Eric Schmidt lectures North Korea

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, center, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richards, right, brief journalists after they arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport from Pyongyang, in Beijing Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Schmidt is urging North Korea to shed its self-imposed isolation and allow its citizens to use the Internet or risk being left behind economically.
AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan


(MoneyWatch) According to the New York Times, Google's Eric Schmidt had a message for North Korea: The country should embrace the Internet or else.

Or else?

"As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth and it will make it harder for them to catch up economically," he reportedly said while travelling back from the visit. "We made that alternative very, very clear."


Does Eric Schmidt honestly believe that this is news? That he alone has spotted this great piece of wisdom? The world already is increasingly connected and has been (as I'm sure the executive chairman of Google (GOOG) has noticed) for quite awhile now. And if North Korea had wanted to catch up economically, it might have done many many things -- like feed its people -- well before it even contemplated the Internet.

I'm extremely skeptical of jaunts like this. Just as I'm skeptical about celebrating Facebook and Twitter because they "brought about" the Arab Spring. Geopolitics shouldn't be the hobby of a business executive and the Arab Spring -- as is now becoming clear -- was a lot more inclement than it looked. Technology has a role to play in change but what that role is, and how far it is a force unequivocally for good, remains to be seen.

There is, after all, an alternative interpretation of the Egyptian spring. According to George Friedman's global intelligence network, when Mubarak told the army that he wished his son to succeed him, the military became incensed because he was effectively robbing them of their influence. So they inflamed the populace to throw Mubarak out. The revolution wasn't a popular uprising but a coup. Was technology used or abused?

The jury, of course, is still out. But the spectacle of white technologists pontificating on world affairs whose complexity goes well beyond anything they've ever known is embarrassing and foolish. By all means go and talk to people. Go to learn and listen. Don't go to show off.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on