We’ve built a power structure that leaves the public good begging at the door. This must change.
Over the past few years I’ve been looking for a grand unifying theory that explains my growing discomfort with technology, an industry for which I’ve been a mostly unabashed cheerleader these past three decades.
I think it all comes down to how our society manages its most crucial new resource: Data.
That our largest technology companies have cornered the market on the data that powers our society’s most important functions is not in question. Who better than Amazon understands at-scale patterns in commerce (and with AWS, our demand for compute-related resources)? Who better than Google understands what products, services, and knowledge we want, and our path to finding them? Who better than Facebook understands our relationships to others and our interaction with (often bad) ideas? And who better than Apple (and Google) understand the applications, services, and entertainment we choose to engage with every day (not to mention our location, our ID, our most personal data, and on and on)?
These companies also dominate two crucial assets related to data: The compute power necessary to translate data into actionable insights, and the human talent required to leverage them both. Taken together, these three assets — massive amounts of data, massive compute platforms, and legions of highly trained engineers and data scientists — represent our society’s best path to understanding itself, and thereby improving all of our lives.
If anything should be defined as a public good — “a commodity or service provided without profit to all members of a society” — it should be the ability to study and understand society toward a goal of improving everyone’s lives.
But over the past decade, the most valuable data, processing power, and people have become concentrated in a handful of private companies that have demonstrated an almost genetic unwillingness to share their platform as a public good. Sure, they’ll happily share their platforms’ output — their consumer products — as for-profit services. And yes, each of us as consumers can benefit greatly from free social media, free search, free access to the “Everything Store,” and expensive but oh-so-worth-it smart phones.
But while each of us gets to benefit individually, none of us get to benefit from the wholistic, aggregated view of the world that the tech oligarchy has over its billions of consumers. And only the tech platforms — and their shareholders — are accruing the benefit of that perspective.
Why am I on about this? Because having access to good, at-scale data, and the platforms and people to learn from that data, is a clear proxy for progress in our society. We all marvel at the extraordinary capabilities, profits, and market caps of the tech platforms. They are the modern equivalents of the industrial powerhouses that transformed the American landscape in the early 20th century.
Back then, what was good for GM was good for the USA. But when we went to war, we went to war in partnership with those companies. GM, Alcoa, US Steel and their peers’ capitalistic platforms became our government’s most important wartime assets.
And while it feels odd to write this, no serious scholar of modern geopolitics disputes that we are now at war — a new kind of information-based war, but war, nevertheless — with Russia in particular, but in all honesty, with a multitude of nation states and stateless actors bent on destroying western democratic capitalism. They are using our most sophisticated and complex technology platforms to wage this war — and so far, we’re losing. Badly.
Why? According to sources I’ve talked to both at the big tech companies and in government, each side feels the other is ignorant, arrogant, misguided, and incapable of understanding the other side’s point of view. There’s almost no data sharing, trust, or cooperation between them. We’re stuck in an old model of lobbying, soft power, and the occasional confrontational hearing.
Not exactly the kind of public-private partnership we need to win a war, much less a peace.
Am I arguing that the government should take over Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple so as to beat back Russian info-ops? No, of course not. But our current response to Russian aggression illustrates the lack of partnership and co-ordination between government and our most valuable private sector companies. And I am hoping to raise an alarm: When the private sector has markedly better information, processing power, and personnel than the public sector, one will only strengthen, while the latter will weaken. We’re seeing it play out in our current politics, and if you believe in the American idea, you should be extremely concerned.
During WWII, the US economy mobilized, growing at more than 10 percent for several years in a row. Sweeping new partnerships were established between large American corporations, new entrants to the workforce (black Americans and women in particular), and the government. And when the war was won, the peace dividend drove the United States to its current position as the most powerful nation — and economy — on the planet.
We desperately need a new compact between business and government, in particular as it relates to the most important resources in our society: data, processing power, and human intellectual capital.
In my next column I’ll dive into ideas for how we might mitigate our current imbalance, and the role that anti-trust may — or may not — play in that rebalancing. (Update, here it is.)