A colleague at my day job lent me a copy of the book Tools and Weapons by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne.
The main premise of the book is that technology is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it has the potential to do so much good for individuals, organizations, and societies. It can ease our lives by automating drudgery, help us make and keep connections with friends and family, and assist us in solving some huge problems in healthcare, conservation, and business.
On the other hand, technology has the potential to do a lot of harm, especially in the area of human rights. It makes it easier for totalitarian governments to identify and spy on political enemies. Our privacy is at risk as organizations find ways to take disparate pieces of data and find correlations that give insights into who we are. Inequality can get exacerbated.
I found myself impressed with Smith and Browne’s ability to tie modern day conundrums back to analogous situations in the past. The late 1800s gave birth to the modern U.S. government when it started to regulate railroads, an interstate technology with a scale and scope that was unheard of in an era when states were almost exclusively the ones doing the regulating. What does our modern Internet require?
In the early 1900s, combustion engine technology put horses out of work in firehouses all over the country. The need for food to feed these horses also dropped, which had knock-on effects for other areas of the economy, from farming to packaging to shipping. What will AI do to today’s workforce, and how much can we reliably predict?
When it comes to making broadband Internet available for rural residents, what can we learn about the initiatives to spread the benefits of electricity throughout small towns and farms?
And as Smith is an executive at Microsoft, I also enjoyed getting quite a bit of insight into the company’s approach to dealing with the world and governments over the last few decades, especially when juxtaposed with newer tech companies such as Facebook.
While I don’t doubt Microsoft led some initiatives to work with governments, I did find myself rolling my eyes at reading how moral the company supposedly was and is. There was a lot of name-dropping, including U.S. presidents and major figures in technology and political science, and I appreciate that there were discussions about how a large and influential tech company such as Microsoft needed to create policies to ensure that they did as little harm as possible to society, but then again, this is the same company that for years liked to spin their monopoly as natural.
But now I also know that this is the same company that provided their technology to organizations such as ICE. I mentioned the name-dropping earlier because I wanted to emphasize how weird this one passage was:
A glimpse of what lies ahead emerged suddenly in the summer of 2018, in relation to one of the hottest political topics of the season. In June, a gentleman in Virginia, a self-described “free software tinkerer”, also clearly had a strong interest in broader political issues. He posted a series of tweets about a contract Microsoft had with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, based on a story posted on the company’s marketing blog in January. It was a post that frankly everyone at the company had forgotten. But it says that Microsoft’s technoloygy for ICE passed a high security threshold and will be deployed by the agency. It says the company is proud to support the agency’s work, and it includes a sentence about the resulting potential for ICE to use facial recognition.
The next paragraph goes on to talk about how that supposedly forgotten marketing post took on different meaning in the context of the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from parents at the US border, and it goes on to talk about employee activism, but wait…
A gentleman from Virginia? Why didn’t we name this individual like we did everyone else? Well, there was an endnote:
Taotetek (@taotetek), “It looks like Microsoft is making quite a bit of money from their cozy relationship with ICE and DHS,” Twitter, June 17, 2018, 9:20 a.m. https://twitter.com/taotetek/status/1008383982533259269.
While Smith makes it sound like the relationship between Microsoft and ICE/DHS was this forgotten quirk, here’s a thread in which this “gentleman from Virginia” gives more context to this section of the book, including pointing out that a Microsoft executive got a job at DHS and shortly after a number of contracts between Microsoft and DHS were established.
Hi from a"gentleman from Virginia" and a "self described free software tinkerer". pic.twitter.com/NjjjCBs3Fp
— A Gentleman in Virginia (@taotetek) September 15, 2019
All this is to say that while I found a lot of insight into how major tech companies are starting to recognize that great power requires great responsibility and how they are doing more to work together with governments and society to make it happen, I’m also taking the “we’re trying to do right by everyone because it’s the right thing to do” line with a huge grain of salt. When big companies seek out regulations, it is often to make it easier for them to compete and not out of some moral character.
Still, the book tackled privacy, the ethics of AI, inequality, cybersecurity, and modern society’s dependence on technology to live and work while discussing the repercussions of data moving across borders into data centers and the laws that regulate them.
In the end, even while Smith talks about the needs of a “Digital Geneva Convention” to protect civilians against cyberattacks by nation-states, and privacy regulations to protect people against rogue companies (it sounds like Europe is way ahead of the world in terms of pushing technology companies to respect individuals and their privacy rights), I worry about a world in which most of our technology is seemingly dependent upon Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook doing the right thing by everyone. In each case, they’ve shown that there is a priority for them, and it isn’t my or your interests.