Liz Gannes

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What Assange, Slim, Kissinger and Others Told Eric Schmidt for His New Book

“It is hard to imagine de Gaulles and Churchills appealing in the world of Facebook,” said former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “Unique leadership is a human thing, and is not going to be produced by a mass social community.”

Meanwhile, according to Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “The danger we face in the future is that it will be far easier to be against something than for it.”

Those quotes come from “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business,” the new book co-written by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.

While every day brings freakouts about the privacy implications of wacky new devices Schmidt’s company is about to introduce, and concern about the perils of online mob reporting during a crisis, Schmidt is trying to take a step back and consider where we as a technological society are headed. And in the process he got some pretty powerful people to tell him what they think.

Schmidt has thought deep thoughts about how global connectivity will change the world. His take: Ultimately for the better, though increased government accountability and access to markets will be tempered by really scary stuff like government misuse of biometric information and terrorist drone attacks.

Written with Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, “The New Digital Age” was released today. It’s dense, though readable, and floats between visions of a hologram-and-robot-enhanced future for the developed world, and scarily specific predictions of how dictators will get hold of technology and use it for evil.

“The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history,” Schmidt and Cohen write, as they forecast all sorts of “painful liminal periods” while things like privacy, citizenship and reporting get figured out as the next five billion people come online, joining the two billion that already are.

Schmidt and Cohen are not going to spark a social movement or even an op-ed war, a la that other recent tech exec book, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” But they did manage to write a surprisingly non-corporate book that talks about Twitter at least 10 times as much as it does about Google’s driverless cars.

schmidt2As part of their research, Schmidt and Cohen traveled the world together, talking to all sorts of important people. (They apparently didn’t get to meet Kim Jong Un when they traveled to North Korea in January, though that would have been after the book went to print, anyway.)

Unlike many conversations between tech and global leaders that I’d love to eavesdrop on, these interviews were on the record and quoted in the book.

So here’s what Julian Assange, Carlos Slim Helú, Lee Hsien Loong, Henry Kissinger and Regina Dugan told Schmidt and Cohen.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says the people who are equipped to use social media to drive revolution are not necessarily equipped to lead democratic institutions:

“It is hard to imagine de Gaulles and Churchills appealing in the world of Facebook. [In an age of hyper-connectivity] I don’t see people willing to stand by themselves and to have the confidence to stand up alone. Unique leadership is a human thing, and is not going to be produced by a mass social community.”

After speaking for five hours with WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange — last week, the transcript of the “secret meeting” was published by WikiLeaks — Schmidt and Cohen said they think online whistle-blowing will continue, but something on the scale of WikiLeaks was probably a one-time thing, based on government unreadiness, a trusted brand to generate a constant stream of leaks and the charisma of Assange.

Here’s how they quoted Assange:

“There are all sorts of reasons why non-powerful organizations engage in secrecy, and in my view it’s legitimate; they need it because they’re powerless. Why are powerful organizations engaged in secrecy? If you take your information off paper, if you take it outside the electronic or physical paper trail, institutions decay. … If they internally balkanize so that information can’t be leaked, there’s a tremendous cost to the organizational efficiency of doing that.”

Meanwhile, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in a conversation where he also expressed skepticism that the Chinese government will be able to control an online citizenry, told Schmidt and Cohen:

“The Internet is good for letting off steam, but it can also be used to create new fires. The danger we face in the future is that it will be far easier to be against something than for it. This social experience of being against authority means young people no longer need a plan. It has become far too easy for very minor events to escalate into lots of online activity that is exploited by opposition groups.”

And here’s Schmidt and Cohen’s bit on Mexican telecom magnate and world’s richest person Carlos Slim Helú, whose parents were Lebanese immigrants:

“He described himself as part of a new group that he calls the ‘business diaspora,’ where, as a transnational businessman, he believes, ‘We are not going to countries just to put money in and pull it out. We are making business to stay and be part of the development of the country.'”

Former DARPA Director Regina Dugan is quoted at length in the book (she works at Google now, so access is relatively easy). She said:

“Most advances in technology, particularly big ones, tend to make people nervous. And we have both good and bad examples of developing the societal, ethical and legal framework that goes with those kinds of technological advances.”

For more Schmidt, here’s the full video of the 40-minute talk we had with him just a week ago at D: Dive Into Mobile about the book and Google’s role in the mobile world.

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”