Blocl activism

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (2013)

By Jared Cohen & Eric Schmidt

States will long for the days when they only had to think about foreign and domestic policies in the physical world. If it were possible to merely replicate these policies in the virtual realm, perhaps the future of statecraft would not be so complex. But states will have to contend with the fact that governing at home and influencing abroad is far more difficult now. States will pull the most powerful levers they have, which include the control they hold over the Internet in their own countries, changing the online experiences of their citizens and banding together with like-minded allies to exert influence in the virtual world. This disparity between power in the real world and power in the virtual world presents opportunities for some new or underappreciated actors, including small states looking to punch above their weight and would-be states with a lot of courage.

States looking to understand each other’s behaviour, academics studying international relations, and NGOs and businesses operating on the ground within sovereign territory will need to do separate assessments for the physical and virtual worlds, understanding which events that occur in one world or the other have implications in both, and navigating the contradictions that may exist between a government’s physical and virtual foreign and domestic policies. It is hard enough to get this right in a world that is just physical, but in the new digital age error and miscalculation will occur more often. Internationally, the result will be more cyber conflict and new types of physical wars, and, as we will now see, new revolutions.

We all know the story of the Arab Spring, but what we don't know is what comes next. There can be little doubt that the near future will be full of revolutionary movements, as communication technologies enable new connections and generate more room for expression. And it’s clear that certain tactical efforts, like mobilizing crowds or disseminating material, will get easier as mobile and Internet penetration rates rise across many countries.

With so many people connected in so many places, the future will contain the most active, outspoken and globalized civil society the world has ever known. In the beginning of revolutionary movements, the noisy nature of the virtual world will impede the ability of state security to keep up with and crush revolutionary activity, enabling a revolution to start. But how quickly this can happen presents a new problem, since leaders will then have to operate in the physical world of parliaments, constitutions and electoral politics—none of which they’ll have the skill or experience to navigate effectively.

For the most part, dissidents will find their world safer due to the mass adoption of communication technologies, despite the fact that the physical risks they face will not change. (Nor will connectivity shield all activists equally; in countries where the government is very technically capable, dissidents may feel as vulnerable online as they do on the streets.) Arrests, harassment, torture and extrajudicial killings will not disappear, but overall, the anonymity of the Internet and the networked power of communication technologies will provide activists and would-be participants with a new layer of protective insulation that encourages them to continue on.

The rapid proliferation of revolutionary movements across newly connected societies ultimately will not be as threatening to established governments as some observers predict, because for all that communication technologies can do to transform revolutions in ways that tip the balance in favor of the people, there are critical elements of change that these tools cannot effect. Principal among them is the creation of first-rate leaders, individuals who can keep the opposition intact during tough times, negotiate with a government if it opts for reform, or run for office, win and deliver on what the people want if a dictator flees. Technology has nothing to do with whether an individual has the attributes to fill the role of statesman.

As we look into the future—its promises and its challenges—we are facing a brave new world, the most fast-paced and exciting period in human history. We’ll experience more change at a quicker rate than any previous generation, and this change, driven in part by the devices in our own hands, will be more personal and participatory than we can even imagine.

In the future, information technology will be everywhere, like electricity. It will be a given, so fully a part of our lives that we will struggle to describe life before it to our children. As connectivity ushers billions more people into the technological fold, we know that technology will soon be intertwined with every challenge in the world. States, citizens and companies will make it part of every solution.

The tiny minority at the top will be largely insulated from the less enjoyable consequences of technology by their wealth, access or location. The world’s middle class will drive much of the change, as they’ll be the inventors, the leaders in diaspora communities and the owners of small and medium-sized enterprises. These are the first two billion who are already connected. The next five billion people to join that club will experience far more change, simply because of where they live and how numerous they are. They’ll receive the greatest benefits from connectivity but also face the worst drawbacks of the digital age. It is this population that will drive the revolutions and challenge the police states, and they’ll also be the people tracked by their governments, harassed by online hate mobs and disoriented by marketing wars. Many of the challenges in their world will endure even as technology spreads.

First, it’s clear that technology alone is no panacea for the world’s ills, yet smart uses of technology can make a world of difference. In the future, computers and humans will increasingly split duties according to what each does well. We will use human intelligence for judgment, intuition, nuance and uniquely human interactions; we will use computing power for infinite memory, infinitely fast processing and actions limited by human biology.

Second, the virtual world will never overtake or overhaul the existing world order, but it will complicate almost every behavior. People and states will prefer the worlds where they have more control—virtual for people, physical for states—and this tension will exist as long as the Internet does. Crowds of virtually courageous people might be sufficient to start a revolution, but the state can still use brutal tactics in crackdowns on the street.

Third, states will have to practice two foreign policies and two domestic policies—one for the virtual world and one for the physical world—and these policies may appear contradictory. States will launch cyber attacks against countries they wouldn't dream of targeting militarily. They’ll allow for the venting of dissent online, but viciously patrol the town square looking for vocal dissidents to crack down on. States will support emergency telecommunications interventions without even considering putting boots (or bots) on the ground. Finally, with the spread of connectivity and mobile phones around the world, citizens will have more power than at any other time in history, but it will come with costs, particularly to both privacy and security. The technology we talk about collects and stores much personal information—past, present and future locations as well as the information you consume—all stored for a time for the systems to work. Such information has never been available before, and there is always the potential that it could be used against you.

We need to fight for our privacy or we will lose it, particularly in moments of national crisis, when security hawks will insist that with each terrible crime, governments are entitled to access more private, or formerly private, information. Governments have to decide where the new privacy line is, and stick to it.

What emerges in the future, and what we’ve tried to articulate, is a tale of two civilizations: One is physical and has developed over thousands of years, and the other is virtual and is still very much in formation. These civilizations will coexist in a more or less peaceable manner, with each restraining the negative aspects of the other.

The virtual and physical civilizations will affect and shape each other; the balance they strike will come to define our world. In our view, the multidimensional result, though not perfect, will be more egalitarian, more transparent and more interesting than we can even imagine.

Anyone passionate about economic prosperity, human rights, social justice, education or self-determination should consider how connectivity can help us reach these goals and even move beyond them. We cannot eliminate inequality or abuse of power, but through technological inclusion we can help transfer power into the hands of individual people and trust that they will take it from there. It won't be easy, but it will be worth it.