*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on September 13, 2018. It can also be found online here.
The empty chair representing Google at last week’s Congressional testimony in Washington spoke volumes. The nation called, and Google opted out.
This might otherwise be excused as an oversight. But it came on the heels of Google’s decision to step away from work with the Department of Defense by backing out of a Pentagon contract (Project Maven) the company had signed to improve image detection for defense surveillance platforms. The cancelled project was spurred on by thousands of Google employees petitioning their chief executive, arguing that continued work with the Department of Defense would “irreparably damage Google’s brand” and that the company should stay out of the “business of war.”
It seems that one of America’s most important companies has gone AWOL.
While Google certainly has the right to make its own business decisions (and may not have entirely given up on work with the Defense Department), Google’s recent push away from working on national defense will weaken national security and widen the gap between the company and American society. It’s bad for everyone.
Google makes tools that can protect American lives on far-off battlefields. I know this from experience. As a lieutenant, on a pitch black summer night in 2003, I stood guard over our squadron headquarters. When an attack came, the sharp sound of enemy bullets was all I had to identify their concealed positions. Even with night vision goggles, I was in the dark.
It’s not hard to see how a company like Google, by developing sophisticated software to be used on small drones, might help American soldiers differentiate a violent adversary from surrounding civilians. With Google’s help, tomorrow’s troops don’t have to be in the dark.
Beyond the battlefield, there is a broader relationship between a military and the society it serves. Wars are waged by societies, not armies alone — practically in the form of taxes and technology, but also in the way of elections, decisions, and moral support. Particularly in a democracy, this raises uncomfortable questions about companies and patriotism: Can such a prominent and profitable company shirk responsibility for national defense? Precisely what does a prosperous company owe their country?
Especially today. Consider Detroit’s contribution to the nation’s war effort during World War II. In time of need, during the Industrial Age, the nation leaned on the automotive and manufacturing industries in the Motor City. In the Information Age, it’s likely the nation will turn to Silicon Valley when democracy and the United States are threatened. Will Google show up?
Companies, of course, are composed of individuals, and it’s been observed that the Silicon Valley set doesn’t feel too connected to the United States. They’re workers are very smart, fairly wealthy, and, most importantly, incredibly mobile.
After all, Silicon Valley is the place that gave birth to the idea of a floating city-state and where billionaires develop “backup” countries as an escape option. A Stanford University historian who’s been a long-time watcher of the tech industry has described them as a “siloed” culture, and, in the words of one San Francisco city supervisor, Silicon Valley professionals have created “isolated, walled-off campuses” and separate “tech palaces” that keep them from mingling with other Americans. With these examples, it’s not a stretch to think that Googlers wouldn’t perceive a need to help protect America.
Silicon Valley insiders acknowledge this problem. Alex Karp, chief executive of Palantir recently told the New York Times that this step back from national defense will “be a very significant problem for the Valley.”
As Karp suggests, this self-separation inevitably invites cynics that will cast Google, the world’s largest internet advertiser, as a sort of digital colonialist—mining data and extracting profits from the country for their own private benefit without acknowledging any public obligation to contribute to secure the safety and protection of those they’ve gained the most from.
Companies need a home, and, compared with the alternatives — autocracies like China and Russia that have balkanized and weaponized the web — America is still the best place for a company like Google.
The reality is that Google needs America as much as America needs Google. When it comes to national defense — it’s time to get reacquainted, company to country — I just hope that when Uncle Sam looks across the table, he doesn’t see another empty chair.