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Tools and weapons : the promise and the peril of the digital age
Smith B., Browne C., Penguin Press, London, UK, 2019. 368 pp.  Type: Book (978-1-984877-71-0)
Date Reviewed: Feb 13 2020

Digital technology is both a sword and a plowshare. It is disruptive both in positive and negative ways, often at the same time. This book is a superbly written assembly of stories describing how Microsoft, often in partnership with other technology companies and governmental agencies, has dealt with the problems and opportunities digital technology creates.

The authors are executives at Microsoft, but they are neither engineers nor computer scientists. The stories are about the larger societal impacts of digital technology, involving security, privacy, access to resources, learning, and domestic and international politics. I had no idea that Microsoft was involved in so many activities, initiatives, services, and projects that are not the familiar operating system, compilers, and office application products that I have been using since MS-DOS 1.1.

A foreword by Bill Gates and an introduction precede the book’s 16 chapters. The chapters are grouped and sequenced according to a few larger themes. The introduction is a walking tour through just one of Microsoft’s cloud computing facilities in the state of Washington. The size of the building itself is a surprise. An even larger surprise is the level of security involved and the redundancy built into the facility and the network of facilities.

Fully half of the book--the first eight chapters--is devoted to security and privacy as they affect users. These two concepts have to be kept in a delicate balance. Privacy vanishes if security is so pervasive that everyone is under scrutiny. Security disappears if privacy is emphasized to the point that any malefactor can act with impunity. The individual subtopics in these chapters include surveillance, maintaining privacy of personal information, cybersecurity, protecting the integrity of elections, social media, and privacy of consumers. The stories reveal the roles of governments both as protectors and as violators of individual security and privacy. They also reveal the irresponsibility and failure of technology companies to act in the interest of their customers and clients.

The remaining chapters are based on more constrained themes. Chapter 9 reveals the extent of the lack of broadband resources in rural areas. Part of the problem is the poor quality data in government hands that claims availability when the reality is otherwise. It makes a good comparison to rural electrification in the 1930s, and points the way to a solution in many localities. The technology is there; social organizations are needed to make it happen. The topic of chapter 10 is the talent gap. The authors identify several pertinent issues: immigration, education of secondary students in computing, diversity, and the cost of living in centers of high technology.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the theme running through chapters 11 to 13. The emphasis of the first of the three chapters is on ethics. Just because we can do such and such, ought we do so? Computing is not free of human values. Chapter 12 discusses how facial recognition is used to apprehend criminals in free societies and political dissidents in oppressive regimes. The third chapter is on the workforce. Who will be put out of work by AI? What will be the societal and political ramifications of unemployment and unemployability?

Chapter 14 claims that all of the questions raised in the book will be answered differently in the US and in China. These two nations have the largest economies in the world and have culturally different philosophical approaches. While the Chinese have studied American culture and history, there is a general lack of knowledge--or even interest--by Americans when it comes to Chinese history and culture. Ignorance will be disadvantageous.

The 2016 election and how the Democrats and Republicans used data on the electorate is a key component of chapter 15, on open data. The authors support an initiative on open data, like open-source software. How data is collected, structured, and analyzed will become even more important. To whom does data belong? What are privacy safeguards?

The concluding chapter is a call for corporations to realize how their roles extend beyond selling products and services, and for government to claim the authority it has to regulate technology for the common good.

This is an extraordinarily well-written book. There is excitement in the storytelling. The style is lively. The stories flow. For the scholar, the references and documentation are thorough. It is an altogether great read.

More reviews about this item: Amazon, Goodreads

Reviewer:  Anthony J. Duben Review #: CR146888 (2007-0159)
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