Hay 2013 | Eric Schmidt

The number of industrialists who could pack out a Hay marquee could be counted on a couple of hands. The number of software engineers would barely fill one hand, but Eric Schmidt is one of them. Peter Florence himself makes the introduction. Schmidt’s collocutor is himself a public figure, and television personality, Oxford’s Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy. The hour that ensues fascinates on several distinct levels. 

Schmidt’s book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, co-authored with Jared Cohen, has received generally warm reviews. ‘Dense dry prose and occasional weird misfires’ opines the New York Times, wondering how welcome is the prospect of holographic home movies of departed loved ones back in the sitting room. The book’s notion that ‘the internet is the largest experiment in anarchy in history’ sits uncomfortably next to the fact that it excludes any examination of the gate-keepers. Smartphones are, after all, being prepared for new users, Africa and a new generation, with software that will blot out the Internet altogether.

But Schmidt on the future is succinct. ‘It’s going to be good but with some issues.’ The one clear point about futurology is that it is going to be wrong; the issue then is just how wrong. Top tech-writer John Naughton made the point that the book’s frequent use of the verb ‘will’ would be better replaced with ‘might’ or ‘could’. A 1980s best-seller on the then emerging personal computer industry, the time of Lisa and Sir Clive Sinclair’s QL , was quite confident that paper would be a foreign object in the office of the year 2000. A swallow-able diagnostic sliver, says Schmidt, already with FDA approval, will have the capacity to sit inside the body and transmit to medics all it sees and hears.

Schmidt’s stellar career ascent reached its peak in 2011 with the Google founders reasserting themselves. He has since been out to see the world, including a highly publicised visit to Pyongyang. His view from the perspective of the cyber-world’s centre is acute, but partial. A sizzling application he does not mention, for example, are the sites where records of corrupt payments maybe made, the name of the recipient clearly stated, the payee anonymous. The examples he cites are rather obvious, such as the train crash in China where Weibo revealed what the Party wished to conceal.

He knows that little Estonia and Israel have a tech presence way beyond their small populations. (The WJEC meanwhile, like its fellow exam boards, re-casts computer science education into questions such as ‘You need an email address to receive an email. True or false?’ No wonder that Britain has descended to Software Nation Hopeless.) Schmidt does not obviously get the point of Kurdistan, that its fate is to straddle several state borders. ‘The Buddhists are very nice’ – well, sometimes, yes, but to the Burmese Rohingyas, they are not nice at all.

The audience, from the range of questions, are software consumers rather than software makers. The techies, if they are present, are silent. An absorbing aspect of Google is not just the original algorithms, but how deft its moves have been since. Among the Silicon Valley mega-acquisitions Skype was a turkey, the jury is out on Instagram, but Youtube was brilliant. Google may recruit the best engineers and scientists going, but that is no guarantor of strategic sure-footedness. It is software legend that when the young Jobs gazed on the first embryonic GUI, it belonged to another company and HQ simply let it slip away. Android was brilliant, and it would be have been revealing to know – we can only presume it was Schmidt – who gave the green light.

Peter Florence is a flatterer and tells his guest that a Hay audience is the smartest going. I am not so sure. There is smart, and there is super-smart. Aaron Sorkin’s script for the Social Network is not overly flattering to Sean Parker. A PhD from Berkeley, as Schmidt earned, is one thing, but to be Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Novell by age forty-two is something different. Schmidt says ‘my strategy has always been to find smart people, smarter than I am, and hang out with them.’ This may be true but Schmidt has that rarer quality in a software engineer. He is people-smart.

He is at ease with an audience and the audience with him. When called a fully-paid-up member of Nerdistan ‘I’ve never been accused of being a citizen of that but I’m proud to be.’  He enjoys a crack at the expense of a former US Secretary of Defence. The value of intellectual property theft from the US is given as three hundred billion dollars a year, in the view of a recent top-level government report. ‘Are the Chinese in your business this weekend?’ he asks. ‘No, they’re not. The Chinese don’t work weekends.’ An audience is easily swayable. A question about tax gets a round of applause, but then so does the answer. Both sides entirely miss the point.

Schmidt, as a public figure, is unlike a European counterpoint. American English is not the same as public language this side of the Atlantic. There are the touches of folksy phrasing, as in ‘the evil dictator type’ who says ‘boy, I don’t want that.’ Schmidt has been to some of the deprived parts of the globe where ‘a corruption problem’ sits alongside ‘an entertainment problem’. The Hay-ers are addressed as ‘Come on, guys.’

The point about Google is that the audience really does want it to be good. It’s cognitive dissonance at work; we take it to heart if it is going to end up as Exxon in the Cloud. As has flared up this week, Google takes cash to push rent-extracting parasites that get in the way of citizens seeking to access freely available government services.

Du Sautoy and Schmidt enjoy a brief professional exchange between mathematicians. The prospect of quantum computing allows for far more rapid calculation. It is helped in this by dissolving the binary distinction between zero and one, so they are simultaneously both. It must be a rare Hay-er who has a clue what they are talking about. I certainly am not one.

Schmidt and du Sautoy give the impression of enjoying themselves and the audience is enjoying them too. Much is said, on hazard, code wars, Stuxnet. But there is one yawning gulf that goes unexplored. For the search engine king, the whole teeming buzz is all information. A byte in itself is neutral. Thus, the content of a site is to be judged by legality. ‘Information, if it’s legal’ says Google’s world ambassador ‘even if despicable, it stands.’

But our species is deep-stained in a double grounding, ethical and aesthetic. That is why we are different. The whole point behind the ethical and the aesthetic, that is us, is that the world is differentiated by values that transcend those of the means of exchange or popularity. The human world has always been, and by a long way, more than the totality of its facts.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis