What if the digital revolution isnt as scary as we think?
Brad Smith joined Microsoft as a 34-year-old attorney in 1993, at a time when the companys market value was about $25 billion. Today, the company has a market value of more than a trillion dollars, and Smith, at age 60, is its president.
He is also the author of a new book about technology in the modern world filled with arguments that he says would have surprised and elicited disapproval from a younger version of himself. The more startling change, however, is the evolution of not his own views but other peoples.
“I think the most stunning surprise about the state of the world at the moment,” Smith said in an interview with POLITICO, “is to see such a profound lack of optimism in the future, by so many people, in a time of great prosperity.”
This is an angry and agitated age, for a long index of reasons, but one theme woven through many of them is very much in Smiths arena: a pervasive perception that the digital revolution broadly has turned from light to dark.
Only recently we hailed technology as a wondrous force for individual empowerment and global connection. Now it is commonly viewed, on the right and the left, as a menacing force for economic dislocation and political division—an instrument of surveillance, manipulation and control by all manner of cynical and malicious actors, in government and the private sector, at home and around the world.
At high altitude, the world basically has three models for confronting the digital revolution. China sees technology as a way to implement its futuristic vision of the orderly world: approved media only, surveillance everywhere, “social credit scores” for everyone. Russia sees technology as a way to implement its nostalgic vision of a disorderly world: using spying and social media to sow misinformation and discord around the world in way meant to restore the power Moscow lost at the end of the Cold War.
In the middle between these dystopias, are the United States and its fellow liberal democracies—lacking a coherent vision of how to ensure that technology serves the public interest, improvising in clumsy and ad hoc fashion as one crisis or another pushes this or that issue up the agenda.
“Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age is Smiths effort,” co-authored by his Microsoft colleague Carol Ann Browne, to make this improvisation less clumsy and more effective. Essentially, they are pleading for a digital equivalent of what, in the Cold War, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the vital center,” in which conscientious business leaders engage with conscientious public officials to craft a creative alternative to both the Chinese and the Russian examples, reaping the benefits of innovation while mitigating the costs.
The book commands interest partly because of the moment but even more because of Smith. He is not a programming genius or a guru of product design and marketing. Instead, he is the silky and itinerant ambassador from the Empire of Microsoft to the rest of the world. He is a familiar face—more so than Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella—at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Munich Security Conference, the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Supreme Court, in newsroom editorial boards and, above all, in the legislative and regulatory chambers of Washington and Brussels.
In a book that traverses widely across such subjects as artificial intelligence, consumer privacy, cyberwarfare, the excesses and vulnerabilities of social media, and the rise of China, Smith and Browne rest their argument on three main pillars:
*Regulation is good for the public interest and not bad for the tech industry.
This is different from the pose of disdain for puffed-up politicians and clueless regulators that marked Microsoft a generation ago, and still marks many of its younger and swashbuckling counterparts.
Smith lauds European regulators for taking the lead in establishing clear rules around electronic privacy. Much like automakers, who say they actually prefer Californias tougher emission standards to a patchwork of different rules in multiple other states, Microsofts position is that it can benefit from clear and sensible standards that apply to everyone and reinforce confidence among consumers.
Microsoft, of course, can thrive in a regulated market; its got the market power that comes from massive size, and an army of lawyers and lobbyists working for Smith who can ensure the companys goals are represented. But he says it is inevitable that other tech firms as they mature will come to see regulation, on such issues as ethical uses of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology, as enlightened self-interest.
*This stuff seems new and scary, but it isnt.
Actually, Smith and Browne acknowledge there is a lot about the radically disruptive nature of technology that can be plenty scary, especially if poorly managed. Their point is that the clash of legitimate values—between privacy and law enforcement, for instance—has marked innovative technologies throughout history, and theres no reason to be fatalistic.
A close analogy to the modern tech industry, they assert, is the unregulated railroad industry of the 1880s, which dominated the economy because basically everything important traveled over its tracks. That created ample potential for abuse and profiteering. In due course, even the railroads yearned for a strong national government role as opposed to fighting for its interests in individual states, and the modern regulatory state was born. New technology invites something like this on a global scale.
*Everyone should just be more reasonable.
There is not, the authors acknowledge, a global equivalent of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and there is not likely to be anytime soon. Still, its possible for responsible people to replicate approximately the functionality of these bodies if those people would come together in the spirit of goodwill and problem-solving.
“One thesis of this book,” Smith and Brown write, “is that it is more than possible for companies to succeed while doing more to address their societal responsibilities.” And: “Many issues also will require compromise.” In curbing abuses on social media: “Initiatives from the public and private sectors will likely need to move forward together and complement each other.”
All very reasonable … soothing even.
One problem: Smith might have noticed that many people in public life, here and abroad, dont come off as especially reasonable. The rejoinder to his argument is that all his earnest professions to compromise on privacy and to be sensible about AI and vigRead More – Source