Technology powers our lives. It connects us with billions of people and synthesizes a world of information at our fingertips. Its algorithms predict which shirt we’ll buy or who we might date. It gives us the GPS coordinates to get us where we need to go — and one day may give us driverless cars to chauffeur us there. It even offers us fitness apps to remind us when we’ve been staring at the computer too long.
But some say this digital revolution is quietly ruining our lives, chipping away at our privacy and fueling an addiction to a virtual reality that distracts us from the real thing.
These mounting criticisms have inspired a “techlash,” as Silicon Valley’s life-altering innovations are increasingly viewed with suspicion, not awe. In Washington, lawmakers are considering whether tech giants like Amazon and Google have become too big for their (and our own) good. Meanwhile, people wonder if their “news” was created by bots and trolls (or Russian agents) and if their personal information has been given out like candy to everyone from campaign profilers to app developers. Even once-vaunted wunderkinds like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have copped to serious mistakes in handling data and admitted that social media may be ironically stunting our ability to connect as human beings.
But like the industrial revolution before it, the digital revolution is here to stay and, despite its dark side, has irrevocably benefited mankind. So today the focus has shifted on how to manage the inexorable rise of technology — and avoid its pitfalls.
Denmark has recognized this trend and embraced it, appointing the world’s first-ever tech ambassador. Casper Klynge’s mandate is to liaise and make connections as any ambassador would — just not with other governments, but with the tech pioneers of Silicon Valley, including Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter, among others.
“It’s basically an attempt by the Danish government to treat technology and the tech companies in a way that is comparable to how we would treat a bilateral relationship to a country or how we would engage an international organization. So it’s a broad-based dialogue on things that we agree on and on things we don’t agree on,” Klynge told us during a phone interview from his office in Palo Alto, Calif., adding that his appointment last year was also a recognition of the integral role technology plays in the world, along with all the opportunities and challenges that entails.
And in light of the recent scandals tainting the tech world, Klynge says his appointment affirms the need for what he calls “techplomacy,” which seeks to bring the public and private sectors together to collaborate on how they can foster innovation while upholding basic rights and freedoms. “Those that doubted the message that a [tech] ambassador was needed, I think they now see and understand what we’re trying to do and its importance.”
New Era of ‘Techplomacy’
Klynge has a staff of roughly a dozen people in Silicon Valley, four in Copenhagen, three in Beijing and is establishing a presence in Nairobi, Kenya.
A former ambassador to Indonesia who has served in the Danish Embassy in Cyprus and worked on Africa and Afghanistan issues, Klynge says his current job is not all that different from traditional diplomacy, with some notable exceptions.
“One thing which is wonderful is that I don’t have to wear a suit and tie every day. That’s not the dress code in Silicon Valley,” he quipped. “Joking aside, there are some things that are actually very similar to what I was doing before, whether it was working for Denmark, or for the European Union or for NATO — sort of the very classical diplomacy work. The difference is that we are engaging of course with a different partner here.”
While that partner is a bit unorthodox, it makes sense given the enormous financial and political clout that tech giants wield — comparable to many nation-states. For instance, companies like Apple are increasingly speaking out on highly charged political debates such as President Trump’s immigration crackdown or his dismissal of climate change. On the financial front, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google together boast a market capitalization worth a staggering $2.8 trillion, according to Scott Galloway, who wrote about the so-called “big four” in a Feb. 8 article for Esquire.
Just looking at Facebook alone, the social media platform’s user base of 2.2 billion people worldwide is twice as big as the combined populations of the G7 countries, and its market capitalization is larger than the entire GDP of Denmark.
Klynge said that while a small part of his job involves encouraging high-tech investment to Denmark, the commercial aspect “is perhaps only 5 or 10 percent of what I spend my time on. It is really a foreign policy initiative in the sense that if we zoom out, this is about what will happen in global affairs in the next decade, what role will technology play in perhaps shifting power balances globally but also in creating winners and losers,” he explained.
“We are sort of a clearinghouse or forward operating base looking into the tech industry — what’s coming our way, what new opportunities will be arriving in the next decade, how do we adapt to that, but also looking into areas that might challenge our way of organizing our societies,” he added. “And that’s the traditional role of any embassy around the world — you gather information that you send back in order to influence knowledge and policies.”
The difference is that the questions Klynge deals with are in many ways far more consequential to humanity.
Klynge, 44, said he is working to brace Denmark’s government and its 5.7 million people for a “mental revolution” ushered in by big tech and big data. In the end, technology will not bring about the Orwellian dystopia that its critics fear, or the utopian paradise its proponents envisioned. Klynge says the future of technology is all about the people who use and develop it, which is why reaching out to those people is so vital.
He said it’s been a privilege “to engage with some very talented, very creative, very innovative people in this sector that are really working on cutting-edge solutions that I think for 99 percent of the cases will actually do a lot of good to humanity and to the world.”
Tide Turns Against Big Tech
But lately, it’s the other 1 percent that has captured the world’s attention. The advent of the internet bred an online Wild West that most of us never questioned before because these advances made our lives easier. But the recent avalanche of accusations — from massive privacy breaches to the manipulation of information, and even our minds — has many questioning whether it’s time to tame the titans of Silicon Valley.
Facebook in particular has found itself in the crosshairs. Last month, the discovery that “malicious actors” exploited Facebook’s search tools to harvest information on most of its 2 billion users cast a harsh light on how technology is redefining privacy in the 21st century.
The revelations came after a whistleblower for Cambridge Analytica exposed how the Trump-hired political consultancy firm improperly gathered the personal information of 87 million Facebook users and their friends (Zuckerberg among them), including their work history, religious affiliations, reading habits and political views.
After initially dragging its feet, Facebook has moved aggressively to restore its battered reputation on both the national security and the consumer fronts. It is tightening privacy rules, giving users easier control of their information and limiting how much data third parties can access (although the restrictions don’t apply to Facebook itself, which can still profile its users to target them with personalized advertising).
In an effort to curb foreign election interference, Facebook announced that it will force buyers of political or “issue” advertising to disclose their identities and will clearly label such ads. It will also employ thousands of additional people and artificial intelligence to fact-check posts and remove fake accounts.
Facebook officials, including founder and CEO Zuckerberg, readily acknowledge that some form of government regulation is inevitable. The once-media shy Zuckerberg recently embarked on a public apology tour and weathered a marathon grilling on Capitol Hill in mid-April. He defended Facebook’s overall business model and stressed the social network’s value to society, but he repeatedly apologized for being too slow to spot foreign interference, fake news and third-party privacy violations.
“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” he said, noting that Facebook is cooperating with Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Observers say it was a long overdue mea culpa after Zuckerberg initially shrugged off accusations that Kremlin-linked operatives used his platform to spread propaganda to tilt the 2016 U.S. election in President Trump’s favor.
But it remains to be seen if Zuckerberg’s about-face will quell the ongoing furor over election meddling, privacy breaches and monopoly-like business practices, which has sparked a backlash on both sides of the Atlantic. European officials not only worry that Russia is using the internet to stoke populist, xenophobic political parties, they have also gone after tech companies for avoiding taxes and dominating the market. The EU, in fact, has taken the lead in adopting sweeping privacy regulations that U.S. lawmakers may now emulate.
Even Trump has entered the fray, railing against Amazon, which accounts for some 40 percent of online shopping, for putting mom-and-pop retailers out of business.
All of the negative press (and tweets) have taken a financial toll. According to the Financial Times, big tech lost one-quarter of a trillion dollars in stock market value in the two weeks after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. The EU has slapped billion-dollar fines on Google and Qualcomm for antitrust violations, while the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has launched an investigation that could result in hefty fines for Facebook.
And after years of unfettered growth, internet companies may be facing a new era of regulation as lawmakers increasingly call for big tech to be broken up — just as oil and telecommunications monopolies were at the turn of the 20th century.
“Companies like Facebook and Twitter and Google are American icons,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is spearheading the Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe of Russia’s role in the 2016 election, said during a recent awards dinner for journalists. “I don’t have any interest in regulating them into oblivion. But as they’ve grown from dorm-room startups into media behemoths … they haven’t acknowledged that that kind of power comes with responsibility.”
But lawmakers are unlikely to enact any serious changes ahead of the 2018 midterm elections — and may not even know where to begin given their lack of tech literacy. Moreover, consumers still generally view tech companies favorably and are skeptical about government intervention. People will continue wanting to use their products for free and given their enormous profit margins, these companies can easily weather regulatory fines and stock market slumps.
Nevertheless, the barrage of criticism marks an unprecedented reckoning that the technological race may need to slow down — concerns that were heightened when a self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian in Arizona last month.
Long before the current uproar, however, experts had been warning about the downsides of big tech for years.
Fears of artificial intelligence giving rise to robots that take over the planet are still mostly the stuff of Hollywood fiction. But as The Economist pointed out in a March 28 article, AI is quietly upending the workplace, as firms of all types harness the intelligence to hire and monitor workers, improve productivity and interact with customers. Less sophisticated but just as consequential is machine automation, which for decades has led to widespread manufacturing job losses — a trend that will only accelerate in the future. As technology replaces workers, policymakers are furiously debating whether the industry has become a job creator or job killer — and whether companies like Apple are taking advantage of a borderless world to dodge taxes.
Internet companies also struggle to police their users. Platforms such as Twitter and Reddit amplify hate and have long grappled with rampant sexism and abusive behavior, which has bullied many women and minorities offline. Meanwhile, moderators play an impossible game of whack-a-mole in trying to remove extremist content that radicalizes terrorists and peddles conspiracy theories without censoring legitimate speech (also see “Tech Giants Team Up to Take Terrorists, Extremist Propaganda Offline” in the October 2017 issue).
And then there are the more existential questions about the health effects of being connected 24-7. A January 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that nearly a quarter of American adults go online “almost constantly.” And according to a study by Deloitte, the average American checks his or her phone nearly 50 times a day. For kids, it’s even more frequent.
Yet a growing body of evidence has shown that staring at postings of other people’s supposedly happy lives makes us sadder and lonelier. Even top Facebook executives have admitted that the platform can be addictive and isolating. Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, recently confessed that the social network was designed not to unite us but to hook us and distract us by exploiting human psychology and our need for social affirmation (i.e. that ubiquitous little like button).
“It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” Parker told Axios’s Mike Allen last November. “It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Some elementary schools have even begun offering classes on how to set limits on screen time and avoid getting sucked into the bottomless world wide web.
‘Blessing in Disguise’
Klynge jokes that he’s not exactly the best person to offer tips on unplugging since he rarely ever does. But the one piece of advice he does give people is not to enter into social media naively, “because of course when you use the platforms, there is a collection of data — you know that, and every once in a while you just have to be careful about what sort of information we are voluntarily giving to the platforms,” he told us, arguing that there has been a degree of hypocrisy over the Cambridge Analytica flap. “I think as a consumer, it should come as no surprise that Facebook and these tech companies are collecting data on all of us.”
But that does not excuse them from misusing that data to undermine key values such as human rights, democracy and consumer protections, he added. In fact, Klynge says the current techlash “could be a blessing in disguise in the sense that this is a wake-up call for some of the big tech companies to understand that they cannot sit in their corner offices and just claim neutrality on a lot of [these] issues. That’s simply not how the world is and it’s not how these platforms are operating. They do exercise influence. The way they set up their platforms have real impact on people, and I think the first important step is to recognize that … and [have] a dialogue on what needs to be achieved.
“The big question is of course once the headlines die down and the external pressure on the corporations is reduced, will we still see the kind of proactive engagement that we’re seeing right now? I think the jury is still out on that. But I’ll remain an optimist and I sincerely hope that we see a new way of leadership in the tech business — not only in the U.S. by the way,” he said. “This is a global issue, not a U.S. issue.”
Europe Takes the Lead
On that note, Klynge said Europe has been at the forefront of the techlash debate. Later this month, the EU will roll out a sweeping set of privacy rules known as General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, whose aim is to give users more control over their data. The stringent rules force technology and digital advertising companies around the world — regardless of where they’re located, as long as they do business in Europe — to overhaul how personal information is collected, stored and used. Failure to comply risks hefty fines or being shut out of a bloc of 500 million consumers. GDPR could also serve as a template for other nations, although because of cultural differences, Americans tend to be warier of government regulation. (Separately, the bloc is considering a proposal to raise over $6 billion by taxing tech companies who set up shop in low-tax countries like Luxembourg and Ireland.)
Klynge says he doesn’t see “any other actors stepping up to the plate showing leadership on setting the right boundaries for new technologies. I think what is very important to remember is that it’s not regulations or boundaries born out of fear or lack of wanting to use new technology,” he told us. “But it is really about making sure that consumers are protected, that the data you and I use and generate every day, we have a fundamental ownership over that data. And also we’re at a time and age where we’re not really sure what it can be used for. We’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg on data usage.”
Klynge also stressed that Europe is mindful of the need to regulate tech companies without stifling innovation.
“Denmark might be able to play a helpful role to help define the right balance on regulation and legislation because we are all pro-light touch — we don’t want to overregulate. We’re not concerned about the big companies; we’re concerned about specific activities of some of the big companies,” he explained. “And by the way, it’s not only directed toward the companies of Silicon Valley. It’s a general approach to anti-trust discussions…. I think what we can say though is that at the end of the day, it is about protecting you and me as consumers.”
Yet that gets to the fundamental contradiction at the core of Facebook’s profit model, which is built on monetizing its users’ personal information to generate ad revenues (Google and Twitter do the same thing). And despite Zuckerberg’s efforts to overhaul Facebook’s newsfeed to emphasize “meaningful interaction” over vapid postings, the platform thrives on fake news and sensationalistic click bait that tends to go viral. Hate simply outperforms truth.
We asked Klynge how Facebook can reconcile this contradiction, whereby the company makes money because people give up personal information in exchange for using its services for free.
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” he replied, although he said a company should be able to protect its users’ best interests while still turning a profit. “I don’t think that it should be impossible to set in motion certain checks and balances where you avoid the kind of breaches that we’ve seen lately. But of course there is a bigger question around this, which is how much data do you give away voluntarily that can be exploited for commercial reasons?”
He said Europe’s GDPR rules are meant to address precisely that dilemma by allowing consumers to own their data and “basically undo what you’ve done in the past if you don’t want that information to be available for commercial opportunities or for promotion and marketing.”
He also said the GDPR framework can be used as a launching pad to examine the regulatory implications of the Cambridge Analytica debacle. And despite skepticism that tech companies can voluntarily regulate themselves, Klynge says it’s not out of the question, especially because privacy breaches erode trust in their products, which in turn cuts into their profits.
“I actually believe that we’ll see a new way of forward-leaning thought in the tech sector. That’s certainly what I’m hearing in Silicon Valley … and also in Europe and in Asia.”
Benefits of Big Tech
But Klynge cautions that Cambridge Analytica and other scandals should not overshadow the tremendous potential of technology to improve our world. “[M]y concern with these cases is that it is extremely easy to tip the balance in regards to public opinion … and I think that would be a mistake because we’re basically at the threshold of seeing new technologies doing a lot of good for humanity and solving some very, very complicated issues that we haven’t been able to solve in the last 20, 30 or 40 years.”
In particular, he cites health care as a prime example of technology being on the cusp of revolutionizing the field.
“If you look at what machine learning, big data and artificial intelligence will be able to do in giving better preventative care and advice, better treatment, better diagnostics, more precise medication and surgical procedures, I think that holds enormous potential in solving in some of the very, very big challenges around cancer and other diseases that we’re fighting on a global level,” he said.
And despite the death of a pedestrian who was struck by a self-driving Uber car — a “tragedy” that Klynge said illustrates the need for more controlled testing — “I think it’s also just as important to point out the fact that human drivers are certainly not flawless either.” He noted that drivers cause thousands of fatalities each year, while technological upgrades like sensors and cameras have quietly made driving safer.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to “constantly focus on mitigating all the risks but at the same time maximizing the opportunities … and that goes to the core of what Denmark’s tech diplomacy is all about.”
“Our belief in Denmark is that new technology will bring more opportunities than challenges our way, and that also applies to the job market. It’s evident that you’ll potentially see a massive disruption of the labor market and you’ll need to re-educate and transform a lot of the jobs we have today into new jobs. But we actually have an optimistic belief that we’ll have, on balance, a lot of new jobs in new sectors,” he told us.
“But we don’t know. I think that’s the honest truth. We don’t know, but I have a prime minister who has a saying that you want to walk into the future looking forward rather than backward. It’s one of the reasons why he set up something called the Disruption Council in Denmark, with public-private participation where they are looking at these issues. What kind of jobs will artificial intelligence remove? What jobs would be created? How can we actually bring that production to Denmark or other countries,” and how can the private and public sectors team up to transform education “because that will really define whether you can be a winner of technology or whether you will trail behind. But if we boil all of it down, we are optimistic that it will be positive.”
Regardless of the pros and cons, Klynge insists that techplomacy is here to stay — and that embassies around the world, big and small, need to accept it. “There is no other way in diplomacy today than to use these platforms. When you are a country of our size, it’s basically a gift from above that you can … target communications in a way where you reach a lot of people,” he said.
And that’s why he’s confident Denmark won’t be the only one reaching out to Silicon Valley. “Whether they will be called a tech ambassador or it will be set up exactly like we’re doing, I don’t know. But I can tell you by the amount of interest and by the number of invitations we’re getting to visit capitals all over the world, I’m convinced that we won’t be the last ones. And that’s something we really welcome because it needs more than a small country like Denmark to have this formalized dialogue with the tech companies to put technology on the international agenda. So having more people at the table is going to be important. It’s a party that everybody is going to be invited to.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.