From the October 2018 issue: Yuval Noah Harari on why technology favors tyranny
Also in April, Google and Apple announced that they would suspend their rivalry to work with nations of the world to create a new alert system. They would reconfigure their mobile operating systems, incompatible by design, to notify users if they have stepped within the radius of a device held by a COVID‑19 patient.
The companies have failed to impress some public-health officials with their initial efforts, but their hastily designed program will likely improve with subsequent iterations. It could evolve to function like the official papers that Europeans are always fumbling to present to the authorities in grainy war movies. By documenting your history of social contact, your phone could be used to help demonstrate your fitness to return to the office or board a flight.
The shock of the virus has overwhelmed government at every level. In states facing an unmanageable deluge of unemployment claims, Amazon and Google have stepped in to revamp antique systems so that money can flow with less bureaucratic friction. When Nadella invoked the possibilities of a new alliance, he was alluding to the abrupt shift to telemedicine and virtual learning. Public health and education may be traditional functions of government, but Nadella suggested that his industry should share the burden: “We at Microsoft view ourselves as digital first responders.”
The blessings bestowed by the online economy in this strange time are indisputable, and we should be grateful for them. But that’s not a reason to suspend skepticism of the tech industry as it attempts to make the most of the moment. In the years before the virus, critics began to prophesy that a handful of tech companies would soon grow more powerful than the government. Their scale and influence, and their ability to manipulate public opinion and shape markets, would permit them to reign unimpeded.
That warning, however dark, didn’t quite capture the emerging strategy of these firms—a strategy that was in fact taking shape before the pandemic began—or the graver threat they pose. Rather than supplanting government, they have, in essence, sought to merge with it.
Tech executives didn’t always yearn to work in league with government. During their years of wild growth and political immaturity, the tech companies sounded like teenagers encountering Ayn Rand for the first time. Like John Galt, the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged, they muttered about the evils of government and how it kept down great innovators. This view of the world smacked of self-interest. Companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook wanted to avoid the sorts of regulatory controls that constrained their older, more established competitors.
But if self-interest neatly aligned with idealism, the idealism was real. Google’s co‑founder Sergey Brin, a refugee from the former Soviet Union, warned about the moral costs of the company’s foray into China. He styled himself a purist, and the company’s experience in the country ultimately illustrated the logic of his stance: Despite abiding by the dictates of the regime, Google was breached by Chinese hackers, who attempted to steal its intellectual property and peer into the Gmail accounts of human-rights activists. In 2010, after four years of operating on the mainland, Google decamped to Hong Kong.