Google CEO Eric Schmidt and journalist Fareed Zakaria sat down on the stage of the Arlington Theatre with UCSB economics professor Peter Rupert on Monday to discuss How Information Technology is “Revolutionizing” the World. In the end, they agreed that it has the potential to end poverty and increase democracy, but that without proper oversight it can be effectively used for repression, as well.
The program’s title referred to the role social media played in the recent Middle Eastern and North African uprisings that have come to be known collectively as the Arab Spring. Schmidt actually downplayed the significance of social media in the uprisings, saying that “credit should go to the people who died” fighting for democracy. For his part, Zakaria pointed out that while the introduction 10 years ago of satellite television allowed Egyptians to see depictions of the world that challenged those of state-controlled media, tools like YouTube enable people to construct their own counter-narratives. Web sites like Facebook also drastically decrease the cost of organizing.
While social media has aided democratic uprisings, it has had undemocratic effects domestically, said Zakaria. It often leads to what he calls “narrowcasting,” only speaking or listening to those one agrees with, which in turn creates a bigger platform for radical minorities.
Despite the billing of the event, the subjects covered ranged far and wide, from the death of Osama bin Laden to the future of newspapers (which Schmidt said will not actually be read on paper anymore in the near future) and the lack of visas for foreign-born U.S.-educated individuals (which both speakers lamented).
The conversation came closest to sparkling when Zakaria, one of the nation’s foremost public experts on foreign policy, and Eric Schmidt, head of the world’s most influential technology company, interacted with each other directly.
Schmidt asked Zakaria with genuine concern what he thought about Pakistan’s relationship with America. Zakaria replied that Pakistan is guilty of either “duplicity or incompetence,” quipping that Osama’s compound was comparable in size to Oprah’s Montecito estate. He added that Pakistan is still “playing RISK” — referring to the board game in which players replicate international territorial battles — when it should be investing in schools and infrastructure for its citizens.
The two featured guests clashed over education. When Rupert suggested that young people don’t study as much as they once did, Zakaria agreed that media such as video games are a distraction. He also said that learning some subjects just isn’t fun. Not only did Schmidt plug the educational value of multimedia environments including multiplayer video games, he said there is no reason learning any academic subject can’t be fun.
They also took slightly different approaches to climate change, Schmidt focusing on the prevention of CO2 emissions and Zakaria wondering whether we should already be thinking more about adaptation. Schmidt replied that only wealthy people can afford to adapt, but in an effort to end the program on a positive note, both speakers told the audience that they envisioned a more prosperous, creative, and enriching world for humans to inhabit in the future.