Eric Schmidt wants to fight our developing digital caste system

eric schmidtGoogle CEO Eric Schmidt just spoke at Mobile World Congress, and unlike many of the big names there, he wasn’t simply rehashing Android’s success or announcing a new product. Sure, the audience was treated to the obligatory update on Google’s mobile efforts, but this was minimal compared to what we usually see at these things.

Instead, Schmidt went ethical on us and implored the tech community to open its eyes and see what’s happening in our world: the development of a digital caste system. While technology has invariably improved lives everywhere, it’s also widening the gap between have and have-nots.

But Schmidt acknowledged these positives first. “Being a realist does not mean being a defeatist… if you connect people with information, they will change the world,” he said. “The ultimate vision is that technology actually disappears – that it becomes part of everyday life. It will just be there. The Web will always be there, but it will also be nothing. It’ll be like electricity.”

The fact that technology is becoming more available and more affordable means limitations are going to fall. Fiber is getting faster and cheaper and connecting the world – actually connecting the world, not in a Facebook sort of way – is, in Schmidt’s mind, absolutely going to happen. “In 12 years, doing the math… phones that cost $400 now will cost $20, and if Google does it right there’ll be an Android in every pocket.”

And to make use of this technology, Schmidt believes we will rely on mesh networks. These are a “simpler option,” he says, “a stepping stone for getting communities connected. This is the most essential form of digital communication and the cheapest to deploy. Anyone with a solar farm can charge all the smartphones.”

A mesh network, to be clear, is a decentralized Wi-Fi network – or a LAN. It works by each node connecting to at least two other nodes, and its interconnectivity means it has a very low rate of service interruption – it’s self-healing. Connections are rerouted around broken and blocked paths so the signal jumps from node to node in order to get where it’s going. It doesn’t rely on the traditional hub-and-spoke structure that most networks use. So when one node breaks, the others can still operate and communicate with each other. If it sounds familiar, it’s because the Internet is a mesh network.

So now Schmidt’s proposing we fully apply this to smartphones and forgo data plans and carriers. But there are standards that would need to be implemented, and maintenance to be done. And someone would have to get the ball rolling. That someone is developers. It deserves mentioning that some have already done this: a group of Australian researchers applied a Wi-Fi mesh network to the Android operating system last year, and The Darknet Project continues to work on creating a truly decentralized Web of interconnected mesh networks.

Still, Schmidt implored developers to take on this burden for all of our benefit. “Think of it as a digital watering hole. People live in communities all over the world. People can interact regardless of the physical obstacles we’re all familiar with.”

You can’t help but think of (and Schmidt can’t help but mention) the Arab Spring and the role the Web played throughout. “In times of war it will be impossible to ignore the voices that cry out for help,” he says. “There will be far fewer places for dictators.”

He acknowledges we will never rid ourselves of class warfare and that technology will likely broaden the gap, but it has the capacity to do more good than evil. 

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