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Digital Impacts
JUNE 2013 · 
Keywords: Google, digital world, technology
Digital world reshapes workplace communication, impacts on physical world and human judgment, says Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

Working and living digitally doesn't mean in any case forgiving physical-world behaviors of any form, losing basic human sense of judgment, and omitting eyecontacts with the guys sitting at the other side of the meeting table. 

Yale School of Management’s Dean Edward A. Snyder conducted a dialogue with Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt during the Leaders Forum lecture series on April 24, in which Mr. Schmidt shared his view on how the digital world interacts with the physical world, reshapes the workplace communication and impacts on human judgment. 

Physical world and digital world keep each other in check 

Dean: You talk about asymmetric risks. This is something I find perplexing. From my own point of view, it is hard for me to evaluate some of the concerns people have about technology. They have a lot of concerns about cyber-terrorism which is done by governments – and companies in some cases – and massive kinds of cyber-attacks. What’s troubling to me is that I can’t evaluate whether it’s right. And if it’s right, who am I supposed to trust then? Am I supposed to trust the government? I’m libertarian. Is it going to be proved right? If all the stuff is going to really happen, why don’t we see more flare-ups? I’m scared. I’m also worried more about the society changing fundamentally. 

Schmidt: Let’s talk about two separate points, and start with the coexistence of digital world and physical world. All of us are experts in the physical world. We are citizens in our country. We govern our behavior. There are police, jails, military, and we understand all about these. I’ve come to a view, as we’ve said in the book, that there is also a different society which is the cyberspace world, which we also cohabit. Each world keeps the other one in check. In the case of physical world, if you do something really illegal in the cyberspace world, the physical world can probably track you down, and the police can probably find you. There are many ways they can do that. So please don’t do terrible crimes in the cyberspace in the same way as you shouldn’t do in the physical space. In other words, physical space keeps the virtual world under some level of control. The same is also true in the reverse. There are examples after examples that in the poorly managed countries, countries where the police may be corrupt, like Mexico which I covered in the book, how do you use Internet to keep the society a little bit more even? It’s particularly important for many people in the world, when you see terrible crimes against women in the world. Again, the citizens do keep the physical world under some level of control. I view this to be generally very good. In the case of my view, this is happening. We are going from a world where people are largely not connected and not informed to a world where people are fully connected and fully informed, which brings on the second part of your question. 

There are bad people on Internet, too. 30 years ago, none of us actually thought that there would be bad people on the Internet. People who were on the Internet were all our friends. Most of the systems didn’t even have passwords, and if we did use passwords we transmitted to them. Now we have developed some techniques to detect bad people. Here is an example. Typical problem is that you have a computer at universities like Yale which has been running for years, and no one seems to pay attention to it. Some other group finds it and hijacks it. Then ISP’s (Internet Server Provider) networks would in effect get the legal power to quarantine these machines and shut them down logically from the Stanford’s network until some human comes along and verifies that “Yes, we own this, and we know it.” We can detect that. 

Technology v.s. human judgment 

MBA student: For all the amazing things that technology has brought to the world, I think at certain point, it can start to erode sort of basic aspects of what it means to be human. Hence your comment about people being on the computers literally at every waking minute, so at what point technology becomes too much part of our lives and how would the companies like Google deal with such philosophical questions like that? 

Schmidt: These are questions higher than Google can answer. These are ultimately your decision. There is something unique about being human that computers are not going to replace in any time soon. I hope you all remember that. For me, I try to turn off my devices during dinner, which I have time for 90 minutes. As I talked in my book The New Digital Age, the new digital world does not excuse you for having judgment and solve all of your problems as much as you’d like to. One of the most important judgment things is when to use it and when to not use it and how to judge it. I’m a big believer in thinking about what is going on around you digitally and deciding what you – as a human being – want to do. I do worry that people would sort of blindly follow what they are taught. It’s a long history humanity is doing that. It gets back to the solution of creativity side of automation development. Part of the creativity is learning doubt, learning the ultimate points of view. Going from role-learning – the old way of learning – to being able to do with ambiguity. And a lot of problems in the world in the future would have an ambiguous component. 

Google’s 16-minute meetings 

Schmidt: Businesses have enormous unknown risks for everyone. When you think as a leader about risks, what you want in the room are the smartest people, not the most experienced people, because you can’t predict the challenges that you will have in front of you. But if you are educated and highly sophisticated and you think quickly and deeply, you have a better shot ahead of your competitors. 

One of the bizarre things about Google is that no one looks at you at meetings, as everyone is on the computer all the time. For the decade I was CEO, we had a rule that you actually couldn’t use computers for 16 minutes a week, which we senior executives call “sixteen minutes”, and I made the people look at each other in the eye and have a conversation. People would of course take their mobile phones and do that on the table. We would catch them and tell them to stop. It’s just 16 minutes a week, and that’s how difficult it was. I had a feeling that a lot of things were changed as a result of this new model. 

(The above content is based on a related lecture video by Yale School of Management.)

Eric Schmidt
Executive Chairman of Google
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