Throughout history almost all useful and pervasive tools have been latterly used as weapons. In some cases, it may be in self-defence as an improvised weapon, it might be more premeditated in the creation of some makeshift weapon or perhaps even more overtly as a purposeful weaponization of some powerful tool we as a species have invented for ourselves.
Looking back at the torrent of innovation and adoption of technology in the decade we’re approaching the end of, some of the powerful tools, almost all powered by exponentially growing sets of data, have begun with the promise to serve us, connect us, to unite us. It’s also clear that the openness, connectedness and inherent trust we seem to have for these tools makes them a powerful and perhaps subversive weapon.
I watched Netflix’s “The Great Hack” this month. The film focuses on a few key characters from one of the companies most publicly associated with exploiting and weaponizing loopholes in Facebook’s data protections, Cambridge Analytica. My favourite line in the film comes from the COO/CFO Julian Wheatland’s observation buried right at the end – “There was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica….It just sucks for me that it was Cambridge Analytica”.
The sentiment Wheatland outlines here is that from day one the central premise of how Silicon Valley collects, extracts value from, and then creates markets from ‘volunteered’ personal data, what Shoshana Zuboff refers to as “Surveillance Capitalism”, made its exploitation and manipulation on the grand scales of the US Presidential Election in 2016 and preceded by the groundwork for Brexit an inevitability. It was merely a question of who pushed too far, too fast first.
In this dystopian presentation of the world we apparently bought ourselves for the benefit of sharing pictures of our meals and fluffy kitten videos across the Internet, it’s pleasantly surprising then, and a strong reinforcement for me personally that ‘I’m working in the right place’ when Brad Smith, President at Microsoft teased elements of his forthcoming book with Carol Ann Browne “Tools and Weapons – The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age” – in his Corenote presentation to Microsoft staff at the recent Microsoft Ready conference in Las Vegas.
The full book is due shortly, but the headline statement of “Companies that create technology must accept greater responsibility for the future, and governments will need to regulate technology by moving faster and catching up with the fast pace of innovation.” for me sums up that trust must lie at the heart of technology and all involved must take accountability for our actions, our data and the systems we build in order to earn the trust that has until now been implied and, in many examples abused.