Joho the Blog » [aspen] Eric Schmidt on the Net and Democracy

[aspen] Eric Schmidt on the Net and Democracy

Eric Schmidt is being interviewed by Jeff Goldberg about the Net and Democracy. I’ll do some intermittent, incomplete liveblogging…

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

NOTE: Posted without having even been re-read. Note note (a few hours later): I’ve done some basic cleanup.

After some amusing banter, Jeff asks Eric about how responsible he felt Google was for Arab Spring. Jeff in passing uses the phrase “Internet revolution.”

ES: Arab Spring was enabled by a failure to censure the Internet. Google enabled people to organize themselves. Especially in Libya, five different militias were able to organize their armed revolt by using the Net. It’s unfair to the people who died to call it an “Internet revolution.” But there were fewer people who died, in part because of the incessant media coverage. And we’ve seen that it’s very easy to start what some call an Internet revolution, but very hard to finish it.

JG: These were leaderless revolutions, crowdsourced revolution. But in Egypt the crowd’s leaders were easily pushed aside after Mubarek fell.

ES: True leaders are very hard to find. In Libya, there are 80 militias, armed to the teeth. In most of the countries there were repressed Muslim groups that have emerged as leaders because they organized while repressed. Whoever takes over inherits financial and social problems, and will be thrown out if they fail.

JG: Talk about Google’s tumultuous relationship with China…

ES: There are lots of reasons to think that China works because its citizens like its hierarchical structure. But I think you can’t build a knowledge society without freedom. China wants to be a knowledge society. It’s unclear if China’s current model gets them past a middle income GDP. Google thought that if we gave them free access to info, the Chinese people would revolt. We were wrong, and we moved Google to Hong Kong, on the open side of the Great Firewall. (We had to because that’s the Chinese law.) Now when you enter a forbidden query, we tell the user that it’s likely to be blocked. We are forbidden from announcing what the forbidden terms are because we don’t want employees put in jail.

JG: Could Arab Spring happen in China? Could students organize Tianamen Square now?

ES: They could use the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. But if someone organizes a protest, two people show up, plus 30 media, and 50 police.

JG: Google’s always argued that democratization of info erodes authoritarian control. Do you still believe that?

ES: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how hard it is to learn about the differences among people in and within countries. I continue to believe that this device [mobile phone] will change the world. The way to solve most of the world’s problems is by educating people. Because these devices will become ubiquitous, it’ll be possible to see how far we humans can get. With access to the Net, you can sue for justice. In the worst case you can actually shame people.

JG: And these devices can be used to track people.

ES: Get people to understand they have choices, and they will eventually organize. Mobiles tend to record info just by their nature. The phone company knows where you are right now. You’re not worried about that because a law says the phone company can’t come harass you where you’re sitting. In a culture where there isn’t agreement about basic rights…

JG: Is there evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?

ES: When we built the Net, that wasn’t the problem we were solving. But more speech is better. There’s a lack of deliberative time in our political process. Our leaders will learn that they’ll make better decisions if they take a week to think about things. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail. We complain about our democracy, but we’re doing quite well. The US is the beacon of innovation, not just in tech, but in energy. “In God we trust … all others have to bring data.” Politicians should just start with some facts.

JG: It’s easier to be crazy and wrong on the Net.

ES: 0.5% of Americans are literally crazy. Two years ago, their moms got them broadband connections. And they have a lot of free time. Google is going to learn how to rank them. Google should enable us to hear all these voices, including the crazy people, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.

JG: I googled “Syria massacre” this morning, and the first story was from Russia Today that spun it…

ES: It’s good that you have a choice. We have to educate ourselves and our children. Not everything written is true, and very powerful forces want to convince you of lies. The Net allows that, and we rank against it, but you have to do your own investigation.

JG: Google is hitting PR problems. Talk about privacy…

ES: There’s no delete button on the Net. When you’re a baby, no one knows anything about you. As you move through life, inevitably more people know more about you. We’re going to have to learn about that. The wifi info gathering by StreetView was an error, a mistake, and we’ve apologized for it.

JG: The future of journalism?

ES: A number of institutions are figuring out workable models. The Atlantic [our host]. Politico. HuffingtonPost. Clever entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money. The traditional incumbents have been reduced in scale, but there are plenty of new voices. BTW, we just announced a tablet with interactive, dynamic magazines. To really worry about: We grew up with the bargain that newspapers had enough cash flow to fund long term investigative research. That’s a loss to democracy. The problem hasn’t been fully solved. Google has debated how to solve it, but we don’t want to cross the content line because then we’d be accused of bias in our rankings.

JG: Will search engines search for accuracy rather than popularity?

ES: Google’s algorithms are not about popularity. They’re about link structures, and we start from well-known sources. So we’re already there. We just have to get better.

JG: In 5 yrs what will the tech landscape look like?

ES: Moore’s Law says that in 5 yrs there will be more power for less money. We forget how much better our hw is now than even 5 years. And it’s faster than Moore’s Law for disks and fiber optic connections. Google is doing a testbed optical installation. At that bandwidth all media are just bits. We anticipate a lot of specialty devices.

JG: How do you expect an ordinary, competent politician to manage the info flow? Are we inventing tech that is past our ability to process info?

ES: The evidence is that the tech is bringing more human contact. The tech lets us express our humanity. We need a way of sorting politicians better. I’d suggest looking for leaders who work from facts.

JG: Why are you supporting Obama?

ES: I like having a smart president.

JG: Is Romney not smart?

ES: I know him. He’s a good man. I like Obama’s policies better.

Q&A

Q: Our connectivity is 3rd world. Why haven’t we been able to upgrade?

A: The wireless networks are running out of bandwidth. The prediction is they’ll be saturated in 2016. Maybe 2017. That’s understandable: Before, we were just typing online and now we’re watching movies. The White House in a few weeks is releasing a report that says that we can share bandwidth to get almost infinite bandwidth. Rather than allocating a whole chunk that leaves most of it unused, using interference databases we think we can fix this problem. [I think but please correct me: A database of frequency usages so that unused frequencies in particular geographic areas can be used for new signals.]

A: The digital can enhance our physical connections. E.g., a grandmother skyping with a grandchild.

JG: You said you can use the Net to shame govts. But there are plenty of videos of Syria doing horrible things, but it’s done no good.

ES: There are always particularly evil people. Syria is the exception. Most countries, even autocratic ones, are susceptible to public embarrassment.

Q: Saying “phones by their nature collect data” evades responsibility.

ES: I meant that in order to their work, they collect info. What we allow to be done with that info is a legal, cultural issue.

Q: Are we inherently critical thinkers? If not, putting info out there may not lead to good decisions.

ES: There’s evidence that we’re born to react quickly. Our brains can be taught reasoning. But it requires strong family and education.

Q: Should there be a bill of rights to simplify the legalese that express your privacy rules?

ES: It’s a fight between your reasonable point of view, and the lawyers and govt that regulate us. Let me reassure you: If you follow the goal of Google to have you as a customer, the quickest way to lose you is to misuse your information. We are one click away from competitors who are well run and smart. [unless there was money in it, or unless they could get away with it, or...]

Q: Could we get rid of representative democracy?

ES: It’ll become even more important to have democratic processes because it’s all getting more complicated. For direct democracy we’d have to spend all day learning about the issues and couldn’t do our jobs.

JG: David Brooks, could you comment? Eric is an enormous optimist…

ES: …The evidence is on my side!

JG: David, are you as sanguine that our politicians will learn to slow their thinking down, and that Americans have the skills to discern the crap from the true.

David Brooks: It’s not Google’s job to discern what’s true. There are aggregators to do this, including the NYT and TheBrowser. I think there’s been a flight to quality. I’m less sanguine about attention span. I’m less sanguine about confirmation bias, which the Web makes easier.

ES: I generally agree with that. There’s evidence that we tend to believe the first thing we hear, and we judge plus and minus against that. The answer is always for me culture, education.

Q: Will there be a breakthrough in education?

ES: Education changes much more slowly than the world does. Sometimes it seems to me that education is run for the benefit of the teachers. They should do measurable outcomes, A-B testing. There’s evidence that physics can be taught better by setting a problem and then do a collaborative effort, then another problem…

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