Table of Contents:
PART I: THE NEW DIGITAL AGE ON THE DOMESTIC FRONT
1. Increased Efficiency in Our Daily Routines
2. Leisure and Entertainment
3. Health Care
4. Business and Work
- a. New Business Opportunities
- b. The End of Geographic Barriers
5. Identity and Privacy
PART II: THE NEW DIGITAL AGE IN GOVERNMENT AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
6. Government Efficiency & Law Enforcement
- a. Introduction
- b. The Privacy Threat
- c. The Security Threat
ii. Corporate Espionage
7. Cyber-War, Cyber-Terrorism & Automated Weapons
- a. Cyber-War and Cyber-Terrorism
- b. Automated Warfare
PART III: THE SPREAD OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY TO THE DEVELOPING WORLD
8. The Spread of Digital Technology to the Developing World
9. Digital Technology in the Hands of Terrorists
10. Digital Technology in Autocratic and Authoritarian Regimes
- a. Digital Technology in the Hands of Revolutionaries
- b. Digital Technology in the Hands of Autocratic and Authoritarian Governments
11. Rebuilding After Collapse
- a. Digital Technology in Emergency Relief
- b. Digital Technology in the Short-Term Aftermath of a Crisis
- c. Digital Technology in Long-Term Rebuilding
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.
Here are Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen discussing their new book on PBS News Hour:
*To check out the book at Amazon.com, or purchase it, please click here: The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business
The following is a full executive summary of The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen
PART I: THE NEW DIGITAL AGE ON THE DOMESTIC FRONT
1. Increased Efficiency in Our Daily Routines
Beginning on the home-front, the authors argue that the new digital age promises to usher in a world of impressive efficiencies. Take house chores, for example. Technology will not only help with the planning of these domestic necessities (loc. 356), but will also perform many of them for us. As the authors explain, “the average American consumer will find it affordable to own a handful of different multipurpose robots fairly soon. The technology in iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner, the progenitor of this field of consumer ‘home’ robots (first introduced in 2002), will only become more sophisticated and multipurpose in time. Future varieties of home robots should be able to handle other household duties, electrical work and even plumbing issues with relative ease” (loc. 380).
Moving beyond house-chores, digital technology will also help us with virtually all of the mundane activities that we are required to plan out and do on a day to day basis (such as grocery shopping, powering up our cars and various devices etc). Much of this will be the result of the ubiquitous presence of smart devices that will all be integrated with one another, and with which we will interact through sophisticated voice-recognition software, and even thought-controlled motion technology (both of which are advancing quickly [loc. 383-87, 400]). As the authors explain, “centralizing the many moving parts of one’s life into an easy-to-use, almost intuitive system of information management and decision making will give our interactions with technology an effortless feel… these systems will free us of many small burdens—including errands, to-do-lists and assorted ‘monitoring’ tasks—that today add stress and chip away at our mental focus throughout the day” (loc. 359).
When it comes to transportation, self-driving cars (which are already legal in 2 states [loc. 473]) will take care of much of this for us, leaving us free to work (or play) at other things (loc. 473). While the prospect of self-driving cars is certainly exciting for those of us living and working in the city, the biggest impact of these vehicles will be on the transport and trucking industry. For example, the authors ask us to “imagine the possibilities for long-haul truck-driving. Rather than testing the biological limits of human drivers with thirty-hour trips, the computer can take over the primary responsibility and drive the truck for stretches as the driver rests” (loc. 478).
Here is a nice clip about Google’s driverless car from the BBC:
2. Leisure and Entertainment
Beyond offering us efficiency in our day to day routines, the new digital age also promises us many new possibilities in the area of leisure and entertainment. To begin with, the authors assure us that we will be presented us with an abundant supply of music and video content at very low cost (if not free), and with the content providers duly paid for their output. As the authors explain, “contemporary services like Spotify, which offers a large catalog of live-streaming music for free, give us a sense of what the future will look like: an endless amount of content, available anytime, on almost any device, and at little or no cost to users, with copyrights and revenue streams preserved” (loc. 526). (Just how revenue streams will be preserved where entertainment is offered for free is not discussed—nor do the authors address how the issue of pirating might play out—two glaring omissions in a book that is meant to explore the future of the digital age).
When it comes to the providers of our digital entertainment, the current trend of empowerment for smaller players will continue to play out and intensify, as new platforms make it easier than ever to get one’s contributions noticed and spread: “just as YouTube can be said to launch careers today (or at least offer fleeting fame), in the future, even more platforms will offer artists, writers, directors, musicians and others in every country the chance to reach a wider audience. It will still require skill to create quality content, but it will also be easier to assemble a team with the requisite skills to do this” (loc. 532).
Aside from the two-dimensional forms of entertainment we are accustomed to, the new digital age will also offer us a range of new 3D options. This will be made possible by the exponential increases in computing power and information transmission that are expected to continue to play out. As the authors explain, “the promise of exponential growth unleashes possibilities in graphics and virtual reality that will make the online experience as real as real life, or perhaps even better. Imagine having the holodeck from the world of Star Trek, which was a fully immersive virtual-reality environment for those aboard a ship, but this one is able to both project a beach landscape and recreate a famous Elvis Presley performance in front of your eyes” (loc. 131).
In addition, technology will also be available that is capable of recording an event in 3D (such as a wedding) that can be played back later (loc. 444). As the authors explain, “future videography and photography will allow you to project any still or moving image you’ve captured as a three-dimensional holograph. Even more remarkable, you will be able to integrate any photos, videos and geopraphic settings that you choose to save into a single holographic device that you will place on the floor of your living room, instantaneously transforming the space into a memory room” (loc. 443). In fact, such technology may even be able to capture a live event (such as a sporting, music, or theater event), and transmit the 3D feed to the Internet for viewers to access (for a fee, of course) (loc. 463).
When it comes to how we keep up with current events, this too will change. Specifically, the present trend that sees news stories being broken over such platforms as Twitter will continue to grow. This is inevitable where virtually everyone is in possession of a device that is capable of capturing news-worthy events in photos and videos, and instantly uploading them to platforms that are accessible to all. As the authors explain, “it is manifestly clear that mainstream media outlets will increasingly find themselves a step behind the reporting of news worldwide. These organizations simply cannot move quickly enough in a connected age, no matter how talented their reporters and stringers are, and how many sources they have… If everyone in the world has a data-enabled phone or access to one—a not-so-distant reality—then the ability to ‘break news’ will be left to luck and chance, as one unwitting civilian in Abbottabad, Pakistan, discovered after he unknowingly live-tweeted the covert raid that killed Osama bin Laden” (loc. 911 [no kidding]).
Of course, just because we will increasingly turn to non-traditional platforms to learn of news events does not mean we will turn away from the mainstream media entirely. To begin with, one role that the mainstream media will assume will be to verify and validate (or invalidate) stories that are broken over open platforms: “the role of the mainstream media will primarily become one of an aggregator, custodian and verifier, a credibility filter that sifts through all of this data and highlights what is and is not worth reading, understanding and trusting” (loc. 928).
Beyond verifying stories that break over open platforms, the mainstream media will continue to provide context around, and offer analysis of news-worthy events. Indeed, as the authors rightly point out, “Twitter can no more produce analysis than a monkey can type out a work of Shakespeare (although a heated Twitter exchange between two smart, credible people can come close); the strength of open, unregulated information-sharing platforms is their responsiveness, not their insight or depth” (loc. 934).
3. Health Care
One area where digital technology promises to make one of its strongest impacts is in healthcare. Not only will our mobile phones be capable of a range of diagnostic scans and tests (loc. 535), but we will also have access to microscopic sensors that travel through our blood streams to gauge our systems and detect early signs of illnesses and diseases (loc. 486)—as well as contact paramedic services in case of a medical emergency (loc. 488). In fact, this type of technology already exists. As the authors explain, “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first electronic pill in 2012. Made by a California-based biomedical firm called Proteus Digital Health, the pill carries a tiny sensor one square millimeter in size, and once the pill is swallowed, stomach acid activates the circuit and sends a signal to a small patch worn outside the body (which then sends its data to a mobile phone). The patch can collect information about a patient’s response to a drug (monitoring body temperature, heart rate and other indicators), relay data about regular usage to doctors and even track what a person eats” (loc. 497).
In addition, dirt-cheap gene sequencing technology will allow doctors to prescribe treatments and medications tailored directly to our personal genomes. As the authors explain, “severe negative reactions to prescribed drugs remain a leading cause of hospitalization and death. Pharmaceutical companies traditionally pursue a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, but this is due to change as the burgeoning field of pharmacogenetics continues to develop. Better genetic testing will reduce the likelihood of negative reactions, improve patients’ chances and provide doctors and medical researchers with more data to analyze and use. Eventually… it will be possible to design pharmaceutical drugs tailored to an individual’s genetic structure” (loc. 519).
In the event of an illness that requires surgery, specialized robots will perform these for us (or, at the very least, support doctors at every step throughout the process) (loc. 510). And as we convalesce, robotic nurses will help us through the ordeal.
4. Business and Work
a. New Business Opportunities
In looking at how digital technology stands to impact the areas mentioned above, we have already touched upon some of the business and work opportunities that the technology will introduce. However, numerous other business opportunities will also emerge. We can mention 3 promising fields here.
The first is tied to ‘big data’. The reams of data that we generate through our online activities will offer established businesses new ways to increase efficiency, and also act as fodder for start-ups to generate new business opportunities (loc. 321, 1089) (The authors of this book do not address this phenomenon very extensively. However, it is discussed at length in a book called Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier).
Of course, the data exhaust that we leave behind will also be ripe to be exploited by mischievous individuals and criminals, and therefore, it is certain that a robust industry will form around cyber-security (there will be much more on this below).
One of the more exciting business opportunities afforded by digital technology is 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing consists in generating a physical object out of a digital file. As the authors explain, “machines can actually ‘print’ physical objects by taking three-dimensional data about an object and tracing the contours of its shape, ultra-thin layer by ultra-thin layer, with liquid plastic or other material, until the whole object materializes. Such printers have produced a huge range of objects, including customized mobile phones, machine parts and a full sized replica motorcycle” (loc. 338). While 3D printing may never come to completely replace large-scale industrial manufacturing, it is particularly useful in generating unique products and parts that are valuable in many circumstances (loc. 346).
Here is a very nice segment on 3D printing from 16X9:
b. The End of Geographic Barriers
In addition to the new business opportunities, digital technology also stands to transform the world of business and work in several other ways. To begin with, geographic barriers will largely be removed, allowing workers to join a company’s workforce from anywhere in the world, and also allowing any company anywhere to compete for any contract anywhere (loc. 420-24). This will be facilitated through sophisticated technologies that allow near seamless interactions between people half-way across the planet. As the authors explain, “instant language translation, virtual-reality interactions and real-time collective editing—most easily understood today as wikis—will reshape how firms and organizations interact with partners, clients and employees in other places. While certain differences will perhaps never be fully overcome—like cultural nuances and time zones—the ability to engage with people in disparate locations, with near-total comprehension and on shared platforms, will make such interactions feel incredible familiar” (Ioc. 417).
In connection with this, as more and more of the world goes online, this will have a tremendous levelling effect, allowing good ideas and products to come from virtually anywhere. As the authors explain, “new levels of collaboration and cross-pollination across different sectors internationally will ensure that many of the best ideas and solutions will have a chance to rise to the top and be seen, considered, explored, funded, adopted and celebrated” (loc. 442). As an example, “perhaps an aspiring Russian programmer currently working as a teacher in Novosibirsk will discover a new application of the technology behind the popular mobile game Angry Birds, realizing how its game framework could be used to improve the educational tools he is building to teach physics to local students. He finds similar gaming software that is open source and then he builds on it… In a fully connected world, he is increasingly likely to catch the eyes of the right people, to be offered jobs or fellowships, or to sell his creation to a major multinational company” (loc. 444).
5. Identity and Privacy
As we become more and more active online, the digital imprint that we create will only increase. This is especially true for young people growing up now—many of whom use online platforms as a natural extension of their physical lives. As the authors explain, “for children and adolescents, the incentives to share will always outweigh the vague, distant risks of self-exposure, even with salient examples of consequences in public view. By the time a man is in his forties, he will have accumulated and stored a comprehensive online narrative, all facts and fictions, every misstep and every triumph, spanning every phase of his life. Even the rumors will live forever” (loc. 695).
Even for those who are careful with what information they share, and who they share it with (and on what platforms), an enormous amount of information (and in some cases misinformation) about them will nevertheless be generated and be accessible to any and all who may be interested in it (loc. 1068, 1085). And you can forget about ever erasing any of this information either. Digital exhaust is virtually impossible to rub-out entirely, and this is becoming more and more the case as we rely ever more on cloud-based data storage (“storing documents or content ‘in the cloud’ means that data is stored on remote servers rather than on local ones or on a person’s own computer, and it can be accessed by multiple networks and users” [loc. 619]). As the authors explain, “you cannot assume there is a simple delete button. The option to ‘delete’ data is largely an illusion—lost files, deleted e-mails and erased text messages can be recovered with minimal effort. Data is rarely erased on computers; operating systems tend to remove only a file’s listing from the internal directory, keeping the file’s contents in place until the space is needed for other things… Cloud computing only reinforces the permanence of information, adding another layer of remote protection for users and their information” (loc. 1039).
It will be possible, of course, to completely avoid the Internet in order to keep one’s privacy intact, but the cost of this virtual hermitude will likely be to cut one off from most (if not all) opportunities (loc. 636, 648). Indeed, one of the main players who will be most interested in our online identity (or absence thereof) will be our potential employers (loc. 614, 1273).
Given the heightened importance of our online identities, and the added difficulty of protecting our privacy in a connected world, it is certain that more of us will begin reading the privacy policies of the platforms we sign-up for (loc. 1237-39).
On the side of the platforms themselves, it is equally certain that those that pop up in the future will afford us more options to protect our personal information. As the authors explain, “[technology] companies are already taking proactive steps, such as offering a digital ‘eject button’ that allows users to liberate all of their data from a given platform; adding a preferences manager; and not selling personally identifying information to third parties or advertisers. But given today’s widespread privacy concerns, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Perhaps a group of companies will make a pledge not to sell data to third parties, in a corporate treaty of sorts” (loc. 1266). Aside from these measures we should not be surprised to eventually see laws passed meant to protect our personal information—at least in certain respects (loc. 1268-95).
Still, these strategies and provisions will only protect our privacy so much. And over and above issues of privacy, we will also have to contend with issues such as having our online identities being manipulated by malicious players (loc. 616), and stolen (or abducted) by criminals (loc. 738, 3013-20). For these reasons, we can expect that a very robust industry will emerge around services designed to manage our online identities, and keep them safe from corruption and theft. As the authors explain, “this industry exists already, with companies like Reputation.com using a range of proactive and reactive tactics to remove or dilute unwanted content… In the future, this industry will diversify as the demand explodes, with identity managers becoming as common as stockbrokers and financial planners… A new realm of insurance will emerge too. Companies will offer to insure your online identity against theft and hacking, fraudulent accusations, misuse or appropriation… Any number of people could be attracted to such an insurance policy, from the genuinely in need to the generally paranoid” (loc. 731-36).
PART II: THE NEW DIGITAL AGE IN GOVERNMENT AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
6. Government Efficiency & Law Enforcement
Outside of our personal and professional lives, digital technology will also come to have a major impact on how governments operate. One aspect of this is that infrastructural systems (such as water, power, and oil and gas pipelines) will increasingly be hooked up to the internet in order to increase their efficiency (loc. 3033). Over and above this, the extensive (and ever-growing) data streams that governments have access to regarding their citizens will help them in providing and improving public services (loc. 320-24, 647-57).
These same data streams will also be an invaluable resource in law-enforcement and internal security. Indeed, some states are already beginning to use the data streams they have access to in this way. Take Mexico, for example. As the authors explain, “we had the opportunity to tour the command center for Plataforma Mexico, Mexico’s impressive national crime database and perhaps the best model of an integrated data system operating today. Housed in an underground bunker in the Secretariat of Public Security compound in Mexico City, this large database integrates intelligence, crime reports and real-time data from surveillance cameras and other inputs from agencies and states across the country. Specialized algorithms can extract patterns, project social graphs and monitor restive areas for violence and crime as well as for natural disasters and other civilian emergencies” (loc. 3396).
b. The Privacy Threat
While the crime-curbing potential of such a system is no doubt impressive, it is equally clear that such a system represents a significant encroachment on personal privacy (loc. 3380). Indeed, it is this very issue that has kept other states from implementing such a system. Take the United States, for example. The U.S. government has access to all of the same information included in Mexico’s integrated system, and could just as easily integrate it into a single system so as to increase its power and efficiency (loc. 3382). In fact, following the attacks of 9/11, this very idea was floated in Congress. As the authors explain, “in the early 2000s, following the September 11 terrorist attacks… the Defense Department set up the Information Awareness Office and green-lit the development of a program called Total Information Awareness (TIA). Pitched as the ultimate security apparatus to detect terrorist activity, TIA was designed and funded to aggregate all ‘transactional’ data—including bank records, credit-card purchases and medical records—along with other bits of personal information to create a centralized and searchable index for law enforcement and counterterrorist agencies. Sophisticated data-mining technologies would be built to detect patterns and associations, and the ‘signatures’ that dangerous people left behind would reveal them in time to prevent another attack” (loc. 3408).
Ultimately, when the new program was debated in Congress, concerns over privacy effectively quashed it—as members from both the left and the right “warn[ed] about the potential costs to civil liberties, privacy and long-term security. They zeroed in on the possibilities of abuse of such a massive information system, branding the program ‘Orwellian’ in scope” (loc. 3411). Nevertheless, there is always the possibility that plans for such a program will resurface. In fact, as the authors rightly point out, it seems almost inevitable, since, in the conflict between privacy and security, security tends to win out. After every security breach pressure mounts to close the holes, and this necessarily entails a compromise on privacy: “generally, the logic of security will always trump privacy concerns. Political hawks merely need to wait for some serious public incident to find the political will and support to push their demands through, steamrolling over the considerations voiced by the doves, after which the lack of privacy becomes normal” (loc. 3417).
As hinted at above, a fully integrated, state-led security system not only threatens privacy in and of itself, but is also prone to abuse and simple error. As the authors mention, “the potential for misuse of this power is terrifyingly high, to say nothing of the dangers introduced by human error, data-driven false positives and simple curiosity” (loc. 3423). Given that this is the case—and considering that it may well be inevitable that these systems will come to form (loc. 3428)—the best solution may ultimately be to design these systems with as many checks and balances as possible; institute harsh penalties for any abuses, and remain as vigilant as possible in monitoring them for these abuses (loc. 3430).
c. The Security Threat
Over and above the concerns mentioned above, there is also the threat that the information that the government keeps may be thieved by the very forces that the government is legitimately trying to contain—including criminals, terrorists and even enemy states. Indeed, cyber-information theft is already a well-established phenomenon (loc. 729-38, 750-59, 882-89). For the authors, it is only a matter of time before a major attack on a government’s information files is successful (loc. 1530).
The sad fact is that in the war between encryption and code-breaking, code-breaking has a natural edge. As the authors explain, “one of the basic problems in computer security is that it typically takes much more effort to build defenses than to penetrate them; sometimes programs to secure sensitive information rely on 10 million lines of code while attackers can penetrate them with only 125 lines” (loc. 2301).
There may be ways to correct this imbalance in power, but none are easy (one strategy involves giving each computer in a network a unique hardware feature/marker in order to contain attacks [loc. 2306-16]). According to the authors, implementing such a measure is not likely to occur in many states until after a major attack proves successful—and even then, such a move would not necessarily preclude the possibility of a successful attack (it only evens the playing field somewhat [loc. 2316-20]).
ii. Corporate Espionage
And regardless, rogue players needn’t necessarily steal a government’s own information files in order to do harm to that state and its citizens. For example, the evidence indicates that the Chinese government has already successfully stolen information from companies around the world (including especially American companies), and has used this information for various purposes, including giving a leg-up to its country’s companies (many of which are state-owned [loc. 2159]) in international business. As the authors explain, “several business leaders of major American corporations have told us in confidence about deals they lost in Africa and other emerging markets because of what they believe to be Chinese spying or theft of sensitive information (which was then used to thwart or commandeer their deals)” (loc. 2251; see also 2251-60).
Even Google has been targeted by China—though in this case the attacks proved mostly unsuccessful. As the authors explain, “in late 2009, Google detected unusual traffic within its network and began to monitor the activity… What was discovered was a highly sophisticated industrial attack on Google’s intellectual property from China. Over the course of Google’s investigation, it gathered sufficient evidence to know that the Chinese government or its agents were behind the attack. Beyond the technical clues, part of the attacks involved attempts to access and monitor the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists, as well as the accounts of advocates of human rights in China based in the United States and Europe. (These attacks were largely unsuccessful)” (loc. 2116)”.
While few countries have the technological sophistication to pull off such attacks at present, the authors foresee that this state of affairs will change moving forward (loc. 2120). Thus we can expect many more such attacks in the future (loc. 2266-69).
7. Cyber-War, Cyber-Terrorism & Automated Weapons
a. Cyber-War and Cyber-Terrorism
Over and above the theft of sensitive information, new digital technology also promises to figure into conflicts in more concrete ways. To begin with, as more and more of our communication platforms and systems are hooked up to digital networks, the threat of these systems being disrupted, compromised or even destroyed through cyber-attacks will only increase (loc. 2952). In fact, such cyber-attacks have already occurred. For example, “following a diplomatic fight in 2007 over the Estonian government’s decision to remove a Russian World War II memorial in its capital, Tallinn, a mass of prominent Estonian websites, including those of banks, newspapers and government institutions, were abruptly struck down by a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack” (loc. 2091). Though it was never proved that Russia was behind the attacks (it is notoriously difficult to pinpoint where cyber-attacks originate [loc. 2008, 2033]), all of the evidence suggested it (loc. 2096-2105).
And cyber-attacks go far beyond disrupting access to websites. In 2012 the American and Israeli governments teamed up and launched a successful cyber-attack on an Iranian nuclear power plant using the Stuxnet worm (loc. 2045-53). As the authors explain, “Stuxnet was discovered to have infiltrated the monitoring systems of Iran’s Natanz nuclear-enrichment facility, causing the centrifuges to abruptly speed up or slow down to the point of self-destruction while simultaneously disabling the alarm systems… The vulnerabilities in the Windows systems were subsequently patched up, but not after causing some damage to the Iranian nuclear effort, as the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, admitted” (loc. 2053).
In the future, advanced states may not be the only players capable of launching such an attack. Indeed, the physical resources needed to launch a successful cyber-attack are minimal (loc. 3019). Thus any group with enough technical know-how (including, of course, terror groups) would become a potential threat. And any system that is hooked up to a digital network (including infrastructural systems) would be a target. For example, “a sophisticated computer virus could attack the industrial control systems around the country that maintain critical infrastructure like water, power and oil and gas pipelines. Commandeering these systems, called supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, would enable terrorists to do all manner of things: shut down power grids, reverse waste-water treatment plants, disable the heat-monitoring systems at nuclear power plants (When the Stuxnet worm attacked Iranian nuclear facilities in 2012, it operated by compromising the industrial control processes in nuclear centrifuge operations” (loc. 3034; see also loc. 2015).
This kind of cyber-attack could also be combined with a physical attack in order to add to the damage done (loc. 3022-37). Such an attack would not, by any means, be easy (loc. 3037); but nevertheless, it remains a distinct possibility, and the authors predict that, ultimately, “some kind of coordinated physical and cyber attack is inevitable” (loc. 3038).
b. Automated Warfare
Aside from cyber-attacks, we must also consider the phenomenon of automated weapons (such as drones). The impact of these weapons in the future cannot be overstated. As the authors put it, “the modern automation of warfare, through developments in robotics, artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), constitute the most significant shift in human combat since the invention of the gun” (loc. 3905).
Already, automated weapons have become a significant part of the American military. Take drones, for example. As the authors mention, “an internal congressional report acquired by Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog in 2012 stated that drones now account for 31 percent of all military aircraft—up from 5 percent in 2005” (loc. 3939).
In addition to drones, the U.S. military also uses automated ground vehicles (UGVs), such as the PackBot (featured in the movie ‘The Hurt Locker’) (loc. 3929), and SWORDS robots: “since 2007, the U.S. military has deployed armed SWORDS robots that can semi-autonomously recognize and shoot human targets, though it is believed that they have not, as yet, been used in a lethal context” (loc. 3946).
The benefits of using unmanned vehicles (UMVs) in combat are obvious: robots are stronger, faster and have more accurate aim than humans (and never tire) (loc. 3923-26). Because of these attributes, UMVs are able to complete their missions with less loss of civilian life and, of course, less collateral damage than those undertaken by their human counterparts (loc. 3926, 4106).
Still, this does not mean that we can expect human soldiers to become obsolete any time soon. All of the robotic weapons we currently have require some kind of human direction (loc. 3948), and so long as machines remain incapable of matching human judgment (possibly forever) (loc. 3950, 4144), this state of affairs will continue to hold sway—and, over and above this, there will always be circumstances wherein only human soldiers will be effective.
While the American military continues to be the clear leader in unmanned vehicles technology (including UAVs), they by no means enjoy a monopoly here. As the authors explain, “Israel has been at the forefront of that technology for years; China is very active in promoting and selling its drones; and Iran unveiled its first domestically built drone bomber in 2010. Even Venezuela has joined the club, utilizing its military alliance with Iran to create an ‘exclusively defensive’ drone program that is operated by Iranian missile engineers” (loc. 4003).
Compared with other weapons, UAVs are relatively cheap, and only getting cheaper—and as they are becoming so they are being opened up to more and more governments and even private organizations (including terrorist organizations) (loc. 4021-38, 4070-83). The proliferation of these weapons is a very serious security concern, for they are notoriously difficult to detect. As the authors explain, “states will have to work hard to maintain the security of their shores and borders from the growing threat of enemy UAVs, which, by design, are hard to detect. As autonomous navigation becomes possible, drones will become mini cruise missiles, which, once fired, cannot be stopped by interference” (loc. 4053).
Here is a very good segment on drones (in many of their applications) from 16X9:
Given these factors, the authors expect that states will eventually be forced to forge new international agreements around the exchange and use of UAVs (similar to existing agreements over nuclear arms) (loc. 4048, 4065). Again, though, such agreements can be expected to be only so effective.
PART III: THE SPREAD OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY TO THE DEVELOPING WORLD
8. The Spread of Digital Technology to the Developing World
One of the more significant occurrences in the new digital age is that in the next 20 years some 5 billion people in the developing world are expected to gain access to the Internet (due largely to the plummeting costs of digital devices and information technology [loc. 111-36, 239, 281]). As the authors explain, “by 2025, the majority of the world’s population will, in one generation, have gone from having virtually no access to unfiltered information to accessing all of the world’s information through a device that fits in the palm of the hand. If the current pace of technological innovation is maintained, most of the projected eight billion people on Earth will be online” (loc. 116).
The sale of smart devices, and the business opportunities that connectivity brings will no doubt act as a major spur to the economies of developing nations (loc. 295). At the same time, though, it must be remembered that many of the areas wherein connectivity is spreading are some of the most unstable and restive places on the planet, and that crime syndicates, extremist organizations and repressive governments operating there will also be eager to use the technology to help advance their ends (loc. 2946-54, 2963).
9. Digital Technology in the Hands of Terrorists
Take terrorist organizations and their recruiting campaigns, for example. As the authors explain, when it comes to joining a terrorist group, “religion and ideology play less of a role than most people think. The reasons people join extremist groups are complex, often having to do more with the absence of a support network, the desire to belong to a group, to rebel, to seek protection or to chase danger and adventure. There are far too many young people who share these sentiments. What’s new is that large numbers of them will air their grievances online in ways that advertently or inadvertently advertise themselves to terrorist recruiters” (loc. 3475).
Once identified, terrorist organizations will be able to use their platforms to reach out to these disgruntled individuals to offer them an outlet for all of these desires (loc. 3476). This being the case, the numbers joining terrorist organizations can be expected to increase moving forward. And what’s worse is that, as mentioned above, digital technology will give terrorist groups new avenues through which to unleash their menacing campaigns (loc. 3022-39, 2012-15).
On the bright side, as terrorist organizations make more and more use of digital technology, they will increasingly expose themselves to being identified, tracked and caught by counterterrorist forces. As the authors explain, “unless a terrorist is acting completely alone (which is rare), and with perfect online discipline (even rarer), there is a very good chance that somewhere in the chain of events leading up to a planned attack, he will compromise himself in some way. There are simply too many ways to reveal oneself, or be revealed, and this is very encouraging in contemplating the future of counterterrorism” (loc. 3342).
Not only will terrorists face a greater threat of being caught, but when they are caught the acquisition of their digital devices will often provide counterterrorist forces with enough evidence to bring down their entire networks. As the authors explain, “counterterrorist raids by militaries and law enforcement will result in better outcomes: capture the terrorist, capture his network. Interrogations post-capture will remain important, but each device used by a terrorist—mobile phones, storage drives, laptops and cameras—will be a potential gold mine” (loc. 3355; see also loc. 3299).
Given these trends, the authors predict that fewer terrorist groups will be able to survive in the future, but that those that do will be ever more dangerous (loc. 3041).
10. Digital Technology in Autocratic and Authoritarian Regimes
a. Digital Technology in the Hands of Revolutionaries
It was mentioned above that many of the areas wherein digital technology will spread in the near future are some of the most unstable and restive places on the planet. It is also the case that many of these areas are currently under some form of autocratic government (loc. 2428). This is extremely significant because, as the authors point out, “history suggests that theocracies, personality cults and dictatorships are much harder to maintain in an era of expanding information dissemination” (loc. 2430). In other words, precedent suggests that the rise of connectivity will put pressure on the world’s autocratic governments.
There are a few reasons why this is the case. To begin with, autocratic governments often rely on compelling (but misleading) narratives, and these narratives become much harder to uphold among a populace that is increasingly exposed to outside information and alternative narratives (loc. 1442-53, 2420).
Connected with this, the abuses of power that autocratic governments are known to indulge in are much easier to capture and circulate among a connected populace (loc. 3732, 3829, 3855). An incident in Iran in 2009 involving a woman named Neda is a telling example. As the authors explain, “Neda Agha-Soltan was a young woman living in Tehran who while parked on a quiet side of the street at an antigovernment protest stepped out of her car to escape the heat and was shot in the heart by a government sniper from a nearby rooftop. Amazingly, the entire incident was caught on someone’s mobile phone. While members of the crowd attempted to revive Neda, others began filming her on their phones as well. The videos were passed between Iranians, mostly through the peer-to-peer platform Bluetooth, since the regime had blocked mobile communications in anticipation of the protests; they found their way online and went viral. Around the world, observers were galvanized to speak out against the Iranian regime while protesters in Iran marched, calling for Justice for Neda” (loc. 3740). As connectivity spreads, incidents such as these will only multiply, resulting in increasingly agitated populations (loc. 1434). None of this bodes well for autocratic regimes.
While the spread of digital technology makes it more difficult for autocratic governments to maintain their various deceptions and abuses, it also makes it easier for revolutionaries to connect and plan revolts (loc. 2413-28). As mentioned in the quote above, repressive governments can take measures to limit the communication lines between their citizens (as well as tap into them—as we shall soon see), but these measures will never be foolproof (loc. 2504-07, 3739). As the authors explain, “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” (loc. 2418).
While communications technology will no doubt be a great boon to revolutionaries in certain respects, the authors foresee that the technology will also present certain barriers to success. The main complication comes from the fact that the online medium favors a certain breed of revolutionary leader, but this breed is not necessarily (well-designed) adept at political leadership in the real world. As the authors explain, “the people who surface in the next wave of dissident leaders will be the ones who can command a following and crowd-source their online support, who have demonstrable skill with digital marketing tools, and, critically, who are willing to put themselves physically in harm’s way… And it’s more likely than not that those who have deep knowledge of constitutional reform, institution building and governance issues but lack the tech savvy of other activists will run the risk of being left behind, finding it difficult to stand out in a virtual crowd and to prove their value to new, young leaders (who may fail to understand the true relevance of their experience)” (loc. 2461).
Given that this is the case, the authors predict that in the near term we will see more revolutions, but few successful ones (loc. 2498-02, 2528-71). Once this reality sets in, populations in the future will begin to demand more real substance out of their revolutionary leaders. As the authors explain, “a wave of revolutionary false starts will lead successive generations to demand from their opposition groups not only vision but a detailed blueprint of how they intend to build a new country… Would-be demonstrators looking for a leader will expect any serious opposition group to do its institution-building online, including indicating who the ministers will be, how the security apparatus will be organized, and how goods and services will be delivered… an informed public in the future will demand the details” (loc. 2644).
Even when these conditions are met, there are many other factors that yet stand in the way of a successful revolution (loc. 2657). As the authors explain, “even if an opposition movement presents a credible blueprint, and contains genuine leaders with real skill, there are still a number of uncontrollable variables that could derail a revolution. Tribal, sectarian and ethnic tensions run deep in many societies and remain a minefield for even the most cautious operator to navigate. Internal and external spoilers, like terrorist groups, militias, insurgents and foreign forces, can disrupt the security situation. Many revolutions are spurred by bad economies or fiscal policies, so the slightest economic recalibration (for good or ill) might reverberate through the country and change protesters’ minds” (loc. 2660). Still, in the long run, the authors believe that digital technology should help in revolutionary efforts (loc. 1433).
b. Digital Technology in the Hands of Autocratic and Authoritarian Governments
Over and above the difficulties mentioned above, revolutionaries will also have to contend with the fact that repressive governments will also be aided in their efforts to thwart reform. Indeed, as the authors point out, digital technology is an equal opportunity enabler, and it is just as powerful in the hands of rogue forces as legitimate ones (loc. 4201).
There are a few different strategies that repressive governments can use in their efforts to stifle opposition. To begin with, governments can use their power over communications infrastructure to either cut off lines of communication altogether, or tap into them to learn of their citizens’ comings, goings and doings. The censorship of communication lines is already practised on a wide scale in countries such as China, where the government cuts off large numbers of web-sites (either directly, or through the use of computer algorithms that are designed to identify certain terms, and cut off websites containing those terms [loc. 1629-34]). As the authors explain, “entire platforms that are hugely popular elsewhere in the world—Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter—are blocked by the Chinese government. Particular terms like ‘Falun Gong’—the name of the banned spiritual group in China associated with one flank of the opposition—are simply absent from the country’s virtual public space, victims of official censorship or widespread self-censorship. On the Chinese Internet, you would be unable to find information about politically sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square protests, embarrassing information about the Chinese political leadership, the Tibetan rights movement and the Dalai Lama, or content related to human rights, political reform or sovereignty issues… Unsurprisingly, information about censorship circumvention tools is also blocked” (loc. 1659). (Democratic governments cut off web-sites as well, such as those connected with child pornography and hate groups [loc. 1623, 1714-29]).
Outside of this kind of pre-emptive censorship, repressive governments have also been known to shut down communication lines in response to an active protest or uprising. There was a time, in fact, when this strategy proved very effective, “most notably for the Iranian regime during the 2009 postelection protests when an almost complete shutdown [of mobile devices and the Internet] quite effectively curtailed a growing opposition movement” (loc. 2689).
More recent examples, however, demonstrate that this kind of censorship approach can backfire in a big way. Take Egypt in 2011, for example. As the authors explain, “in the early hours of January 28, 2011, anticipating widespread antigovernment protests later that day, the Egyptian regime effectively shut down all Internet and mobile connections with the country / The move backfired. As a number of Egyptians outside observers later noted, it was the shutting down of the network that truly electrified the protest movement because it brought so many more outraged people to the streets… Several Egyptian activists reiterated this, saying, in effect, I didn’t like Mubarak, but this wasn’t my fight. But then Mubarak took away my Internet and he made it my fight. So I went to Tahrir Square. This galvanizing act lent the movement a considerable momentum; had it not occurred, it’s possible that events in Egypt would have turned out very differently” (loc. 2691 / 2717).
Given the risks of outright censorship (and the fact that there many ways around it [loc. 2735, 2742]) several repressive governments have found it preferable to practice a somewhat subtler, slier approach. This approach involves allowing a certain amount of open communication and opposition, but monitoring this communication in order to ferret out signs of real trouble. The authors predict that this line of attack will become much more popular moving forward: “we expect that many states will adopt a strategy we’ll call virtual containment. To relieve the pressure of an agitated, informed public, states will calculate that rather than deny services altogether, it’s better to crack a window to allow citizens to vent their grievances in public on the Internet—but, more important, only to a certain degree. Regimes in the future will allow some online dissent, whether by reforming the law or simply not prosecuting the speech, but only on their terms, through specific channels they control… the state would view such spaces as opportunities for intelligence-gathering. Regimes already understand the strategic value of allowing online activity that can lead to arrests” (loc. 2776). To take just one example, “in 2011, following the Tunisian revolution, several Chinese dissidents responded to an online call for a Chinese version of the protests in front of popular American chains like Starbucks. The mobilization calls spread throughout Chinese social media and microblogs, at which point the police became aware of them. When activists arrived at the prescribed date and time, they were met with an overwhelming police force that arrested many of them” (loc. 2782).
The bright side for reform movements is that the technology and know-how required to run an effective surveillance state will not come easily or cheaply. Indeed, as the authors explain, “building the kind of system that can monitor and contain all types of dissident energy is thankfully not easy and will require very specialized solutions, expensive consultants, technologies not widely available and a great deal of money… If autocrats want to build a surveillance state, it’s going to cost them—we hope more than they can afford” (loc. 1458).
What’s more, as mentioned above, there will always be ways for dissidents to slip through the cracks. These factors, the authors believe, should ultimately put the advantage in favor of revolutionaries over autocratic and repressive governments.
11. Rebuilding After Collapse
One of the very promising uses of digital technology is the role it stands to play in reconstructing countries after conflicts and natural disasters (loc. 4236). Indeed, digital technology stands to make a major contribution in each of the stages of rebuilding, from emergency relief, to providing housing and provisions in the short-term aftermath, to long-term reconstruction efforts.
a. Digital Technology in Emergency Relief
To begin with, digital technology can greatly facilitate communication lines between emergency workers in times of crisis. Following the earthquake in Haiti, for example, “the ability to maintain service despite the destruction and chaos proved vital in coordinating and sending aid organizations to areas and people who needed help most, as well as providing a way for friends and family to contact each other… Everyone involved in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake recognized how crucial working communications were in the midst of widespread physical destruction and human suffering” (loc. 4296).
Thankfully, damaged and destroyed communications infrastructure can often be repaired in mere hours; and even where this infrastructure is hitherto nonexistent, it can be established anew in but a few days (loc. 4273, 4315).
b. Digital Technology in the Short-Term Aftermath of a Crisis
This bodes well not only for immediate relief efforts, but also for providing basic provisions and services in the days and weeks following a crisis. As the authors explain, “in postcrisis societies, solid networks are needed as soon as possible to coordinate search-and-rescue efforts; engage with the population; preserve the rule of law; organize and facilitate aid-distribution efforts; locate missing people; and help those who have been internally displaced navigate their new environment” (loc. 4324).
One of the more important needs of a community in the fragile aftermath of a crisis (as mentioned in the quote above) is the ability to preserve law and order. There are a number of ways that digital technology can help here. To begin with, digital tech can be used to ensure law enforcement and military officials are paid (a major concern). As the authors explain, “for countries with a functional military, the question of whether its members will uphold the rule of law—as opposed to defecting, committing criminal acts or seizing power for themselves—will depend less on personal motives than on their faith in the competency of the government. Put simply, for most people in uniform it will come down to whether they receive a paycheck reliably and relatively free of graft” (loc. 4696).
At the same time, a protocol may be established that requires uniformed authorities to report their daily activities on communications platforms (thus limiting corruption) (loc. 4701), and citizens may also be encouraged to use these platforms to report corruption and abuses (loc. 4705-07).
Another way that connectivity stands to help in relief efforts in the short term is that the increased exposure that crises receive ensures that more and more of those who are able and willing to donate to these efforts will do so (loc. 4501).
Still, this phenomenon is not without its drawbacks. Specifically, the increase in donations inevitably means a proliferation of new NGOs (a process that has already begun), and while this may seem like a good thing, experience shows that new and more is not always better when it comes to NGOs helping out in disaster zones. In Haiti, for example, there were literally tens of thousands of NGOs working on the ground, and the end result was often mass confusion (loc. 4528-41). As the authors explain, “it’s hard to imagine tens of thousands of aid organizations working efficiently—with clear objectives and without redundancy—in any one place, let alone a country as small, crowded and devastated as Haiti. As the months dragged on, unsettling reports about inefficient aid distribution began to surface. Warehouses full of unused pharmaceuticals left to expire because of poor management. Cholera outbreaks in the sprawling informal settlements threatened to wipe out many of the earthquake survivors. The delivery of funding from institutional donors, mostly governments, was delayed and difficult to keep track of; very little of the funding ever reached the Haitians themselves, having been utilized instead by any number of foreign organizations higher up on the chain. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians were still in unsanitary tent cities a year after the earthquake, because the government and its NGO partners had not yet found a way to otherwise house them. For all the coverage, the fund-raising, the coordination plans and the good intentions, Haitians were not well served in the post-earthquake environment” (loc. 4537).
In the future, the authors predict, new platforms will emerge that will allow all of the players involved in a relief campaign to better coordinate their efforts (loc. 4542, 4752-58). In addition (and just as importantly), the authors foresee a system developing that will have NGOs being graded for their contributions—with only those that truly make a positive impact being able to survive (loc. 4587-4602).
c. Digital Technology in Long-Term Rebuilding
Over and above making a contribution in the immediate and short-term aftermath of a crisis, communications technology will also help greatly in laying down the roots for long-term reconstruction. To begin with, the establishment of a communications technology industry is a great boon to economic growth right off the bat (loc. 4322-35). And beyond this, the business opportunities laid down by this technology promise a strong base for continued growth. As the authors explain, “because telecommunications is a profitable business (and never more so than after a crisis, when activity levels are unusually high), there will be ample opportunity for local and transnational entrepreneurs to participate. Talented local engineers will use open-source software to build their own platforms and applications to help the nascent economy, or they will collaborate with outside companies or organizations and contribute their skills” (loc. 4338). Elsewhere the authors add that “the long-term benefit of a healthy telecommunications sector is that it promotes and facilitates the growth of the economy, even if the stability is slow to return. In general, direct investments in infrastructure, jobs and services offer more to the economy than short-term aid programs, and telecommunications is among the most universally lucrative and sustainable enterprises in the commercial world” (loc. 4329).
The economic opportunities that digital technology brings could also be used as an effective means to entice former combatants to give up their arms in war-torn areas following a conflict. Even now, cash for arms programs have often been instituted in order to do just this, and this approach could be adapted to include cash for tech programs (loc. 4758-80). As the authors explain, “as governments seek to create incentives for ex-combatants to turn in their AK-47s, they will find that the prospect of a smart phone might be more than enough to get started. Former fighters need compensation, status and a next step. If they are made to understand that a smart phone represents not just a chance to communicate but also a way to receive benefits and payments, the phone becomes an investment that is worth trading a weapon for… They could be front-loaded with appealing vocational applications that would provide some momentum for upwardly mobile ex-combatants” (loc. 4792). These types of programs would not only help achieve stability in the immediate aftermath of a conflict, but would also help increase the likelihood of maintaining stability in the long term.
The digital age is but in its incipient stage. The advances in technology to come promise tremendous benefits for virtually everyone on the planet. At the same time, for every benefit of the digital age there is a danger lurking in the background. Much of this has to do with the fact that digital technology can be used for any purpose whatsoever—good or ill. And the fact that digital communication platforms are notoriously difficult to keep secure. The only thing that is truly in our control is how we will be involved in creating and using the technology ahead.
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