Google CEO talks new media politics

At Personal Democracy Forum, Eric Schmidt warns that always-on nature of camera phone-wielding generation means politicians should be more careful.
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor
NEW YORK--During a keynote address at the 2007 Personal Democracy Forum Friday morning, Google CEO Eric Schmidt looked up at the crowd and said, "This looks like a Google meeting."

The reason, he said, was the abundance of open laptop screens, BlackBerrys and other gadgets among the audience. "At most Google meetings no one is actually looking at the speaker; they're all basically online," he said."Speaking as an older person, this bothers me, but I have given up."

This always-on nature of the Internet generation and its effect on the global political landscape was the focus of Schmidt's presentation, which was held in the form of a conversation with Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times columnist and author of The World Is Flat.

"George Bush never could've been elected president if he'd been at Yale now and there'd been cell phone cameras around."
--Thomas L. Friedman, columnist

While the discussion ranged from the Thai government's ban on YouTube earlier this year to the widely circulated video of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards spending an arguably excessive amount of time having his hair blow-dried, there was a recurring focus on whether or not the "connected world" is necessarily a good thing. Google, with its mission to compile all kinds of information and make it accessible and searchable, has become an icon of that connectivity.

"The benefits of that empowerment are so overwhelming the concerns that everyone has, that it's a much better world as a result," Schmidt asserted confidently. But Friedman raised the oft talked about possibility that when the MySpace.com generation starts running for office, there will be a whole Internet full of political liabilities left over from their younger days.

"George Bush never could've been elected president if he'd been at Yale now and there'd been cell phone cameras around," Friedman said, alluding to the commander in chief's alleged college partying days.

Schmidt's answer was simple. "I have a societal proposal," he said. "I think that at the age of 21 it should be OK to change your name."

But more seriously, Schmidt said he believes the Internet is still young, and that people are still learning from current mistakes and incidents--job applications turned down as a result of salacious MySpace photos; employees fired when they say too much about their co-workers on their blogs; and former Virginia Sen. George Allen's reputation damaged as the result of a verbal gaffe at a campaign event that almost immediately wound up on YouTube.

"People are going to be much, much more careful," Schmidt said, "about living with a historical record." They'll also have to be aware that the cameras are everywhere. "People are always now in the media in some form," Schmidt explained. "Since everyone is carrying a mobile phone, and every mobile phone has a camera, everyone in the room has a camera. You're all digital agents of photography."

And with all this information, there's inevitably misinformation. "Voters will become much, much more unlikely to believe things that they read," Schmidt asserted, mentioning the phenomenon of Web sites devoted entirely to debunking online myths. "Education will change, and people at universities and ideally in high schools will be taught how to use the information revolution to confirm their biases."

Schmidt added, "You'll literally be taught how to search."

And if "Apple-gate"--the incident earlier this week in which a fake Apple internal memo posted on a blog caused the company's stock to tumble within minutes--is any indicator, the world might be due for that schooling.

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