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Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age

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Tools and Weapons is first and foremost a prescriptive work that doesn’t try to stay in one lane on the way to its point. Microsoft President Brad Smith extols the virtues of corporate responsibility specifically in the technology sector and how it relates to the mandate of the world’s governments. He reveals anecdotes from his experience as a lawyer for the fifth-largest tech company on earth to drive home the point that companies and governments need to work together to solve the problems of the future.

Smith is uniquely qualified to explore this matter, not only because he is the head of Microsoft but also because he is the person who guided the company through the antitrust battles of the 1990s.  Ethical questions abound in the book: How should privacy be protected? What role should tech companies play in defending the homeland from cyber threats? And can technology companies really be the benevolent arbiters of digital governance they claim to be? Smith then explores the vast legal and moral ramifications of these issues in a way that is very relevant and easy to understand even if you are not extremely tech-literate.

The book starts out with cyber attacks and privacy issues, then transitions to the ways Microsoft has led the charge in shaping responses to them. Personally attributable data is quickly becoming one of the most valuable global commodities, and it is stored under the stewardship of tech companies, especially within their cloud services. Smith compares technology companies and financial institutions, an analogy I found to be very effective in framing why they have such a strong compunction to fight battles over customer data. (33) It is that very data that makes Microsoft so lucrative, so they have a strong incentive to keep minds at ease when it comes to how it is used.     

The author also provides historical context when appropriate, for example the story of English journalist and outspoken privacy advocate John Wilkes and his fight against unlawful search and seizure in the 1760s. (27) Wilkes’ experience speaking out in defiance of British governmental overreach into the private lives of citizens was a particularly interesting parallel to the way private citizens’ data is exploited today. Learning how these battles were fought in the past is a helpful tool in thinking about how technology will challenge us in the future.

The final part of the book steers toward technology’s effects on social justice issues and how tech companies can work together with governments to ensure equity and morally sound policy. Smith cites tech executive Kai-Fu Lee and his theory of “AI superpowers” to illustrate the growing problem of just a handful of tech companies amassing vast troves of user data. He uses this example to frame just how uneven the gains from innovation can be, and why that needs to change.

I found it striking how all-encompassing a major technology company can be today. According to Smith, Microsoft’s bottom-line is only one facet of their portfolio, as they must manage their roles as businessmen, ethicists, diplomats, and even government stakeholders. The way the author describes his day-to-day, he sounds more like a head of state than the president of a company. To that point, there is a section of the book that goes into offensive cyber policy for private entities. The author sets up the idea with his experience dealing with the fallout of attacks like WannaCry and the 2016 presidential election meddling campaign. (86-87, 118) It was good to learn that  government decision makers decided to keep the private sector on the defend-and-inform posture, and that the leaders of Microsoft preferred it that way as well.

Smith does an excellent job detailing how tech companies have changed to keep up with the demands of running a company in the digital era. I found the employee advocacy aspect of management particularly interesting. The labor force has become socially conscious in a way not seen before--in that they demand their employers take substantive stances on social issues-- and I was eager to hear about this from the perspective of someone in Smith’s position. Although he takes an empathetic tone toward the desires of the tech workforce, he boldly pushes back on the idea that clients of tech companies should be subject to every moral whim of their employees. He uses the 2018 family separation crisis at the Mexican border in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as an example. In that case, Microsoft employees wanted to shut off all services to CBP but Brad Smith and the rest of the Microsoft executives refused. (225) In the author’s view, it wasn’t the place of tech companies to pass judgement on such issues by denying access to Microsoft services, which would effectively cripple the CBP’s operations. This issue shed light on the unique moral and ethical position tech companies are in, due to their ubiquitous presence in our lives.

In critical terms, I felt that there was too much time spent emphasizing the speed and efficacy of the private sector compared to the government, especially without illuminating a path to even the scales. To make progress in policy, the gridlock problem in Congress must be corrected through the power of the ballot box, not circumvented by large corporations. I felt that if Smith was going to dip his toe in social issues, he should have presented more solutions beyond just connecting more people to the internet. Mark Zuckerberg thought that strategy would help the developing world, and what he got was more proselytizing of violence and misinformation. That being said, I was interested in Smith’s references to the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), created in 1936 to bring electricity to rural Americans and connect every farmhouse or ranch to new innovations. (193) It was a very relevant historical precursor to his argument for closing the information and education divide in our society today.

          Overall I thought the book was fantastic. I enjoy historical context for framing modern issues, and Smith’s writing does that masterfully. A perspective from one of the leaders of the technology industry is invaluable in understanding where humanity is going. This understanding comes from looking through the lens of an elite group that relentlessly seeks innovation. This small group just happens to hold more power than most governments of the world do – but after reading this work I am not as apprehensive about that fact as I used to be.

book cover of tools and weapons by Brad Smith 

About the Author: 

Max Jentsch is a recent graduate of American University School of International Service. He earned a M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security. His research interests include intelligence, civilian-military relations, and the effects of a changing climate on national security.