From Startup to The New Digital Age

Once upon a time, not even all that long ago, Google was a startup.

No one who attended The New Digital Age, hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last Thursday at the Swissotel, asked Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen about the juggernaut’s humble, scrappy beginnings. They were there to hear about technology’s power to thwart terrorism and bring dictators to their knees.

But I’m old enough to remember when phones had cords and google was a noise you made to entertain a baby. I still find Google’s rise from startup to global domination astonishing.

And inspiring—because I write for (and about) startups for a living. I don’t imagine I’ll ever be part of anything like Google, but I do sometimes look at the energetic young faces around 1871 and think, someday soon, some of these folks are going to be huge.

Not because they want to be billionaires. Because they want to change the world.


John Jonelis of Chicago Venture Magazine invited me to join him at the event, and suggested I write this article. John takes better notes than I do—the following recap doesn’t happen without his contribution.

Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen explore the 21st century.Of course, if you’ve read Schmidt and Cohen’s book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business, you probably won’t learn anything new here. Many of their answers could have been lifted straight from its pages.

But I haven’t read the book, so I found myself engrossed. Schmidt and Cohen have visited places most Americans will never go—starting with their initial meeting in Iraq in 2009—and seen firsthand how access to technology changes societies from the ground up. Obviously, they believe more access equals more benefits for humanity, and it’s hard to argue with that as a general thesis. But I would break their observations down into three main ideas:

1. Mobile access will soon be a universal human right, if it isn’t already. Remember what happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring? In reaction to relentless street protests, President Hosni Mubarek shut down Internet access for four days. Not only didn’t the shutdown slow the protests, but it infuriated moderates into joining them. Long story short—Mubarek was out of office (and in prison) by summer.

Cohen recounted the story of two Afghani villages raided by the Taliban: “In the first village, the raiders didn’t take away the residents’ mobile phones; in the second one they did. Guess which village fought back.”

There are vast areas of the undeveloped world where more people have mobile phones than electricity, changing these societies in ways we westerners can’t even imagine. Schmidt described how Congolese fisherwomen rely on real-time mobile updates on available refrigeration for what they catch: “This is literally the difference for a family between starvation and survival.”

2. It sucks to live in North Korea. “It was five degrees and there was no heat, even in government buildings,” said Schmidt. “The country is bankrupt.”

North Korea, a society without doubt

Ten lanes, no traffic

Cohen described a conversation with one of the famous Pyongyang traffic girls, who direct traffic on roads that have virtually none. “I tried to tell her they were a YouTube sensation. She’d never heard of YouTube. She’d never heard of the Internet.”

Denying its population Internet access is just part of the thought-control mentality Schmidt describes. “It’s a society without doubt. They pretend their ICBMs are communication satellites. I told them nations are laying fiber optics rather than launching satellites, and all I got were blank stares. They blink and they go to the gulag.”

3. The virtual world will change the physical world. “In the future, every nation will have different foreign policies for the digital and the physical worlds,” Cohen said. “States can now invade each other before any shots are fired.”

Linking Western reluctance to intervene in the Syrian civil war with uncertainty about rebels’ intentions, Cohen predicted, “The Syrian rebels of the future will organize their entire virtual state online, then overthrow the government.”

Schmidt added, “More noise equals fewer deaths. If people plan things on line, others will figure it out in advance. We will capture terrorists earlier. It’s possible smart phones could have prevented the Rwandan genocide.”


Whether Schmidt and Cohen’s predictions come true, three things are indisputable:

  • The world is changing
  • Google has helped spark those changes
  • No one could have imagined the impact Google would have when it was just another startup.

Which brings me back to my initial point. Nearly every founder I’ve worked with or spoken to thinks of his or her business in terms of its social impact. Some of them—like graduates of the Impact Engine program—run social enterprises with good-for-society goals at the core of their business models. But even those addressing straightforward business pain points talk about their potential impact on the environment, the community or the next generation.

Toward the end of the Q & A, a young man—younger than me, anyway—asked Schmidt and Cohen how the average citizen could make a positive impact in the world. Schmidt’s answer had nothing to do with the “get involved” philosophy of previous generations.

“It’s never been easier to get your values and creativity into the world,” he said.  The key question: “How fast can you organize people around your brilliant idea to scale very fast?”

Grad school project to dictator-toppling in 15 years? That’s Very Fast in my book.

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One thought on “From Startup to The New Digital Age

  1. Great article, Jeff. A good reminder that giving people the tools to access and broadcast information is powerful and can quickly change the course of history.

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