Journalism School Discusses 'A Vision of the Future' With Google

May 03, 2013

The role of technology in the Arab Spring and the Boston bombings, repression in North Korea, and privacy in the Internet age were just some of the topics Eric Schmidt, executive chairman and former CEO of Google, and Jared Cohen, director of Google’s in-house think tank, Google Ideas, discussed when they spoke at Columbia Journalism School on April 30.

It was standing room only for the wide-ranging discussion moderated by Steve Coll, who on July 1 becomes the school’s new dean, and most recently was president of the New America Foundation, where Schmidt is chairman of the group’s board. Schmidt and Cohen are the authors of "The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business," published last month.

“Technology is empowering individuals to a degree we haven’t known before,” said Schmidt. Videos and photos from thousands of spectators’ smartphones helped police identify the brothers accused of planting bombs at the Boston marathon. During the Arab Spring, cellphones and Twitter brought people into the streets, but technology doesn’t turn protesters into leaders who can organize a government and complete the revolution, which can take decades. Cohen said he imagines candidates for office 10 years from now searching YouTube videos to document their Arab Spring credentials.

Technology also can be used for surveillance by autocratic regimes, Cohen added, but “the dictators of the world haven’t been fully tested yet.”

Cohen and Schmidt spoke of their visit to North Korea in January, to see what life is like in one of the least-connected countries. Every conversation began with a seven-to-ten minute recitation of the extraordinary capabilities and authority of the supreme leader, now Kim Jong-un, Schmidt recalled, noting that while there are a million cell phones in North Korea, the government hasn’t turned on the signal that allows them to receive data. Cohen described North Korea as a combination of a Broadway play and “The Truman Show, ” the 1998 film about a man who unknowingly lives in a reality television show.

Before beginning the question-and-answer period, Coll asked about the changing role of the media . “Journalism is even more important in this highly connected world,” replied Schmidt. “Citizens on the ground with smartphones are always going to be the ones to get the content first. But they’re going to rely on the mainstream media to verify it, to make it real and to provide analysis,” added Cohen.

—by Georgette Jasen