Tools And Weapons: The Promise And The Peril Of The Digital Age. Brad Smith And Carol Ann Browne. Hodder and Stoughton. 368 pages. Rs 559.
As the third decade of the 21st century approaches, it is becoming abundantly clear, even to a Luddite, that low-cost, easily deployable digital and software technologies built and delivered via the cloud, mobile devices, satellites and internet are profoundly impacting societies, countries and people.
So much so that even seemingly benign and ubiquitous social media platforms have become weaponised to impact opinions and even alter outcomes of elections. Artificial intelligence, for example, is being woven into algorithms that can track, report, influence and predict behaviours and outcomes that have enormous implications for all sectors of the economy and for everyone, everywhere.
We ignore these tools at our own peril as they can become weapons. Machines, businesses and people are creating, consuming, transmitting and sharing huge amounts of data — text, images, video, audio — every second. And all of this data in turn drives the algorithms that in turn impact us all. The knowledge- based economy of the 21st century is going to be almost entirely digital.
Policy makers have to grapple with the very complex and wicked issues at the intersection of public policy, technology, citizen rights, national security, and strategic interests of a country and its businesses. And it is clear that no one company or country can provide the answers.
There are multiple solution models that are emerging. From Europe’s legal framework approach viz. the GDPR, to China’s great internet firewall to the US’ private sector-led innovation backed by the state department approach to India’s pioneering digital public platforms with some private sector participation, Big Tech is coming under increasing scrutiny, taxation and with calls for even breaking them up.
It is against this backdrop that Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, writes. The book is thoughtful and raises important issues in a gentle, non-technical and persuasive manner. He comes across as being very similar to Satya Nadella, his boss and CEO in approach (see the book review of his Hit Refresh here Nov 2017, Swarajya).
Being a trained lawyer and being part of the leadership team at Microsoft has provided the author with a ring side view of issues arising from the impact of the digital era on matters such as surveillance, privacy, security, ethics, digital diplomacy, talent and the workforce, democracy and even country relationships, i.e. with China.
China has a chapter dedicated to it, clearly in recognition of its global stature as a market, supplier and technology player. That the UK and US governments are joined at the hip in matters of security is clear from the book.
The importance of educating children, of training policy makers, regulators and others in various aspects of the digital era has been amply stressed. How does one create policies for the country, states and communities from education to agriculture to financial services and health, while balancing privacy, security and end benefits?
Brad Smith joined Microsoft in 1993 just before its infamous anti-trust case with the US government where Bill Gates’ combative, nit-picking, argumentative and disdainful approach was much criticised. Bill Gates, in his foreword, credits Smith with changing the way Microsoft saw itself and others.
He led the transformation of the company to becoming collaborative, participative, persuasive and willing to work with the government and all stakeholders, including the competition.
This book brings out these attributes of Smith’s approach. Working on principles and within “guiderails” that Satya Nadella (he is mentioned more than once) and he laid out, Smith comes across as a humble, concerned, involved and caring individual — one who is interested in solving problems together with others, and not being coy about quietly mentioning the more than considerable resources at his disposal.
For example, that Microsoft Research alone has over 800 computer science Ph.Ds, while a top US university would have about 150 faculty and post-doctoral fellows. To his credit, he is open about working with Big Tech and with governments — from local to state to national and foreign — to make the case for Microsoft’s position on important matters.
He argues for government regulation, unusual from the typical tech industry, but is aware of the power at his disposal to influence and impact policy and law. For example, how the CLOUD (Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data) Act came into being. Or about the impact of the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl or of Charlie Hebdo on sharing information with law enforcement officers. Of how the PRIZM project of the NSA – Edward Snowden’s memoir Permanent Record is just out too – raised issues about how, when and for what should Microsoft work with the US government unlike other members of Big Tech.
The close relationship between Big Tech and the US government cannot be ignored.
The book is divided into 15 eminently readable chapters. It is peppered with interesting largely unknown historical trivia that provides context for law.
For example the 18th Century English case of John Wilkes, where the courts ruled against the monarch protecting the rights of citizens from random searches and seizure by the king, to the 19th century case of the American Otis against the British that raised concerns about civil liberties to the American Census bureau officer Zellmer Pettet whose book The Farm Horse traced the Big Depression of the 1930s to the advent of the automobile era and consequent demise of the horse leading to agricultural distress, Brad discusses ethics and AI where Satya Nadella reminds him of Cicero and the Mahabarta (sic).
He even meets the Pope to discuss ethics. This while en route to the Munich Security Conference to meet the world’s military leaders!
While the book is written essentially from the point of view of a leader in one of the most powerful companies from the world’s most powerful country, it is still a book that Indian policy makers, regulators, academics and think tanks must read.
With Big Tech from the US and China eying the opportunities in a billion people plus multi-trillion dollar economy, it is all the more imperative. The asymmetry of power, technology capacity, talent and state policy making and regulatory capacity between the author’s world and us (and the rest of the world) needs to be understood.
We are a country that will be significantly data rich before we are economically rich. And therefore, given our capacity and style of functioning, it should serve as a wake-up call for our various constituencies to not only ask relevant questions and frame responses to our issues within our set of principles but learn to work collaboratively and in partnership with all stakeholders important to India, Indian companies and citizens.
Policies and regulations around data localisation, cross border data flows, privacy, open data initiatives, collaborating with companies and countries, framing international agreements, creating and nurturing talent are issues that India is grappling with today.
If we don’t get our act together and control our destiny, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution will pass us by, much like the Industrial Revolution did.
Sanjay Anandaram has over 30 years of experience as a member of India’s technology-entrepreneur-investment-innovation ecosystem. He is a keen observer of geopolitics especially as it relates to technology and is also the co-founder of NICEorg that aims to catalyze Indian cultural entrepreneurship
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