This is an excerpt from “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age” by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne, publishing Sept. 10 from Penguin Press.
Some say that data has become the oil of the 21st century. But that understates the reality.
Unlike oil, data has become a renewable resource that we humans can create ourselves. This decade will end with almost 25 times as much digital data as when it began. With artificial intelligence, or AI, we’re doing more with data than ever before.
We call the digital infrastructure that supports this the cloud. While its name sounds soft and fluffy, in truth the cloud is a fortress. Every time you look something up on your smartphone, you pull data from a mammoth data center — a modern-day marvel.
In many ways, the modern data center sits at the center of the new digital era that the world has entered. Its massive accumulation of data, storage, and computing power has created an unprecedented platform for progress across the economies of the world.
And it has unleashed many of the most challenging issues of our time.
How do we strike the right balance between public safety, individual convenience, and personal privacy in this new era? How do we protect ourselves from cyberattacks that are using this technology to disrupt our countries, businesses, or personal lives?
How do we manage the economic effects that are now rippling across our communities? Are we creating a world that will have jobs for our children? Are we creating a world we can even control?
The answers to all these questions need to start with a better appreciation for how technology is changing. While sweeping digital transformation holds great promise, the world has turned information technology into both a powerful tool and a formidable weapon.
This tension is the most pronounced in the world’s democracies. Wracked by unease about immigration, trade, and income inequality, these nations increasingly confront populist and nationalist fissures that result in part from seismic technology shifts. Technology’s benefits aren’t distributed evenly, and the nature and speed of change is challenging individuals, communities, and entire nations.
Democratic societies collectively confront greater challenges than they’ve faced in almost a century, and in some cases other countries are using technology itself to exploit this vulnerability.
This book examines these issues from the cockpit of one of the world’s largest technology companies. It tells the story of a tech sector trying to come to terms with forces that are bigger than any one company or even the entire industry. In so doing, it tells a story not just about trends and ideas, but about people, decisions, and actions to address a rapidly changing world.
It’s an unfolding drama that we at Microsoft sometimes see from a different vantage point.
Two decades ago, we were thrust into the heart of what might be considered modern information technology’s first collision with the world. In the United States, the Department of Justice and twenty states brought an antitrust lawsuit and sought to break Microsoft into pieces.
While we successfully defended against the breakup of the company, it was a difficult, bruising, and even painful experience. But we emerged from the challenges both older and wiser. It was like being in the first class to graduate from a new school. We weren’t necessarily first in the class, but we had the benefit of getting through school before everyone else.
Today’s technology issues are far broader and deeper than they were twenty years ago. We’ve reached a critical inflection point for both technology and society — a time that beckons with opportunity but that also calls for urgent steps to address pressing problems.
As a result, like Microsoft two decades ago, the tech sector will need to change. The time has come to recognize a basic but vital tenet: When your technology changes the world, you bear a responsibility to help address the world that you have helped create.
This might seem uncontroversial, but not in a sector long focused obsessively on rapid growth, and sometimes on disruption as an end in itself. In short, companies that create technology must accept greater responsibility for the future.
But another tenet is equally important: The tech sector cannot address these challenges by itself. The world needs a mixture of self-regulation and government action.
Here too there are heightened implications for the world’s democracies, in part because they are the most dependent on sustaining a broad economic and social consensus at a time when technology is such a disruptive force.
More than ever, it seems difficult for many democratic governments to summon the will to act. But this is a time when democratic governments must move forward with new policies and programs — separately, with each other, and in a new form of collaboration with the tech sector itself.
Put simply, governments need to move faster and start to catch up with the pace of technology.
These challenges come without a playbook, but there are nonetheless important insights that can be learned and applied from the past. This book speaks to the opportunities and challenges of the future in part by drawing upon the lessons of the past — with thoughts about how we can learn from them.
Ultimately, these questions involve technology and its implications for our jobs, our security, and the world’s most fundamental human rights. We need to reconcile an era of rapid technological change with traditional and even timeless values. To achieve this goal, we must ensure that innovation continues but does so in a way that makes technology and the companies that create it subject to democratic societies and our collective capacity to define our destiny.
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