The right conditions and decisions will not emerge without strong input from technologists themselves. I valued this input greatly when I was secretary of defense. It’s why I founded the Defense Digital Service, the Defense Innovative Unit-Experimental (DIU-X) in Silicon Valley, and the Defense Innovation Board, which included senior leaders such as Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, Reid Hoffman, and Jen Pahlka. Despite the Snowden hangover, I found a hunger among most technologists to be part of something bigger than themselves and their firms.
Unfortunately, there’s another ethos that’s hostile to this line of thinking. It is pervasive in digital tech and more prevalent perhaps among the generation that followed my mentors. This libertarian ethos is inherently distrustful of government and believes that public good and public purpose will somehow emerge through a popular and supposedly freer mechanism. This philosophy assumes that past major technological disruptions were weathered without accompanying changes in governance. But that’s not the case.
Take the farm-to-factory migration. Hundreds of millions of people altered their way of life when collective mechanized effort became the norm. Their lives were generally much better in the end, but this transition took decades to sort out. It fueled the rise of communism, exacerbated urban poverty, and in some places led to failed states. It was rocky.
The success of this first technical revolution was not automatic. In the United States, its sharp edges were rounded not by laws of technology or economics alone, but by the sweeping, deliberate changes brought about by what we now call the Progressive movement, which created the Food and Drug Administration, child-labor laws, compulsory public education, boards of public health, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, muckraking journalism, and labor unions, among other innovations. By establishing minimum standards of safety and trust, these reforms made impersonal, large-scale commerce possible. Our charge today is to create an analogous effort to leaven today’s disruptive change so we get the good with less of the bad. Nowhere is this need more acute than with regard to social media, artificial intelligence, and the biotech revolution.
Social media are wonderful enablers of commerce and community, but also of darkness, hatred, lies, and isolation; invasion of privacy; even attack. That’s why the congressional hearings with Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, earlier this year were so important. The public understood the stakes: Ninety-one percent of Americans, according to Pew, feel they’ve lost control of how their personal data are collected and used. The hearings were a chance to uncover the dilemmas and pave the road for solutions.
Instead, they laid an egg. They missed a historic opportunity to devise what everyone agreed is needed: a mix of self-regulation by tech companies and informed regulation by government. Zuckerberg gave an account of his company’s ethical conduct that sufficed for one news cycle, but will not suffice for the arc of history. As for the quality of the congressional questioning, all I can say is that I wish members had been as poorly prepared to question me on war and peace in the scores of testimonies I gave as they were when asking Facebook about the public duties of tech companies.