Do you know what a “Big Tech Ambassador” is? Neither did I until today.
My favorite part about writing this column, is when I discover something that really changes my perspective, my thinking, or my approach to a given topic.
I write mostly about the challenges (and opportunities) to society and government provided by Big Tech. We have all watched over the past few years as more and more Tech Giants surpasses the Trillion dollar mark (that’s right) and have become as powerful, or more powerful in many ways, than nation-states. We have all watched as Congress, in this country, has called the CEOs of the “big 4” to testify, and is mulling a series of regulations to try to limit big tech’s power, influence and independence.
It is with this context I ran across a truly novel idea — a “big tech ambassador”. Alexis Wichowski writes about it this week in Wired.
Nations Need Ambassadors to Big Tech
We live in two worlds: We're citizens of countries but also visitors of " net states," massive tech companies that…
The idea is so simple, and yet, nobody had thought about it, until now. I guess that’s how you know its a good idea.
The concept- according to Wichowski — we are living in an age of “net states” that in many ways, are more powerful than actual countries. We are increasingly dependent on them, they make their own rules, for their own interests. And by the time countries, especially democracies, get around to figuring out regulations and legislation, big tech has already adapted itself — staying 10 steps ahead.
“Yet this dual-worldedness seems to confuse governments. They may recognize that Big Tech has country-like powers, but they can’t seem to figure out how to deal with their very un-country-like structures. As a result, most countries are still floundering when it comes to controlling net states, flinging old world weapons like fines and regulations into an indifferent and engulfing ether.”
What to do? Wichowski points to the example of Denmark, who in 2017 appointed a diplomat to what would “become the world’s first tech ambassador.” Most governments know how to appoint ambassadors to other governments or international bodies like the UN, the EU, the African Union or NATO, to give a few examples. However, nobody has learned to use the ambassadorial approach with Big Tech. Watching our members of Congress over the past year try to confront Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues was sad and highlighted just how out of touch and behind our elected representatives are with reality.
Since, she notes, “at least a dozen additional countries have followed” suit. “While government officials lag behind the private sector in even basic digital literacy, Big Tech continues to steamroll its way into the future, amassing global power virtually unchecked. As they do, tech users float between platforms largely unprotected, our data hoovered up, repackaged, and sold without our say-so. But tech diplomats could offer governments a suite of new tactics for combating this. From traditional strategies like formally recognizing allies and adversaries to more modern approaches such as public-private partnerships, ambassadors with technical know-how could help nations more nimbly navigate this foreign territory.” This, of course, requires finding or developing those with real cutting edge knowledge of technology and who possess the skills of a diplomat. Something, that to the best of my knowledge, is rare.
The idea would also allow governments to work together to tackle common challenges, like extremism, cyber crime and others — that threaten society and big tech alike.
The idea makes a lot of sense. After all, we have various government envoys for issues that cut across countries or even regions — climate change, drugs, racism, terrorism and many more. Such an idea, appointing someone who can truly act as an intermediary, and help guide governments through “this time of societal digital transformation” is perhaps the most important challenge our current government is not trying to address.
Regulations, hearings, fines — they have their place and they are limited. But the tech world moves too fast. Tech in general is developing faster than our moral understandings can catch up. And at least ideally, isn’t government supposed to, at least to some extent, represent that moral understanding (or parts of it) in the public sphere? Having a tech ambassador who can liaison, instead of just playing cat and mouse, would make a lot of sense.
I recommend reading the article. And I recommend President Biden strongly consider such an option. The “real world” comprised of countries with governments, and the online world of big tech corporations, has become too enmeshed to avoid such an approach and such thinking.