Change, change, change: Breakfast with Google's boss

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Saturday 11 May 2013

It is easy to start a revolution via information technology, but it is difficult to build real institutions using the same means, says Google boss Eric Schmidt

Last week, I and others attended a breakfast with software engineer and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. As the clock approached 8:30am, Schmidt began talking, but not about technical matters, since the idea of competition with Google, according to him, is something of the past now that Android systems have surpassed Apple systems, whether in smartphones or its various applications and uses.

In 2010, the Google engine for smartphones stood at 26 per cent of the market and Apple iOS at 40 per cent. Today, these percentages have changed to 53 per cent for Google and 36 per cent for Apple. Schmidt chose not to address these figures in detail and their significant implications and instead offered his vision of the world, the future and how to interact with it by presenting his new book, The New Digital Age.

Schmidt arrived early at about 8am, drank his coffee and then began outlining what digital technology will do to our private lives and our relations with those around us. Schmidt and co-author Jared Cohen essentially believe the technologically connected world will augur more transparency and wider freedom of information. This is bound to produce more political freedoms, Schmidt thinks, especially in closed societies such as China and Saudi Arabia.

The subtitle of the book, "Reshaping the future of people, nations and businesses," reflects Schmidt views on how technology leaves us unable to know exactly what the future holds in terms of identity, citizenship, the future of the modern state, revolutions, resources and terrorism. There is only one certainty: change.

Schmidt in his book addresses the future of conflicts, foreign intervention and rebuilding societies. He believes the Internet and technology can create a new reality regarding these issues. For example, the right to self-determination will not occur in the world in the future until those who seek it feel there is a genuine single fate that brings them together on the Internet and which strengthens their sense individual identity or rights.

Before former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Schmidt said, Google was proud of its employee Wael Ghoneim and what he was doing. The Google boss added that technology and its applications, such as Facebook, “change the power dynamics between governments and citizens.”

While it is easy to start a revolution through the ease of technology, mobilisation and communication among people, Schmidt explained, it is difficult to end them. He believes the spread of technology and Internet makes it easier to topple dictatorships, but this does not mean it is easy to build institutions or produce aware and inspiring political leaders.

While Schmidt is a leading figure in Silicon Valley, senior US and world politicians met with Schmidt while he researched his book. Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute in Washington DC, said “world leaders should look at the ideas in the book, because they will simply follow them… whether they like it or not.”

But not everyone agrees with Schmidt’s views. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes those capable of using social networks to lead popular revolutions are not necessary qualified to lead democratic societies.

Google’s executive chairman said the majority of the world’s population of nearly seven billion are not connected to technology, and are without Internet and its various applications. Only about two billion of the world population communicates via the Internet. Schmidt pondered what the world will look like when the remaining five billion — the majority of whom are in closed societies — enter the technology market as the cost of services decreases. People will have more information in all domains and this will create a range of positive dynamics, Schmidt says.

Schmidt recalled the example of the Wenzhou high speed train collision of 2011 in China that killed and injured 250 people. Despite attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to cover-up the accident and blame nature and the weather, eyewitnesses using Twitter played a role in informing the world, especially the Chinese, about the truth of the accident resulting from human and engineering error caused by the corruption of local officials.

Several officials were fired, most notably the minister of transportation, and the High Speed Train Authority was restructured after being forced to carry out a broad and transparent investigation.

Schmidt talked about revolutions and the future of governance; he talked also about the future of terrorism, issues of privacy and intellectual property. But he did not speak as an intellectual or strategic expert, but as an engineer using, applying and developing technology with the aim of changing and improving how to deal with these issues in a world dominated by uncertainty and high-speed.

Schmidt stated that technology has made everything faster and changeable, and therefore we must tame it to serve our needs. Despite the speed of everything, there is a clear and great disparity in the language of sons and their fathers around the world. Fathers mostly do not understand the language of their sons, and therefore this book in particular is written for them.

Sympathising with human rights, social justice, and dissemination of education principles, Schmidt believes even the right to self-determination must be linked to more communication among citizens via the Internet and technology because of their positive impact on these rights and principles.

Schmidt at 58 is considered an old man by technology standards, with a fortune of more than $8 billion. He believes the Internet is the first invention that people do not understand and is the most chaotic experiment in history.

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