Rudyard Griffiths: Welcome to tonight’s Munk Dialogue. The purpose of these Munk Dialogues is to get our minds thinking about, not the effect of this pandemic on us today or tomorrow, but how it is going to change our society in the months and years to come. Over previous episodes with people like Fareed Zakaria, Mohamed El-Erian, Samantha Power, Malcolm Gladwell, we focused on topics ranging from global affairs to the economy.
Tonight we get to dig deep into a vital topic that this pandemic has surfaced: The role of Big Tech and Silicon Valley in our society.
We are extremely fortunate to have one of the world’s smartest thinkers on what is happening with big technology in America and around the world. She’s a renowned journalist, author and entrepreneur. She’s a New York Times contributing columnist. She’s the editor of the technology website Recode. Kara Swisher joins us tonight.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Amplifying existing trends
Rudyard Griffiths: You have come up with an important thesis about how this pandemic has affected Big Tech and Big Tech’s impact on our society as a result of the pandemic. Can you unpack that for us?
Kara Swisher: I have written for a long time about the growing impact of technology on every aspect of our world, whether it’s education, health care, commerce, communications, media, whatever.
Tech has created the biggest and most important companies in the world. The people that run these companies are the richest people in human history and the most powerful and most unaccountable people in human history.
They have not just railways, like others did, or the steel mills, like [Andrew] Carnegie did. But in fact, they have data and information. They have never had so much data on so many human beings. It’s an incredibly powerful thing.
This pandemic, which is global, these companies, which are global, have created a situation where they are accelerating the trends they were already causing, such as the death of Main Street retail, this shift into monolithic companies. Google owns search, Facebook owns social media, Amazon owns commerce.
We’ve seen that we need them desperately in this pandemic situation in order to operate our society. It only further solidifies their strength. It further takes away the ability of regulators to control them. And it [reduces] the appetite to control them, which had been growing prepandemic.
Griffiths: Contact tracing is going to a big part of our response to the pandemic. It seems like a bit of a double-edged sword: On one hand, it gives these companies even more data. Maybe it normalizes the tracking and surveillance of populations. On the other hand, is that an opportunity for smart regulation? To start thinking about if we are going to use these platforms and these technologies for something that is in the public good – like contact tracing – then can we put a regulatory framework around that?
Swisher: I’m not particularly worried about contact tracing. We have been doing contact tracing in health crises forever. Going back to 1918, they did a version of contact tracing with pencils and paper. That is not, per se, the difficulty. And actually, Google and Apple, who are trying to do [contact tracing] together, have been very transparent. The question is when some of this information gets into other hands and what it could be used for.
Government really needs these tech giants to help them do their job, and so what does that mean? It is not necessarily a bad thing, because these are the companies that are good at these things.
It’s just a question of what does that mean? What does that mean when Microsoft and Amazon fight over a major defence contract, which they have been doing? These tech companies are moving into not just communications and apps and games and entertainment. They’re also moving into defence, security, surveillance, health care, transportation in ways that are really at the heart of society and the control of society.
Griffiths: You’ve written about this buzzword: America. 2.0. This idea that you don’t waste a crisis and that out of a crisis comes an opportunity to restructure. Can you unpack that?
Swisher: A lot of things are going to either recover or not exist at all. What should exist? What should be supported?
Some people think we should do more manufacturing in the United States, after having spent decades moving it abroad. Other people feel we should have a more equitable system for everybody, where we don't have this enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Twitter just announced that people could stay home forever. Well, isn’t that great for Twitter employees who are on the high levels of Twitter. Is that so great for their cafeteria employees?
It’s a question of what America 2.0 will be, and what it should be. Does it give us an opportunity to renew ourselves in a positive way or does it solidify some really scary trends around income inequality, around the power of giant companies, around a political system that is so partisan. In these crises, there could be opportunities to really rethink how we formulate ourselves.
The information economy and everyone else
Griffiths: What happens to society? How does society work?
Swisher: My family was in the coal business, so I think about it a lot. People shouldn’t be mining coal. Robots should. It’s dangerous. It’s bad for you. Maybe on some level – like software – humans should be involved. But for the most part, eventually machines do it better. Humans doing repetitive things probably will be replaced.
The question is: How can we create new jobs that are creative, that only humans can do and that appeal to our higher senses? How can we structure societies so that people can be innovative?
Otherwise, we are going to have a situation with lords and serfs. Some people who are in the information economy, the creative economy, are doing really well. And the others sort of serve them.
You need to think about what it means when there are enormously wealthy people and very poor people. This has gone on since the beginning of time, but it's really quite striking now, especially with all the unemployment that's to come.
You are either going to do something about income inequality or you’re going to armour-plate your Tesla. Which one do you want? What kind of society do you want?
I think we want to figure out a way so that everybody has dignified, safe work with good health care and the ability to raise their children without worrying about where the next paycheque is coming from. We’re so wealthy in this country that we should be able to work that out.
Big Tech and cities
Griffiths: Google Alphabet Labs pulled out of the Toronto waterfront development experiment. What did you think of that?
Swisher: I get nervous when Google starts to plan cities. I get nervous any time big companies start to act like governments that are elected by the people.
I have a real issue with lack of accountability. Even if they're going to bring you the most beautiful things in the world, if their CEO can't get fired because they control all the stock, I get nervous about that. Where's the public represented in any of this? That's the issue a lot of people have.
These companies, especially Google, have been long interested in what a city is like, and they’re going to be integral to cities going forward. Think about transportation: How are we going to have transportation in these heavily congested cities? There has to be autonomous cars, a more efficient way to do food distribution, all kinds of stuff.
These companies are part of this because it all rides on information and data and the ability to to manipulate data and use data and use insights from data. They would naturally be interested in it. I just worry, what will they extract for the privilege of doing this?
Watch the full Dialogue
Join us for the next Munk Dialogue
Next week, a conversation with Scott Gottlieb about the public health dimensions of COVID-19. What are the lessons learned? How will health care change in the months and years to come?
- Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner
- When: Thursday, May 21, at 8 p.m. ET
- Where: Watch the livestream on this page
Globe readers can submit questions by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in the Munk Dialogues
April 9: Malcolm Gladwell
April 15: Fareed Zakaria
April 23: Mohamed El-Erian
April 30: Samantha Power
Visit munkdebates.com for more information. The livestreams will also be embedded on The Globe and Mail website.