The future according to Google is an exciting place, yet convincing a room full of American and German intellectuals, visiting scholars, as well as business, finance, politics and media representatives proved to be a welcomed challenge for Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.
The American Academy in Berlin hosted Schmidt’s lecture, “Building the Digital Future” at its mansion on lake Wannsee. While the event was closed to the general public, by invitation only, the guest list included more than 200 people.
Schmidt began his lecture by congratulating Germany, saying: “Germany is the success story of the Western world; often imitated, never beat.” Germany, according to Schmidt, powers the world.
Schmidt’s main argument was that we live in a time of the internet, that “this is the beginning of the age of the internet.” Seemingly paradoxical, the emphasis is on “it’s just starting.” Schmidt quoted the social historian John Gardner, who said, “History never looks like history when you live through it.”
“We use Facebook to schedule protests, we use Twitter to coordinate, and we use You Tube to tell the world.” With the declining cost of technology, internet is the single global guarantor of economic growth. In two years the amount of information we are generating will double every 11 months. In the year 2029, for the cost of about 100 Euros you will be able to buy 11 petabytes in a single hard-drive, which can store 600 years, 24 hours-a-day of high-quality-DVD storage. This technological progress shows that, “never before have we been given such capacity to understand and influence the world we live in. And now is the time to shape the world that is coming before us.”
Innovation is young people at a university, they have an idea, they set out to change the world and don’t accept that it can’t be done. Schmidt quoted George Bernard Shaw: “You see things and say: why? But I dream things that never were and say, why not?” Why is this so, why couldn’t it be better, why isn’t this possible? Why is there injustice in the world? Why can’t we fix that? These questions can be turned into an attitude with the help of the technology available to us.
“Last year at a conference here in September we demonstrated maybe the most important thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Schmidt told the Berlin audience. “You take your phone and you talk into it in English and it comes out on the other phone in German. … Do you have any idea what that means? Think about it. How many wars have been started because people couldn’t talk to each other? … Taking all the disparate groups of people and allowing them to talk, and remember most people in the world don’t speak English and they don’t speak German. …This is technology that is available to the masses. The thing that I’m proudest of all is that this is stuff that everybody can use, including people who have never been part of the digital divide – the digital world that we live in.”
“The economic impact of the internet is as significant as the sociological impact, and you need them both.” Many people say the economic impact is great, but the social or cultural impact is not for the better – Schmidt disagrees. Google is doing art projects at many galleries and museums around the world, trying to preserve art works forever, digitizing archives in the art world. “These marker points are the beginning of everything being digitalized, everything being digital and virtual. … Now it’s up to us. How do we use this technology? It’s the beginning of another cycle of creativity.”
Computers have infinite memories; they are good at keeping memories. “What does the future look like? You can’t forget anything, because the computer remembers for you.”
“You can have all the world’s information at your fingertips, in any language with universal translation. I don’t think people understand what it’s like to go from being a minority language, where nobody listens to you, to having everyone as your audience. Are we going to find the next great Shakespeare equivalent growing up in a village we’ve never visited and have never heard of? But now we have access to that brilliance and that talent.”
“Amidst this explosion of information computers can help rank, organize, this is what Google and other people do. You’ve never lonely, your friends are always online. They know where you are. If you’re jet-lagged at four in the morning, you go online, and there they all are. We’ve pretty much eliminated at least that kind of loneliness. There is always somebody to talk with, or post about, or have an opinion about. Instead of wasting time watching the television, you can waste time watching the internet. We’re never out of ideas. We can suggest things that are interesting to you, based on your passions, the things you care about, where you’re going. We have figured out a way to generate serendipity…. We now have seven modified Prius cars driven by a computer. And the bad news for this audience is that these cars don’t drive faster than the speed limit. They never do. Because that’s the way we wrote the code.”
Schmidt concluded his talk with the statement: “This is a future for everybody. This is a future for all of us to participate in. Historically the future was reserved for the elites. This is a future literally for every human being on the planet.”
During the discussion period – a panel with Frank Schirrmacher, Editor-in-Chief of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Norman Pearlstine, Chief Content Officer, Bloomberg LP, and President and CEO of the American Academy in Berlin, as well as many questions from the audience – what surfaced most noticeably were the public’s fears, anxieties, and concerns about technological innovations, its speed and power, the control of information and the possibilities of manipulation. Perhaps it is important to point out here that the majority of people in the audience were over 40, and admitted that while most use Google search, not many use Gmail (not to mention the other Google products).
One of the first questions from the audience was about the political consequences of the open sourced world described by Schmidt in his talk, and the possible downsides. Schmidt replied that one of the main concerns is countries with vibrant civil societies and weak or corrupt governments, where it is impossible to predict crack-downs.
One of the visiting fellows at the Academy, Ellen Kennedy, was particularly critical of Schmidt’s vision of the future, asking: “Why should I believe you that technology won’t be misused?” To which Schmidt replied with an offer to debate: “What do you think tech people should do? Not develop technology?” to which the visiting fellow had no answer. Schmidt clarified, “There is value in knowing who you’re dealing with. The good will help police the evil.”
Another visiting fellow expressed his concern, finding himself “strangely terrified” by the prospect of a future in which the human body seems meaningless. A future of cars that drive themselves and online museum visits. Schmidt replied: “Turn that the other way: human beings have a limited time on the planet. Computers free up a lot of time, and they come with an off button. We are fortunate to have access to the museums, the majority of the world is not.”
A follow-up question was about resistance to technology, especially by radical religions and dogmas, to which Schmidt replied that we have a choice to use technology, and as a society have to discuss it.
A question on many people’s minds right now is about the addictive quality of the internet and its impact on our thought process (“Will it be possible to read Goethe in the future?” asked a writer.) Schmidt agreed that the challenge is that we are losing our ability of doing deep, conscientious reading.
A question about security, both at Google and of the net in general, was linked to a reference to Hitler’s manipulation of the masses (perhaps not surprisingly, several members of the audience could not resist bringing up Hitler – after all the Villa of the Wannsee Conference was just around the corner). Schmidt replied that a security break at Google could never happen. But as it turns out, it is possible to hack the DNS (Domain Name System), in which case internet could be “bulkanized,” (i.e. reproduced in bulk) but not taken out.
When Schmidt was accused of having a too simplified view of good and evil, he replied that his own belief is that people are generally good. And while it may be a belief “in the church of Google,” what is important are the positive changes that are affecting people’s lives for the better.
What did not come up during the discussion period is that Google is planning to create a new research center in Berlin in cooperation with Berlin universities for the study of the impact of the internet on society.
I was not brave enough to pose a question in front of the whole room, so I went up to Eric Schmidt afterwards and asked him in person: Are there any innovative Google projects for education? His answer was a little disappointing, yet hopeful: “Not right now. But we’re waiting for new ideas.” So, dear Googlers, please continue your great work, and continue to push the limits of the possible, and please continue creating web tools to make life, education, and knowledge more accessible, more open, and more user friendly. Yours, truly.