THE BLOG

In Conversation with Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen at the LSE

28/05/2013 14:08 BST | Updated 28/07/2013 10:12 BST

So I should start by making it clear that I wasn't personally in conversation with these two tech tzars. As much as I would have loved to have a one-on-one I was instead a member of the 400 strong audience packed into a crowded lecture theatre in central London.

Although, I did ask a question which in turn was answered, so in a sense I suppose had a conversation, can that be called a conversation? Maybe, I'm not sure.

Google have been in town for the past week for their Big Tent conference, to confront tax criticism and promote their new book, The New Digital Age.

The conversation I attended was focused on The New Digital Age. With us, the collective (again not a one-on-one), covering lots of the top-line, big stuff focused points made in the book. For instance, the effect of an increasingly online society on the power of the Chinese Government - in the sense of power over their own population, so firewalls et al. as opposed to power over the whole world, hacking foreign company secrets etc. On this Cohen raised the interesting point that despite their savvy use of firewalls the Chinese government is yet to be really tested by the power of the internet, with most of the current users (about 500 million) coming from one dominant ethnic group and largely urban areas. What, he asked, will happen when the rest of the 1.5 billion get online, the rest being the impoverished farmers and the wildly diverse ethnic minorities. This point was endemic of the talk, the internet is growing. It is not always great (censorship) but is on the whole is a force for good (the actual creation of stuff to be censored).

Beyond answering the question Cohen's answer made a broader point, which for me largely summed up the phenomena of Google and these two men as a whole. Namely his, and therefore Google's, willingness to critique the government of the world's fastest growing market in such open and abrasive terms. Admittedly this is a market Google no longer works in but his answer still showed a confidence not usually seen in other business leaders. Elsewhere business people side-step these questions, because it "isn't their concern" nor is it "their place to say". Schmidt and Cohen's approach was, therefore, incredibly refreshing, but was also perhaps unsurprising. Schmidt is the 138th richest man in the world, and is probably in the top 50 most influential (no scale, just my own unfounded opinion). He sits on our own government's business advisory body (controversially) and controls the most powerful company in the world. And Cohen is not exactly holding onto his coattails, in his own right he has been named in Time Magazine's most influential people as a Pioneer along side Yahoo's CEO, Marissa Mayer, and has the ear of possible future president Hillary Clinton.

So read the book, it will be interesting these two men are clearly visionaries who are far more knowledgeable about where our new digital world will take us than any other person on the planet.

But for me, the talk was gripping not because of the stories that were being told, but because of the tellers who were spinning the yarns. It is not often that you sit in a room with people who are truly powerful. And with Google you don't just have power, you have the modern world's East India Company. Whether they use this influence in better ways than their business predecessor did is yet to be seen, but what we already know is that these are the gentleman who will fill future generation's text books, to share a room with them therefore, even if I was joined by 400 other gawpers, was pretty special.

Oh, and tax, it didn't get a mention. I mean what did you expect this is the LSE...

You can listen to the talk here, pay special attention at 46 minutes and 55 seconds for my brief appearance, along with a briefer shout-out for Hire Space.