Google CEO Eric Schmidt: an overstuffed vessel
January 31, 2009
The legendary political advisor James Carville once said at a communication conference that as a speechwriter, he’s often accused of “filling empty vessels. No. My job is to empty full vessels.” That is, to convince his clients to focus on a single message that holds together.
But we think you’ll find these excerpts and our commentary more instructive.
It seems to me that we’re at one of those enormously important periods. I think it’s a cliché to say that this is one of the great crises that we face, but this may be the most tough economic time that most of us will face in our lifetime.
Better than excusing yourself for uttering a cliché is simply not uttering the cliché.
And everybody here is familiar with the statistics. People unable to pay their mortgages … you have the credit crisis and the fact that there’s a liquidity issue which is still not completely resolved. You have issues with significant potential large bankruptcies coming up online. …
So from our perspective, we’ve got to make progress in the short term and we’ve got to make progress in the long term. We’ve got to address at some point the healthcare issues, the schools issues. … And let me point out that our dependence on imported oil is this huge drain. How many wars has oil created, how much of our cost, how much of our infrastructure has this been driving?
It’s time to address these issues.
So I am an optimist. … America is a remarkable place. Unlike many different countries, we have the foundation, we have the intellectual foundation, the leadership—literally the people in the room—not just to solve these problems but in fact to build an even better place.
We’re several minutes in, and he hasn’t told us anything that we couldn’t have heard from any other CEO—or any politician for that matter. Why test an audience’s patience?
And so as a result, we have these interesting capabilities. I mean, let’s go through this:
A hundred years ago, nobody had information. Now all of you are significant users of the Internet. And in fact in our lifetimes … almost all people will have access to almost all the world’s information. That is a remarkable achievement. I mean, just think about it. I mean, this is on par with the Guttenberg Bible and all that kind of stuff. … I’m talking about the billion people who will start getting access to electronic information in the next three or four years …. Think about what the arrival of accurate information will do to their lives, to their culture, to their rhetoric—and I hope, to their standard of living.
Another thing that’s going on is that essentially every American now can create and publish their ideas. And some of them are absolutely wacko! So with that as our given, 2% are wacko, 98% are good. But the fact of the matter is that the power of communication in everyone’s hands … people do not understand how powerful this is. I don’t think our government understands it … I don’t think we understand it, and I don’t think we fully understand how liberating that is, in terms of information, in terms of transparency, in terms of building new systems, in terms of making things happen. …
The cost of starting a new company is so much lower, and you have science and technological advances that are unheard of. … You now have money being poured into university research programs. The best and brightest— you know, 20-year-olds—are going into these fields because they believe that they can change the world, make their professional mark and be hugely successful in something that’s critically relevant to our nation’s future. It’s a huge cause for optimism.
Again, all of the above might have been said by the CEO of General Motors—10 years ago! This is far too far into a speech to have the audience still wondering,
“What’s he getting at?”
So if you’re going to spur economic growth—literally make it happen— you’ve got to focus on infrastructure growth, infrastructure research and development, of course, and energy. Infrastructure—is this really exciting, or what? Well it’s really exciting to me, okay? I’m sorry. … Infrastructure is the foundation upon which wealth is created.
I mean societal capital. If you don’t fundamentally build an infrastructure, you’re not going to get the scale effects that I’m talking about.
And I’m not just talking about roads and bridges, which are absolutely important …. But I’m talking about new networks that can put tools and communication and information in the hands of millions. Take a look at broadband. Here we are, we invented this stuff, and we’re now 15th in the world. Only 55% of Americans have high-speed Internet connections at home, and in rural areas it’s one in three. … It’s a big problem. …
Open platforms … really, really drive choices. And it’s the nature, in many ways, if we go back to the wisdom of crowds arguments … an open system means more voices, more voices mean more discussion, more choices mean better outcomes, a community makes a better decision than an individual …
Well, no community could offer a more incoherent jumble of ideas than this individual.
Thank goodness President-elect Obama has this as part of his platform, his proposal to double the basic funding. Long, long overdue. …
And so what would you do with this money? Well why don’t we invest in science and math? … We’re also falling behind as you know against some other countries, Asian countries, in this regard. Do you think that that matters? Do you think that it matters that eventually, not only do the Asian economies have lots of smart people, more cash than we do because of the way they run their industries, but also a whole bunch more technical people? Do you think ultimately you’ll be dealing with innovations that they come up with to drive their economies, while you’ll simply be the captive consumer? Well I hope that’s not the only outcome of their global competitiveness. … It seems to me we ought to get our act together right now. …
And then of course we have patent reform, which has got to be on the agenda. … The system is dysfunctional, it makes no sense. Why is every case filed in the East District of Texas? Can’t come up with a legitimate answer for that one? It’s just bad public policy.
We’d expect better-organized rants from guys on barstools.
I want to talk about energy as part of this. We’re talking about technology, we’re talking about policy. And I want to talk about energy, because we’re at one of those points where we’ve got to get this right. The argument basically goes like this: Oil is finite but information information is infinite. So how can you take information, how can you take the structures and the kind of stuff that I’m talking about now and apply it to something which is the lifeblood of what we do?
Now these challenges are very, very hard. And they’re certainly as hard as the information challenges and the science challenges that I’m talking about. They may be harder …. You have a situation where you have climate change, which can be argued is the other of the two threats [of] global disaster, the first being nuclear proliferation. Climate change is very real, is very much a threat in our lifetimes. You have all of the issues of the energy industry, energy efficiency, waste, so forth and so on—and you have issues that are going on now, with respect to pricing, price stability, incentives, and so forth and so on.
Is there a way of solving this problem? … Is it possible to come up with a solution that solves the climate change problem, causes oil prices to go down, gets people to go to work, replaces our energy infrastructure … creates an export industry and, by the way, we can afford? …
Well, we produced such a plan.
We’d argue this speech should have begun near where our excerpt ends, with a provocative statement: “In the U.S. we face a number of disparate, seemingly overwhelming problems. Can we find a silver bullet? In the words of a political leader you may have heard of. ‘Yes, we can.’ In fact, we have. Today I’d like to share it with you, and to discuss the first steps we need to take as a nation ….” It may be that Schmidt just isn’t there yet—his ideas haven’t congealed, or don’t have anything like the political support they’d need. Maybe he’s being purposely vague. Or maybe, as is the case with so many corporate leaders, his ideas are ready for prime time but his message, so far, is not.
TIE’s YouTube viewing of Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s Nov. 18 address at the New America Foundation revealed a passionate, bright, intense entrepreneur … in dire need of a coherent speech. Alas, this is the borderline terrible talk that the prominent member of then-President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team gave several times last fall. You can see the whole speech at http://www.youtube.com watch?v=gZpfpj4u0E0.