The Data Revolution in the New Digital Age

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Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google (left) and Jared Cohen, Director, Google Ideas

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google (left) and Jared Cohen, Director, Google Ideas

The data revolution will bring untold benefits to the citizens of the future. They will have unprecedented insight into how other people think, behave and adhere to norms or deviate from them, both at home and in every society in the world. The newfound ability to obtain accurate and verified information online, easily, in native languages and in endless quantity, will usher in an era of critical thinking in societies around the world that before had been culturally isolated.

In societies where the physical infrastructure is weak, connectivity will enable people to build businesses, engage in online commerce and interact with their government at an entirely new level.

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The future will usher in an unprecedented era of choices and options. While some citizens will attempt to manage their identity by engaging in the minimum amount of virtual participation, others will find the opportunities to participate worth the risk of the exposure they incur. Citizen participation will reach an all-time high as anyone with a mobile handset and access to the Internet will be able to play a part in promoting accountability and transparency. A shopkeeper in Addis Ababa and a precocious teenager in San Salvador will be able to disseminate information about bribes and corruption, report election irregularities and generally hold their governments to account. Video cameras installed in police cars will help keep the police honest, if the camera phones carried by citizens don’t already. In fact, technology will empower people to police the police in a plethora of creative ways never before possible, including through real-time monitoring systems allowing citizens to publicly rate every police officer in their hometown. Commerce, education, health care and the justice system will all become more efficient, transparent and inclusive as major institutions opt in to the digital age.

People who try to perpetuate myths about religion, culture, ethnicity or anything else will struggle to keep their narratives afloat amid a sea of newly informed listeners. With more data, everyone gains a better frame of reference. A Malawian witch doctor might find his community suddenly hostile if enough people find and believe information online that contradicts his authority. Young people in Yemen might confront their tribal elders over the traditional practice of child brides if they determine that the broad consensus of online voices is against it, and thus it reflects poorly upon them personally. Or followers of an Indian holy man might find a way to cross-reference his credentials on the Internet, abandoning him if it is revealed that he misled them. While many worry about the phenomenon of confirmation bias (when consciously or otherwise, people pay attention to sources of information that reinforce their existing worldview) as online sources of information proliferate, a recent Ohio State University study suggests that this effect is weaker than perceived, at least in the American political landscape. In fact, confirmation bias is as much about our responses to information passively received as it is about our tendency to proactively select information sources. So as millions of people come online we have reason to be optimistic about the social changes ahead.

Governments, too, will find it more difficult to maneuver as their citizens become more connected. Destroying documents, kidnapping, demolishing monuments—restrictive and repressive actions like these will lose much of their functional and symbolic power in the new digital age. Those documents would be recoverable, having been stored in the cloud, and the pressure that an active and globalized Internet community can produce when rallied against injustice will make governments think twice before snatching anyone or detaining him indefinitely. A Taliban-like government would still be able to destroy monuments like the Bamiyan Buddhas, but in the future those monuments will have been scanned with sophisticated technology that preserves every nook and cranny in virtual memory, allowing them to be rebuilt later by men or 3-D printers, or even projected as a hologram. Perhaps the UNESCO World Heritage Centre will add these practices to its restoration efforts. The structure of Syria’s oldest synagogue, for example, currently in a museum in Damascus, could be projected as a hologram or reconstructed using 3-D printing at its original site in Dura-Europos. What’s true now in most developed countries—the presence of an active civil society keen to fact-check and investigate its government—will be true almost everywhere, aided significantly by the prevalence of cheap and powerful handsets. And on a more basic level, citizens anywhere will be able to compare themselves and their way of life with the rest of the world. Practices widely considered barbaric or backward will seem even more so when seen in that context.

Excerpted from The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. Copyright © 2013 by Eric Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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