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Customer Review

on 15 May 2013
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

Many of us living in the developed world have come to rely very heavily on digital technology (including the internet and our mobile/smart devices)--indeed, for many of us, our relationship with our various screens is nothing short of addiction. And we are not the only ones who are plugging in. We are also increasingly hooking up our various man-made systems (such as our infrastructural systems and financial systems) to the internet as well. Given how radically digital technology has transformed our lives, it is incredible to think how recently all of this change has occurred; for, indeed, all of this technology has come upon us entirely in the past 15 to 20 years. This is significant because it reminds us that the age of connectivity is but in its infancy, and that most of the changes are yet to come.

This is true for us here in the developed world, but is even more so the case for those living in the developing world, where almost 5 billion people are expected to go from no connectivity to full connectivity within the next 20 years. While it may well be the case that the overall impact of the connectivity revolution will be enormously beneficial, we would be fool to think that the impact will be none but positive. With forces such as criminals, rebel groups, terrorists and rogue states prepared to take advantage of the new technology, the connectivity revolution poses some very serious challenges as well. Google executive Eric Schmidt and U.S. policy and media expert Jared Cohen are particularly well-placed to assess how all of the upcoming changes will play out, and in their new book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business the two let us in on their ruminations and prognostications.

Beginning closer to home, the authors chart how the new digital age stands to increase our efficiency and offer new opportunities for both business and leisure. To begin with, the two argue that most of our day to day routines and workload will be streamlined by way of being hooked up to the internet and aided by various artificial intelligence machines. Over and above this, consider some of the extravagant possibilities: imagine attending a 9 a.m. teleconference with business associates from around the world in a 3D virtual space, where each individual's comments are translated into your native language near perfectly, and near instantaneously. In the evening you enter a different 3D virtual space that captures a sporting event in real-time. After that you enjoy a holographic recreation of your wedding with your spouse.

As much as we will come to rely on the internet and other smart technologies, there is a significant drawback to all of this high-technology, and that is that more and more of our personal information will be captured and stored than ever. Much of this information will be available for anyone who is interested to see (friend and foe alike), and even more of it will be accessible with a bit of underhanded effort.

On the side of government, its operations, like our own, will be streamlined by way of being brought online--including in the realm of physical infrastructure (i.e. water, sanitation and power). In addition, the data streams captured from our own activity and that of our systems will grant us new insights into our behavior that can be put to good use by governments and businesses alike. On the negative side, all of this information in the hands of government (and potentially in the hands of savvy criminals, terrorists and enemy states) poses significant privacy and security concerns (both authors foresee cyber-crime, cyber-terrorism, and cyber-war being significant issues in the future). Rest assured that a very robust cyber-security industry will emerge, and that the conflict between privacy and security will continue to play out in a very prominent way.

As digital technology continues to spread to the poorest parts of the world, new economic opportunities will spread in its wake that will help pull these parts of the world out of poverty--and also aid in the push towards more democracy. However, criminal and extremist groups operating there will also increasingly be given access to the new technology, and it stands to help both in their enterprises. On the bright side, digital technology will also make it easier to track down and uncover illegal syndicates and bring them to justice.

Though the book does explore domestic matters, it is mostly focused on how the digital age will impact international relations and conflicts. The only faults I see in the book are that it occasionally indulges in speculation that borders on fear-mongering, and there are several cases wherein the authors do not explore their reasons for believing why a particular trend will emerge (instead favoring bald and sweeping statements). All in all the two authors have a very unique and privileged vantage point from which to view things, and it is very interesting to look in on their thoughts. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.
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