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Tools and Weapons Review: A Look at Social Media, Digital Diplomacy and AI

If you caught the Techin5 CES review episode (if you didn’t, catch it here) you heard us mention Microsoft President Brad Smith's keynote speech at the event. Smith discussed how technology, for as powerful as it is and can be, can get out of control and be used against people and countries.

And it wasn’t a stretch to think that, as the U.S. had just suffered from a digital attack just a few short weeks before his speech.  (Missed that too?  No problem check out our Techin5 episode here).  Smith said how technology could be both a tool and weapon, which just happened to be the title of his 2019 book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age.  So, I decided to take a deeper dive into this New York Times Bestseller for more information.

Tools and Weapons: The Promise and Peril of the Digital Age written by Smith and Carol Ann Browne, is not a massive book but packs a punch in every chapter.  It sets the stage right off the bat, as Smith talks about “the world’s filing cabinet,” otherwise known as the Cloud.  Drawing on our human history, Smith and Browne discuss the evolution of technology from our earliest days of communication to the servers in which our data lives now.  It is incredible to think that all happened in such a short period. Technology is ever evolving and seems practically endless, and the Cloud is just the latest milestone on the rapidly changing timeline.  But the bigger the Cloud continues to grow, the more the number of potential problems increases.  Sure, security and privacy are the first top-of-mind concerns, but Smith and Browne present additional cases that support the need for more regulation, both on a national and international stage.

The subsequent chapters are divided into fifteen common technologies, focusing on the history, status quo, and need for intervention. As much as I could spend hours breaking down each chapter, I will focus on my top 3.  These are by no means the best or most controversial chapters, but ones that address technologies that are either evolving, on the brink of change or whose impacts should be looked at further.

Social Media

Whether you love it or hate it, social media has become the easiest and fastest way to spread information. From funny memes to elaborate events to the news happening in real-time, it is a way for anyone, anywhere, to find out what’s happening in the world. But behind the tweets and posts, we are seeing adversaries take advantage of this wide availability. It has allowed people of all backgrounds to play with the platform’s users’ values and fears. Ultimately, as Smith puts it, “Undermining the social stability on which societies depend (page 100).”

Since its inception, we have put the responsibility on the platforms themselves to intervene, and rarely did they. After the 2016 election, Facebook was on the line for allowing the spread of disinformation. Yet in 2020, Twitter took a bold step of including a label to tweets as “potential including misleading information.” In both situations, the US government has long stayed away from the censorship of content, citing the First Amendment as its reasoning. But other countries aren’t as cut and dry about it. As we continue to get more and more digital, the public and private sectors will have to agree on how to proceed and protect the voice and messages of its users.  No one is sure where to start, although some argue Twitter’s actions were at least an attempt.

Digital Diplomacy

The Geneva Convention was signed back in 1929 and created the rules around how we interact with our friends and enemies during war and peace times. But it was drafted way before we would deal with one of the biggest concerns of the 21st century, cybersecurity. In the past five years, the United States has been attacked by adversaries, all during military peacetime. Except these attacks weren’t conducted through missiles or bombs, but rather attacks on our data. And the US is not alone, as other countries have suffered similar fates, sometimes even knocking out electric grids.  Which brings up the question: What if the world created a new policy, a Digital Geneva Convention?

Smith states in the book, “There’s no national security without cybersecurity (page 110).” Past administrations have attempted to discuss the issue, and most recently, it was felt the US would comply, but our adversaries would not. Since the governments couldn’t agree, it was left to the global tech firms to intervene. Smith talks about Microsoft and others’ role in pushing for a global policy by taking steps to empower the ecosystem and working together for mutual benefit. It also seems the current administration is more on board with this idea, so we might be closer to a digital international rule than we might think. But we better start doing something now.

AI and the Workforce

It is no secret the next significant advancement in technology is Artificial Intelligence, known as AI (Techin5 also covers this one, check it out here).  Although Hollywood tends to show human-created AI as the destroyer of Earth (looking at you, Ultron), the idea of being that close to the singularity is still very far off. Right now, AI can help make our lives easier and take out some of the repetitive steps no one ever really enjoyed doing. But nay-sayers aren’t only talking about world destruction; the next negative comment is jobs and the workforce. Smith and Browne call out a similar situation when shiny new combustion engines replaced horses in the fire departments. Many thought the only ones without jobs anymore were the horses, where in reality, it affected an entire ecosystem meant to breed, feed, and take care of those horses.  And that was just on a small scale.  But the unanimous thought is that we can’t stifle innovation, some things are meant to evolve and change. But what about our jobs?

Smith and Browne also discuss the resiliency of the human race. We are continually growing, and although technology makes a step in and eliminates some jobs, it will also create a need for others. Perhaps we won’t need fast food order takers or taxi drivers, but there will be a need for soft skills and creative thinking that no computer can recreate.  Job positions not even thought of in past generations will be the norm for our children and grandchildren. And as easy as it is to consider technology and innovation will be supreme, we must consider the cultural values and choices that will drive the future. Computer and robots might be faster and the brawn to do the work, but humans still have the brains.

In my opinion, Smith and Browne did an excellent job of breaking down the chosen technology in each chapter and making a case for making it better, more robust, and ultimately more ethical.  They show us the warning signs without striking fear and clarify we are still ahead of the curve. But the moment is coming when technology will destroy more than it creates and do more harm than good.  At one point in the book, Smith references the technology that changes America in the 1800s, the railroad. Pulling the quote from the Manual of the Railroads of the United States, he stresses how the railroads were America’s first big business that functioned in multiple states. I thought the quote was quite thought-provoking and decided to make a minor tweak to match the current day.  I feel it sums up a lot. “No enterprise is so seductive as technology for the influence it exerts, the power it gives, and the hope of gain it offers—authentic and powerful words. I only hope the influence, strength and hope are used for good and technology stay more of a tool for prosperity than weapons against ideals.

Author: Madeline Tomchick | mtomchick@withum.com

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