Fareed Zakaria and Eric Schmidt spoke at the Arlington Theatre on Monday in what I would call the single most relevant and interesting discussion I have ever seen during my time at UCSB. Moderated by professor Peter Rupert, the talk strayed from its ostensible focus on social media and the modern world to cover a wide range of topics and issues facing the world today.
Rupert opened the discussion off-track, asking Zakaria about the death of Osama bin Laden and its effect on the future of Al Qaeda.
Zakaria said after 9/11, “Al Qaeda became an organization that made video tapes.”
He continued, saying that as Western focus shifted to the group, its ability to plan large-scale attacks on military and American targets evaporated, as, “It’s hard to plan global terrorism using donkey couriers.” As the group’s ability to plan global attacks diminished, local cells turned to attacking local targets, turning local sentiments against the group and violent radicalism at large.
The pair also discussed the Arab Spring, the Egyptian revolution and the role that expanding media presence played in inciting those populations to rebellion.
“Ten years ago, all Egypt had was state television, which was basically whatever Mubarak did that day,” Zakaria said.
As media expanded to include satellite television, smart phones and social media, people were able to quickly post and share government atrocities and locations for protests. However, social media is not an unstoppable force.
“Tanks beat the internet,” Schmidt said. “If you’re willing to shoot enough people, you can defeat online movements.”
Schmidt moved on to discuss other dictatorships and their methodology for controlling how the Internet leaks into public life. China, he said, allows for a vibrant critical discussion online, but forbids the discussion of government activities or other hot-button political issues. There are also alternate paths: Shanghai does not restrict the Internet in any way, but can arrest street gatherings of more than six people on sight, and Russia monitors the Internet activity of its citizens.
Schmidt and Zakaria took questions handpicked from post-graduate students in the political sciences field. In response to a question about the migration of engineers overseas, Schmidt started off jokingly but then became serious.
“Let me say something, because irony doesn’t work anymore,” Schmidt said. “There is a long list of stupid policies. This [the American policy of kicking out students after they finish their doctorate] policy is the stupidest.”
He then suggested implementing a program in which a green card would be stapled to every completed degree, which was received with peals of audience laughter.
The pair had an easy chemistry together and for the most part, Rupert let them talk to each other, an advantageous decision as both had a lot to say. The two rarely disagreed, impressive considering that Schmidt’s background is in technology and Zakaria has been a foreign policy heavyweight since he took over Newsweek in 2000. Schmidt was the slightly more upbeat of the two, bringing a healthy dose of technological optimism to the table, and predicting that several billion people would move into the middle class as cell phone technology, including mobile banking, proliferated more into the developing world.
Both agreed that global warming is the most pressing threat to humanity, although Zakaria predicted that at some future point — not necessarily in our lifetimes — some rogue agent will get his hands on a nuclear weapon.
The talk touched on such a variety of issues that its content is difficult to summarize, but I can say that the speakers’ thoughts were successful in instilling a quiet confidence in humanity’s ability to move into a brighter future.