“The cult of entrepreneurship and tech leaders is starting to fade. Young people are asking: Is this really the world we want to inherit?” says Lucie Greene in conversation with Maciej Chojnowski
Maciej Chojnowski: In your book Silicon States. The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future, your focus is on the expansion of Big Tech companies into the areas traditionally reserved for governments (health service, education, transportation etc.). But public institutions have often dealt quite poorly with large-scale projects while private companies tend to be more agile. So maybe governments need stimulation from the market? What’s the biggest problem here: the government-market competition itself or the size and power of digital behemoths?
Lucie Greene*: There are a few things going on here. It’s true, there is definitely the perception (and experience from those that work inside) that governments tend to be slower and less agile when it comes to projects. As more and more aspects of our lives go digital, so too government services have needed to digitise, and tech companies present themselves as the experts at this. Hence, you have companies from Amazon to Google and its subsidiaries, vying to offer services to government. But the issue is not the speed of execution, or even expertise.
So what’s the issue?
The lens of those creating these services, which is often commercial and being designed often by staffs that are lacking in diversity.
What kind of impact can it have?
Government services and the state need to be inclusive and accessible to all, and unbias. But it’s been shown in the UN Poverty report, among other reports, that as government services digitise and automate, they are becoming exclusive to the detriment of those without internet, the elderly, the poor, and those with more complex queries than can be solved by a chatbot or algorithm. All the while with no humans left on the end of a phone line to assist.
Big Tech services such as photo recognition and AI are already showing signs of racial bias in policing. (It’s been shown that photo recognition technology is less able to accurately identify between ethnic minorities.)
Big Tech innovations like Microsoft Hololens are also being used by the military – outside of gaming – to optimise soldiers in combat, which has created backlash from employees.
Is there a different way to go about this?
There have been examples of different routes. Megan Smith, the CTO under Barack Obama in the US was a former Googler and made a point of bringing in Silicon Valley talent for terms within the administration, lending their talents to optimise government digital services with an ethical lens.
Companies like FutureGov have also started working with governments to create websites and services with UX and efficiency akin to other popular services like Uber and Facebook, but with a more inclusive lens.
There is a third way, in other words.
As government services digitise and automate, they are becoming exclusive to the detriment of those without internet, the elderly, the poor, and those with more complex queries than can be solved by a chatbot or algorithm
New consumer technologies powered by AI (speech recognition, natural language processing, visual recognition) will soon become ubiquitous in our everyday life. Although they can gather huge volume of detailed data about users, they are becoming more and more popular – especially among millennials. According to your book, millennials also like the idea of Silicon Valley leaders entering politics. Do you think these data-driven new technologies will be used in the future to influence voters? Should we expect a new era of digital technocracy?
I think we are already seeing that as evidence emerges across the world of how social networks like Facebook and YouTube have been used to spread extremist content, fake news, and political ads.
The potential of this becomes more troublesome with the advent of 5G, the Internet of Things, and visual and verbal recognition, which will essentially not only lead to an era of hyper surveillance, but for hyper immersive influence. It also means the number of data points on us will increase exponentially allowing for hyper targeting. Especially as one considers the abilities of these technologies to personalise and anticipate messaging and behaviour using AI.
What exactly do you mean?
5G means that Virtual Reality could be possible everywhere, making 360 media which could manipulate audiences. It all creates the white space for even bigger monopolies and no signs of slowing them down.
As Rowland Manthorpe, Tech Correspondent recently commented on 5G specifically. “One day, we’ll look back at the late 2010s and laugh at how easy it would have been to tackle the puny tech giants of that time” adding that whatever new tech giants emerge in future, their “business model will be surveillance.”
As far as digital economy is concerned, global market is currently divided between two main superpowers – the United States and China. The Chinese government endorses developing new technologies like AI. But what about the US? To many people it may seem that the more influential American companies get, the better it is for the US economy. Why then regulate something that drives economic growth? On the other hand, the venture capitalist and AI expert Kai-Fu Lee claims that the real problem in the upcoming years will be internal crises (like mass unemployment resulting from the widespread automation), not the international ones. What’s your view on this?
Fascinating. Yes, part of the reason the US tech giants continue to grow unthwarted is that they historically (and continue to) link to America’s geo-economic strength. If Amazon and Google aren’t in China, Chinese tech giants will be. And they will likewise get access to vast pools of information on those citizens and consumers, while also forging close relations with respective governments.
The tipping point comes as Big Tech US giants start to actively displace revenues from governments, continue to avoid tax, and create greater strains on them through unemployment, efficiencies in services, and new areas that require state resource to regulate such as drones.
This is definitely not a comfortable situation for governments.
This is creating a pincer movement on government, weakening its income and straining its resources. This at the same time as an ideological battle in which government is positioned as slow, and backward (not helped by the fudged baby boomer questions in congressional hearings of tech leaders.)
The creep’s has continued as Big Tech’s spending on lobbying has increased. As well as its promise of new jobs in major cities where it lands.
Governments seem to be increasingly at a disadvantage.
But this might be changing. At Davos there was a huge wave of populist criticism of extreme wealth and corporations, and tax avoidance. Amazon’s subsidies and tax breaks to move its 2nd headquarters to Queens New York received widespread backlash.
Politicians in the US like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are starting to frame issues like climate change within socio economic terms, and increasingly Big Tech will become viewed in the same way. In other words, for the first time someone is pointing out that climate change and disaster disproportionately hits the poor. The same is true of Big Tech’s negative influence.
We have a Green New Deal, and I believe that soon people will see Big Tech in the same way – anti-democratic, wealth driven (for all the marketing spin and billionaire philanthropy), and driving polarisation of incomes. A Big Tech New Deal is coming.
Who will support this movement in the first place?
This is coming as millennials generally are leaning to the left. We’re seeing a resurgence of socialism among young millennials who remain systemically challenged by the economy they inherited and are starting to see Neo Liberalism as a failure – the neo liberalist era saw a close relationship between big tech and government grow in both the US and UK, and has also been instrumental in their growth.
What’s interesting about this is that it is creating pressure on the Big Tech brands that Chinese tech does not necessarily suffer. As Western consumer facing brands, Facebook, Airbnb, Google, Uber, Amazon, all want to remain broadly popular with consumers and still attempt to seem responsive to governments. In China, the relationship between tech and government (and surveillance) is much more symbiotic and open. And these companies are taking that same approach in to markets they move in to.
EU believes that legal and ethical regulations on AI could give it a competitive edge over the countries where the use of such instruments is limited. Do you think this kind of policy can be effective in the long run? Can we expect other countries to follow the European standards?
There’s definitely a ramped up attempt coming from governments – and big tech companies claiming to care – to wrap in ethics to technological innovation generally. Salesforce is hiring a chief ethics officer. Apple is talking about privacy as a human right. The World Economic Forum and Amnesty International are looking at the ethical implications of both AI and other new technologies. Tim Berners Lee, the original inventor of the internet, has also published a manifesto for a more inclusive version of the internet – his comment being that the current hyper capitalist machine we have is bad.
In place of NASA we had the likes of Elon Musk, in place of healthcare we had Jeff Bezos reinventing health insurance and dropping supplies to hurricane-ridden Puerto Rico
Governments historically have been slow to get ahead of, and understand, emerging technologies from platforms, to AI and that’s led to dire consequences as we saw with Cambridge Analytica. The EU is smart to try and get ahead of this – apart from anything else, increased regulation could lead to new tax revenues to benefit from technological innovations. How successful it will be is another question.
GDPR could be a point of reference here.
GDPR has been highly controversial and debatable in its success. Meanwhile, debate continues about whether platforms like Facebook and Youtube should be considered media giants or something new. Regulating AI could be just as nebulous and calamitous. How do you really go about regulating AI?
Either way a greater understanding of AI implications at a government level has to be a good thing, though.
In Silicon States, you say that the success of the Big Tech companies stems from our addiction to digital devices and de facto – our apathy. Massive opt-outs seem unlikely because we like the convenience of new technologies. If society is in apathy, where should we expect revival coming from? Governments? To some people (especially libertarians), this would be a paternalistic point of view. To others, like the economist Mariana Mazzucato or the late historian Tony Judt, governments should be more active in terms of their market participation. What would your position be here?
I think historically we’ve seen quite political apathy from millennials, but events like Brexit and the US election have been galvanising. As many reach professional and economic maturity they are connecting the dots to deep systemic challenges and blows they have been dealt. They are starting to take action and run for office. As I mentioned, we’re seeing a resurgence of the left as a result of their disillusionment of center left policies which dominated until recently.
I think the cult of entrepreneurship, unicorns, and tech leaders is also starting to fade. Millennials and Gen Zs (also becoming voters rapidly) are starting to ask: Is this really the world we want to inherit? You’re also seeing millennials start to leave big tech industries and apply their expertise (market expertise) to brands and industries with purpose and ethical principals. All exciting developments.
Millennials are waking up?
This is an interesting development as for the past few years civic engagement among millennials has been low. In fact, one of the core missions for the Obama foundation is marketing civic engagement and participation to young people.
We also until recently saw a lack of faith in government’s ability to innovate – in place of NASA we had the likes of Elon Musk, in place of healthcare we had Jeff Bezos reinventing health insurance and dropping supplies to hurricane-ridden Puerto Rico. These leaders had captured the imagination for building the new world, even if it was using government resources. And somewhat worryingly, this massive success narrative was also being attributed to white men.
This wasn’t always the case. Governments historically have invested in some of the most important technologies (the invention of the Web, and what we know now as Siri voice recognition.) However, as Silicon Valley and tech has exploded, and its wealth, private tech has actually started to dominate innovation over government. And with that its direction – often veering towards commercial interests and applications.
Can we influence what is happening in any way?
There have been moves to combat this. During the Obama administration there was also a VC fund set up to try and get the government at the table for new aquisitions of emerging technologies. New companies such as Shift7, founded by Megan Smith, are also being launched to innovate in an inclusive way.
Hopefully this will mirror more investment from government in innovation. What’s clear is that hand in hand with this, government needs to do a better “soft” battle and campaign for its role in society, and as an innovator, because until recently the tech giants had appeared dominant and appeared more dynamic in fields like tech.
Governments need to shout louder about the cool things they do and their vital role in society to secure a young generation that believe in the state and participate in democracy.
*Lucie Greene is the Worldwide Director of the Innovation Group and JWTIntelligence.com at Wunderman Thompson. She leads Wunderman Thompson’s ongoing research around emerging global consumer behaviors, cultural changes and sector innovation.
In August 2018, Lucie released her debut book with Counterpoint entitled, Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What it Means for Our Future.
Lucie has over a decade of experience exploring emerging shifts in lifestyle and consumer behavior for both international publications and brands. She steers thought leadership globally, working closely with The Innovation Group units in APAC, Europe and Middle East.
Lucie has also been featured as an expert on trends and consumer insights on the BBC, Fox News and Bloomberg TV as well as contributed pieces to Campaign, The Guardian, The New York Daily News and The Financial Times. She has spoken at several conferences including SXSW, Web Summit and The Next Web.
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