Pentagon Needs a New Pitch
Matt Bernius and I collaborated on an essay for Defense One.
Matt Bernius and I have a new piece out at Defense One titled, “The Pentagon Is Flubbing Its Pitch to Silicon Valley.” Some of you will recognize the theme, which I workshopped here a few weeks back.
Gen. Joseph Dunford says American tech companies that do business with China hamper “U.S. ability to maintain a competitive military advantage and all that goes with it.”
Such companies, the Joint Chiefs chairman added, “are automatically going to be required to have a cell of the Communist Party in that company. And that is going to lead to that intellectual property from that company finding its way to the Chinese military. It is a distinction without a difference between the Chinese Communist Party, the government, and the Chinese military.”
This follows Frank Hoffman‘s warning about Silicon Valley “techno-moralists” whose objection to supplying the U.S. military “could appreciably harm U.S. security interests” and “puts more Americans in danger” when it “restricts the Defense Department from developing capabilities that could enhance U.S. weapons systems by making them more accurate and better at defending the country and its allies.”
These appeals, alas, are likely to fall on deaf ears. If Pentagon leaders are going to persuade tech executives to listen, they’re going to have to do some listening of their own first.
Although many of the foundational technologies of Silicon Valley grew out of projects funded by the Defense Department, American tech culture has long been anti-militarist and globalist. In his classic history From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner cites figures like Stewart Brand who, by the mid-1970s, came to see computers as tools for countercultural transformation. Meshing concepts drawn from cybernetics (itself a project rooted in Defense research) and communalism, Brand and his collaborators argued that digital technologies and information subvert and transcend existing power structures (and the governments and organizations that had constructed them), bringing all citizens of the world closer together. This belief in the revolutionary and unifying power of technology can be found in everything from Apple’s famed 1984 Superbowl ad, to any given issue of Wired magazine, to the way that Mark Zuckerberg talks about Facebook today.
Furthermore, as Greg Ferenstein argues in The Age of Optimists, the culture is inherently post-nationalist. It is “based on a rather extreme idealism about human nature, society, and the future” and “reject[s] the notion that there are inherent conflicts of interests between citizens, the government, corporations or other nations.” At the same time, “They are highly, highly, collectivist. They believe that every single person has a positive obligation to society and the government can help people or coerce people or incentive into making a unique contribution.”
While Silicon Valley is an outlier in many regards, elites who don’t work in the national security ecosystem are increasingly divorced from it. One has to be over 50 to remember the days of military conscription, which ended in 1973, and of Social Security age to have been subject to it. For all but a handful of younger Americans, fighting wars is something other people do. They may well honor that service in the breach; but it’s hardly surprising that they want no part in the violence inherent in the enterprise.
Ironically, the best approach for sparking action in Silicon Valley may be to take a page from its counterculture roots and appeal to the humanitarian rather than the jingoistic front. Framing China as an enemy military will be less effective than a techno-moralist argument that the Chinese government will abuse these tools to surveil and oppress their people. The last thing the leaders or creatives want is to become tools of “the Man,” whether he sits in Washington or Beijing.
There’s quite a bit more in between those excerpts. We invite you to read the whole thing.
I didn’t read the whole thing yet, but keep in mind that the Chinese have a different understanding of who and what “their” actually encompass, as the people of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, etc. will tell you. And that’s not to mention various islands and entire seas, and probably space and the moon, too.
Good piece, well argued, won’t work.
A techie at Google goes on Twitter and sees that a bit of his tech has just allowed the CIA to accidentally blow up a family having dinner in Syria. These ‘kids today’ are just not cool with shooting people from the sky. Or with developing intel that lands some random Pakistani at a black site in Jordan to have his balls kicked in. IOW it’s not the sales pitch, it’s the product. It’s the whole killing humans, torturing humans thing. Or for that matter developing intel that ends up profiting some toxic toad like Erik Prince.
And it’s only going to get worse because it’s no longer just the Pentagon it’s Trump’s Pentagon. It’s not the CIA, it’s Trump’s CIA. We have no reason to have any faith in any part of the federal government under Trump. On the contrary, one has to assume that anything they say is a lie, anything they ask for is just about filling their own pockets.
There is no legitimate US government until Trump is gone and no one should serve this administration in any capacity. Anyone joining the military or intel community at this point is at best a damned fool. The problem we have is that people capable of handling the high tech work the military needs tend not to be damned fools.
I agree the Pentagon is coming at this from the wrong angle, but I’m skeptical that appeals to counterculture coming from “the man” will be viewed as anything but disingenuous.
And I think tech culture is a long way from its roots. For all the supposed moral problems that the tech industry has with the Pentagon, many of those same companies seem eager to have a piece of the pie in enabling Big Brother in China and elsewhere.
And we even see this here in the US – these companies talk about empowering and connecting individuals while, at the same time, commoditizing them (us) in dishonest and nontransparent ways. These companies have not self-regulated when it comes to their bad and dishonest practices – where are their ideals there? They’ve only changed because of embarrassing exposure of their practices and threats of government intervention. Given that, the US government appealing to their supposed better natures when it comes to national defense seems unlikely to succeed.
What the tech industry seems to value most of all are market influence/power and the almighty dollar. Their supposed “extreme idealism” consistently takes a back seat as soon as it’s not convenient. They don’t appear to want to fight “the man” they want to control or become “the man.”
The US must protect the American people and their interests. Sure, the government in general and the Pentagon in particular, can and should talk and ask nicely, but at the end of the day, American tech firms need to understand that de facto aiding foreign military capabilities or abetting in the oppression of foreign internal dissent is not an option.
Just offer to pay them with Doritos. That used to work with the computer geeks.
100% true. But to some degree this was outside the scope of what we are arguing.
Agreed. We attempted to deal with that a bit in the mid discussion about emerging internal battles between more libertarian leaning CEOs and the often more liberal in the trenches workers. James and I had debated the degree to which we wanted to pursue that line but decided that was going to make an already long article REALLY, REALLY long.
To some degree that goes all the way back to Brand and the original revolutionary concept of technology. It’s just everyone who wants to overthrow the existing “Man” always imagines themselves to be a benevolent savior (despite the fact that they ultimately, necessarily have to become the new “Man”).
I thought it was licorice
Wish I could believe this, but I simply don’t. Mostly for the reasons that Andy noted.
This reason also. Mostly having to become “the new Man” comes from not having experiences that can be called upon to not be that while also acknowledging that what has been done in the past was both effective and non-noxious enough to not want to abandon it.
The important thing to remember is that the Boomers were going to be all the things that those who came before us weren’t, and we failed spectacularly at it.
If the military is really interested in getting a sizeable percentage of people on board, it should stop obsessing about software and start coughing up the money so we bring chip manufacturing back home as well. It seems to me stupid to obsess about back doors in software when we’re eagerly gobbling up more and more hardware from China and totally ignoring how we’re eating our own seed corn in this respect.
It’s a rear-guard action.
China will win. It’s inevitable. They have the numbers and are rapidly modernizing. They’re actually investing in the infrastructure in Africa and South America – imagine that! It’s current day debt-bomb feudal vassalization, but it’s gonna work.
Fifty years from now we will be to China as the UK is to the US now: an innovative Little Brother that produces interesting cinema and video games disproportionate to our relatively puny economy and population. We’ll be nominally independent subjugated vassals.
(That is, if WW3 doesn’t happen cuz then we’d all be dead popsicles.)
Sounds like the military would like to have an exclusive tech platform, with advancements that don’t end up going to the Chinese, but don’t want to pay above commodity rates to develop their own.
Um… yeah, that’s not going to work.
There are American tech workers who are more conservative, and who might not object to building weapons. Yes, the culture in Silicon Valley is more Global Lefty Libertarian, but it isn’t universal. Pay people competitively, and you can hire them away.
And even then, the basic tech may lag behind the commodity version — there is no guarantee that they will surpass it.
I think that is a separate problem. Military and mixed use technologies are getting so common that governments no longer have a monopoly on it. North Korea could learn as much about missile tech from stealing the plans for a Space X rocket as they could from stealing the plans for an ICBM.