The line of audience members queuing up for their turn to throw a question at Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, seemed oddly like an inefficient search engine. There were so many things un-Googley about it, like having to wait for someone else to finish before I could ask a question, and having to get up out of my seat to get in line.
Otherwise, the hour that Schmidt spent discussing his latest book “The New Digital Age,” with co-author Jared Cohen, covered much ground and put a human face on a company that often seems much more robotic than peopled.
The book was just released in paperback and plastered with glowing reviews from statesmen including Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair and the like. In it, the authors Cohen and Schmidt attempt to map out a future which they label as humanity’s greatest experiment to date with ‘anarchy’ – the internet.
The forum at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington was largely open to audience participation and effectively managed by a moderator who was prone to poking fun at the speakers – he claimed, ‘No matter how many billions of dollars he has, Eric is still a dork,’ after a story about Schmidt’s peculiar interest in flak-jackets was told.
Topics from gender equality in the workplace, the role of technology in societies at war, and the responsibilities of parents in the realm of online privacy were all touched on. Hard working women were given ample credit for helping Google achieve the success it has, and Schmidt, when asked how the public sector might follow the same course, responded by saying, simply – ‘Promote them!’
He circled around several points of praise for promoting women in the workplace, but coming up short on actual advice for the public sector, retreated to saying ‘The fact that there’s a conversation about this right now is a start.’
It wasn’t the only topic which would prompt the ‘…it’s good to talk about…’ refrain. Inevitably, the conversation turned to government surveillance. Schmidt began to outline the international reactions to the idea, saying that if you ask a citizen in Germany about government internet snooping, you’ll get a totally different answer than you would if a citizen in Britain, or the United States gave their opinion. ‘The fact that we’re having this conversation is a start,’ he said again.
Its a reasonable answer, and that this discourse is taking place so amicably between citizens and government is fantastic, but Schmidt’s story of ‘to each their own’ fell short of making a real statement.
“Beware the myth of the single omnipotent decision maker,’ Schmidt related when asked about his philosophy on leadership. He went on to describe a room full of people, sitting around a table and shooting down each other’s ideas as the most effective way to come to a solution, lambasting the idea of a heroic individual effort in coming to profound conclusions. His regard for collaborative decision making might explain his reticence on American leadership in the debate about government snooping – perhaps its better to wait and see what everyone else thinks, too.
Cohen, a younger Google employee and the leader of the ‘Google Ideas’ branch of the company, took over when an audience member began to inquire about online privacy. ‘Its the parent’s responsibility,’ he began, ‘to talk about privacy before they even discuss the birds & the bees’ with their children. I felt like this was a punt, and much the same kind of argument that pro-gun advocates make when claiming that it’s the shooters who are to blame in a killing and not the guns.
One of the final questions of the session was the most interesting – a man asked if in this age of information inundation, whether tools like Google are doing anything to help filter the signal from the noise, or if they are actually making it harder to sift through unnecessary information – and again, from Cohen, a punt: ‘It’s a human problem, not a technology one.’