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Great work...but too reductionist, understates the Complexity of the issues? esp see pg. 19 and pg. 66
on April 25, 2013
As an Afghan war veteran and an historian of technology, I found this book both important and valuable, but also oversimplifying complexity in places.
Important and valuable for one overriding reason: for alerting a mass readership of the current and accelerating social-economic-military-political disruptions arising from the expansion of the internet.
But execessively oversimplifying of complexity in several key instances. One example of this illustrates my concerns: see discussion of "More Innovation, More Opportunity", starting page 18 and the key sentence, pg 19, two lines from bottom of the page. (I will discuss pg 66 and the claim that technology is neutral in the "PS" section, at bottom of page)
The issue in these two pages (18-19) was that of globalized competition for jobs, wherein borders and community boundaries fall in the face of internet outsourcing of jobs. Schmidt and Cohen oversimplify as they discuss how workers in Orange County must compete with workers in Uruguay. How is this oversimplified? By not accounting for the multiplicity of factors that come into play, for example, what is the cost of living for a working family in Orange County compared to an overseas location? What are the working conditions of any number of overseas labor markets?
But the most striking case of over simplication comes near the bottom of page 19:
"Globalization's critics will decry this erosion of local monopolies, but it should be embraced, because this is how our socieities will move forward and continue to innovate."
So, where are the problems with this sentence? At least two instances. Case one: to use the word "MONOPOLIES" when referring to local workers is a needlessly perjorative phrase, especially in the US. Are all local workers monopolies? For example, is a locally operated/staffed industry that prefers to serve clients 'face to face' really a monopoly because it does not promote internet workers who do not serve 'in the flesh'? Does it improve our society when this local worker is displaced by an internet 'virtual' worker who is not in the physical community? Case Two: doesn't this sentence need clarification and a nod toward complexity when the authors assert this borderless competition is good, that "this is how our societies move forward"? Let us stop and think about this phrase...what society? the local society which has now lost the local job? We must carefully consider the EXTERNALITIES working here, for example, what if the local worker was also the coach for the Little League Team? worked in the local food bank? Is the internet 'virtual worker' flying into the local community (in this case, Orange County) to coach the team, serve in the food bank? How does society capture these exerternalities? Perhaps by taxing internet commerce to pay someone to work in the foodbank? This depth of analysis is a bit lacking.
But in the end, the reduction of complexity aside... we all should read this, with a CRITICAL EYE. Society, local physical society, is indeed being "reshaped".
PS: I have received a surprising number of direct emails or responses to my review. Some asking for greater expansion on my thoughts. So, here they are. I mention my experience both in Afghanistan and as an historian of technology. Why? Part of my job in Afghanistan was helping to put back together a society that was 'reshaped' too quickly, in Afghanistan's case, by war. I realize the difficulty of putting societies back together after they are disrupted by war, OR technology. The reference to historian? I served many years in technical fields, from nuclear reactors to networks, and then was given the gift of years of study and reflection, leading to an advanced degree in history of technology. Such years of study help me to see this New Digital Age through a lens of long term, socio-technical change. There is an argument to not stray to far from our natural, human, physical roots... and I believe the debate over that distance we can safely move beyond the 'natural' may be the debate of our time.
A question asked: why did I mention in the title that certain parts of this book could be over simplification? Isn't that what good authors must do? Isn't that what authors often must do? A partial truth, yes. But for a sophisticated audience, and for authors of such stature, on such an important issue, over simplification when presented to a mass audience can, in my mind, be damaging to the public discourse (and, I grant, this may be the result of page counts and the deadlines, editorial pressures which Eric Schmidt may have missed).
So, where is there over simplification? See Page 66. Here the authors assert that "The central truth of the technology industry--that technology is neutral but people are not--will periodically be lost amid all the noise." STOP HERE..... lets think on this a bit more deeply. Who makes technology? People. If people are not neutral, than the technology built by people probably CANNOT BE totally NEUTRAL. And, yet, the authors dismiss the complexity of the issue as "noise"? A couple cases from history will bring the complexity into focus. Robert Oppenheimer, who built the A-Bomb, stood by the complexity of the problem of technology when he asserted, "...physicists have known sin...", not just COL Tibbits who pushed the bomb release switch over Japan. A more emotive example brings us to Nazi Germany. The engineers who built the gas chamber technology at Auschwitz "knew sin", not just the guards who herded the Jewish men, women, and children into the technology, the chambers. Perhaps more subtle, the German V2 missile program. The engineer, Werner Von Braun, merely built the technology.... he never pushed the button to kill London's citizenry, but note: President Eisenhower was morally troubled by Von Braun and his team of v2 engineers, even when von Braun was building American missiles... Ike knew that Von Braun, by building the technology, was NOT neutral. But, in the end, the US was in an arms race wtih Russia and hired Von Braun, despite his past, to build our missiles. Ah... that complexity problem again. Its a complex world. Technology is not neutral, but its here to stay. We need to have our eyes WIDE OPEN in the coming New Digital Age. We need to speak with clarity to one another. We can't soften the rough edges out of fear of hurting the other side's feelings, or driving away readers who don't want to engage complexity.
All the that said, we all should extend our thanks to Schmidt and Cohen for writing this book (they certainly didn't do it for the money), and for informing a mass readership, albeit with some problems with oversimplification and reductionism.