Google's Eric Schmidt Kicks Off 'Techonomy' Conference

The first annual "Techonomy" conference—focused on how technology can drive economic growth— is underway in Lake Tahoe, Calif.

The conference's tag line: "a new philosophy of progress." The three days of meetings and panels was kicked off by a flashy video describing the range of problems facing the globe and the importance of drawing on innovation to solve them. The single biggest ramification of technology is global empowerment.


What is techonomy? It's the combination of technology and economy. The premise, says Peter Petre, one of Techonomy LLC's three founders, is that invention creates new resources and is the source of value creation. The three founders of the Techonomy are Petre, David Kirkpatrick, and Brent Schlender, all three former Fortune Magazine editors. They stressed the urgency of having this conference right now—the world's challenges are bigger than ever.

But the wild card, Schlender says, is that the world is more networked than ever. The unprecedented networking of the world now creates what Shlender calls a "cumulative intelligence," which gives the three Techonomists behind this event great optimism. This conference aims to introduce people from wide-ranging fields to spark innovation—as Shlender says, combine two disparate things to create a "third thing."

A sign is displayed outside of the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Getty Images
A sign is displayed outside of the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

The first panel examined the idea of Techonomy, with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Lisa Randall, professor of theoretical physics at Harvard, Wired Magazine co-founder and "Senior Maverick" Kevin Kelly, and Deborah Hopkins, Citigroup's chief innovation officer.

Wired's Kelly provided the big picture perspective, saying "technology really is the most powerful force in the world." He described this web that technology is weaving—all the content and technology people are making are so interdependent, it forms its own "emergent thing," a network that has its own behaviors.

Kelly asks if this "thing" we're part of has agency, then what does this thing want? He says we're all both subject and object to technology—masters and creators of it, and children of it, and we can't escape that dichotomy. Kelly says that the beauty of "techonomy" is that it is not a zero sum game.

Kirkpatrick, who moderated the panel, asked for Schmidt's perspective, calling Google the ultimate technomic company. Schmidt says he spends most of his time assuming the world is not ready for the technologic revolution that's happening to them relatively soon.

What does he mean? That every two days we create as much data as we created in all history up until 2003. A lot of that data is user generated, and Schmidt says a lot of that comes from "people describing enormous amounts of things about themselves."

Eric Schmidt
Eric Schmidt

Schmidt warns that society is fundamentally not ready for user-powered technology. He says the only way to manage issues—like misuse of technology by people with bad intentions—is much greater transparency and a complete lack of anonymity. Schmidt says true anonymity on the Internet is dangerous.

Citi's Hopkins explained how technology is changing the bank's business approach. Hopkins said the company is embracing technology to find a different way to push product out the door and engage with individuals in a new way. She says while the past was about vertical integration, the future is about "the horizontal, partnerships and collaboration."

They put a chip on a card to engage with people based on their location. Citirevamped its entire consumer banking approach in Japan, removing paper and editing down 150 processes to 12.

Harvard's Randall stressed that it's crucial that we remember the importance of basic technology. Rather than just fund research into technology pursuing a specific end, we need to pursue big-picture research.

Randall reminded that all electronics is based on physics, quantum mechanics and transistor technology. While we've seen a trend towards science becoming more applied, she advocated for research of general ideas that don't have a direct application.

Randall also insisted upon the importance of incorporating technology's remarkable rate of change into economic models. Pointing to the financial crisis, Randall noted that risks associated with accelerating technology aren't necessarily taken into account by economists. Risks could be avoided if economists thought about the changes technology could enable.

The laughs in the panel came curing an answer to a question about technology's all-encompassing reach. Eric Schmidtdescribed the importance of technology's proverbial off button, joking that he can turn off his devices for 90 minutes. "Two days?" Kirkpatrick asked. Ninety minutes, Schmidt said—just long enough for dinner.

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