’ suggestion to invest in local innovation, even for lower-tech problems, seems like a workable middle ground, in which Google could adapt its technology to the specific cultural environment of the community in need.

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