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The new digital age (part 1 of 2)

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It is almost a truism that the advent of Google is shaping not only Internet history but also human history.

“The point is not just to understand the world,” so spoke Marx, “but to change it.” Much is known about how Google, in its quest to organize all of the world’s information, has changed the world. But much less is known about how it understands the world, the new digital age and the role of technology in the socio-political landscape in which we live.

How will war, diplomacy and revolution change with increased access to information technologies? How much privacy and security must individuals relinquish in the new digital age? Is there anything technology can do about ongoing revolutions?

The CEMEX auditorium was packed to the brim Tuesday with listeners eager for answers to these questions. Onstage, technology met policy: Jared Cohen — a young Stanford alumnus and director of Google Ideas — was flanked by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Google Chief Eric Schmidt.

Right from the get-go, the spotlight was cast on the darkest and most autocratic places in the world. “The totalitarian cult of personality has been completely eliminated by the Internet,” Cohen said, “because the ability to create a society without doubt is no longer possible in our new digital age.”

This explains why there exists an upper bound to what China can do to its people before its legitimacy comes under threat, unlike places in North Korea where the visibility of government abuse is something more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. Even if the Internet does not lead to more knowledge, it has created greater awareness and visibility that bring to light atrocities and abuses before they become pervasive. Grievances become scalable.

“When a billion people in China are coming online — people who have no visibility in the urban area before — the grievances of one city or province has the potential to scale, and that would be game-changing,” Cohen said.

But there were also sobering analyses of what technology cannot do. This is seen where tech idealism meets realism. In the Syrian crisis, for example, technology is of very little help to refugees who have left behind everything that matters. Technological intervention is quite helpless without proper state intervention, because, as Cohen reminded, “States are still the dominant unit [of power] and they’re the ones who have to take charge.”

More disturbingly, Schmidt argued, technology can be used in service of bad ends, especially when part of the panoptical apparatus of autocratic regimes. In the hands of the masses in societies that have not grown up with doubt and choice, unintended consequences abound, especially when the Internet is used to flame tension and hatred.

Even in democracies, greater transparency brought about by the Internet does not always translate to better policies.

What worries Schmidt is not the fact that governments today collect large amounts of data on citizens, but that data could be leaked. In the past, the dissemination of knowledge was limited by how fast one could make Xerox copies; today it merely takes a Manning or Assange for millions of government documents to be stolen and distributed widely.

Schmidt and Cohen are, much to the surprise of some in the audience, decidedly anti-wikileaks. And for good reason: There is no way anybody could pore through every single document to ensure that they would be used judiciously.

“If you’re going to gather these information,” Schmidt advised, “be sure that they can’t be easily stolen.”

This is becoming harder to do in an age in which it is increasingly difficult for the CIA to keep secrets, and when public confidence in intelligence agencies has taken a beating following the Snowden revelations.

See part two here

This post was originally published on thedishdaily.com before it was acquired by The Stanford Daily in summer 2014.

Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at chiling@stanford.edu.