Apple, CISCO and Microsoft rule the world, and intend to do so.
Imagine if CISCO or Apple held a general election. Billboards with potential board members smiling at us with an apple in one hand and a ballot in the other. Anyone who owns a computer or an iPad or a smartphone would be legitimate voters in the election. The ballot boxes would probably be flash and fancy. No paper involved. We would cast our ballots by pushing a button or using just our fingerprint or perhaps another way of casting a ballot that as of 2016 is not yet invented.
Big issues would be at stake in the election. We would vote for the presidency of these companies. And the composition of board. We would vote for gender balance. For composite boards that are not only white, but Afro-American, Hispanic, perhaps even Chinese. We would want the elderly to be heard, not to forget the youngsters. We would want the board to represent us. After all, the point in any election is to have our voices heard.
Far-fetched? Yes, a little. But only a little. Last week’s Apple-FBI showdown made it clear that tech-companies such as Apple are so much more than merely producers of gadgets that potentially change our lives and form our future. The tug-of-war between Apple and the FBI relates to legislation and therein foundation of our democracies. In short: The Apple-FBI showdown is about power. Apple, with support from other tech-giants such as Google and WhatsApp, oppose the demands by the FBI to provide backdoors into their technologies. In principle, companies cannot choose when to comply with the law at their own liking. But who can in the long run stand up against the tech-giants if they choose to go their own ways? Who is stronger – the FBI or a tech-company that has altered how we live?
Apple, Microsoft and Cisco literally makes the world go round. And so, why should we not be allowed to have a say?
True: The tech-companies are not our government. They don’t have our welfare as their core objective. At the end of the day they are in it for themselves, not for us. And yes: The big technology companies do not run wars or provide health care. They do not form the state apparatus, and have no intention to either. State governments, on the other hand, have enormous moral and social responsibilities, and are judged for how well they safeguard our welfare in addition to how they run our economy. Is it this outspoken responsibility that primarily differs the major tech-companies from what we normally refer to when we talk about the state?
Cisco, Apple and Microsoft do not form political parties with visions for how to improve societies or create stable economies. But their work bares a striking resemblance. Just listen to the stated ambition of Microsoft: ”(Our mission is to) empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Microsoft focuses our resources around the world to create opportunities in the communities where we do business, fulfilling our commitment to make a positive impact on the world through innovative technologies, partnerships, giving programs and community outreach.” Cisco is no less bold in its ambitions. Cisco states that “our vision is to change the way people work, live, play and learn.”
States and tech-companies not only resemble each other. States need the tech-companies perhaps more than vice versa. The advances in the health care technology enable health care providers to provide their services with higher efficiency, more precision and to an increasingly larger population. What will prove more significant: The ability to treat lifestyle related health issues, or the techno-human feedback loops created by wearable health technology? Will the latter change the way we live as human beings? Who tips the scale: Those who can make the decision for a nation to go to war, or those who provide the technology that enables a nation to go to war?
What, then, separates these ambitions from that of political parties and governments? Earnings. The bottom line. Tech-companies need to earn money. By making money, they can continue to create, expand and evolve. The paradox here is that in order for them to be successful, we must change how we live.
And gosh have they been successful. The cognitive implications of their success is striking: It is impossible to be who we are – at least as Westerners – without their products. We’d loose our friends, wouldn’t be able to do our work properly, let alone pay our bills or heat our houses. If the British Labour Party was shut down, it would – perhaps – be weird for a little while. But we would get by. If the Republican Party got zero votes, America would still be up and running. (Look to Belgium. They did fine without an elected government for 589 days). But if Cisco closed down and withdrew all their products, it would be a disaster. Without Microsoft and Cisco we would literally be cold, poor and lonely.
They know that. The tech-companies acquire and maintain their arrogance for a reason. They know that without them, we wouldn’t know what to do or how to do it.
But it is not just about how we do things in our daily lives that their impact is noticeable. It is also about what we maintain as core values in our society. According to Apple, product development cannot be fully successful unless ethical and environmental concerns are taken into account. About this, Apple Inc. writes on their website that in order to “make truly great products, we feel it’s crucial to build them in ways that are ethical and environmentally responsible.” Furthermore, labourers rights must also be acknowledged. According to Apple, this is not merely a lofty intention. Rather, Apple apparently ensures that these concerns are taken care of by integrating them into their company, from the top down to the bottom. “We go deep into our supply chain to enforce our social and environmental standards,” they write, and continue: “We empower workers through education. Apple is committed to providing and expanding educational opportunities for workers in our supply chain.”
Empowering workers through education is in the oil industry framed as “CSR”. That is, Corporate Social Responsibility. CSR refers to a business practice that involves participating in initiatives that benefit society. CSR is becoming more mainstream. It is important not only for people and the planet, but also is vital for business success. Accordingly, forward-thinking companies embed sustainability into the core of their business operations to create shared value for business and society.
CSR has become a nearly taken-for-granted responsibility to the oil companies (whether they do it successfully or not is a completely different discussion). But, that no oil company can expect to be taken seriously without having a serious CSR policy to show for, is beyond doubt. Selling a good product or service is no longer enough to attract today’s socially conscious shoppers, new research shows. A study by public relations and marketing firm Cone Communications and Echo Research published in Business News Daily revealed that CSR is now a reputational imperative, with more than 90 percent of shoppers worldwide likely to switch to brands that support a good cause, given similar price and quality.
The major tech-companies have become such big vendors that they in practice can claim monopoly on solutions, which in turn implies that they have the power to dictate the rules of the game, as there are no real alternatives to what they offer. Just look at how the west goes to war. It’s a long established fact that the advances in technology happens too fast for the warfighters to be in the technology development race themselves. Off the shelf technology is cheaper and better, and the military would be ill advised to try to outsmart Cisco, Microsoft or Apple in their own game. But, there is a downside to this strategy. The security requirements for the technology they bring to the fight is crucial to the ability to conduct modern war. On paper, this is pretty straightforward, at least if you rely on systemic controls such as Common Criteria (ISO/IEC 15408). However, this approach quickly comes down to economics.
This is how it works: The military, lets use NATO as an example here, would create Protection Profiles for the different classes of technology devices. These are simply documents that states the security requirements that NATO has for that particular technology. Product vendors can then choose to create or evaluate products so that they comply with one or more Protection Profiles. The important part here is that NATO in many cases are prohibited from acquiring anything else than technology that is Common Criteria EAL4 certified. But, who is going to pay for the evaluation?
The big technology vendors will not send all of their products through this costly evaluation process, just in hope that NATO will buy it. And NATO doesn’t have the economy to pay for the evaluation of all the technology they want. Because of this, NATO is left with a shopping cart that holds a limited and older product range.
As one representative from the NATO Office of Security said: “The days where NATO could dictate the vendors are over. We are dancing to their tune now.”
Apple, Microsoft and Cisco are not confined by state boundaries. These companies are worldwide and are in their very essence non-state actors. Nor are their primary goal to carry social responsibilities or develop society at the cost of their support. They are in it to make money by changing the world. And as they do this, they exercise their true power. Both Facebook and Google are now letting individuals know if state actors are spying on them, and thus setting a stop to it. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, Apple and others are standing up to the most powerful governments in the world. By changing their technology, they kick governments, and their prying eyes, out of their lands.
That is not to say that they are free of all responsibilities and that all restrictions would simply glance off. Of course, tech-companies, too, are under regulations. But it is not the International Humanitarian Law or the Geneva Convention that constitute the major tripwire to them. It is the market. If their products don’t sell, they are out of the business. No sale, no Apple. Just look at Nokia or Eriksson. No fame, no gain.
The fascinating thing, though, is how above all Microsoft, Cisco and Apple have manage to even change the market. By changing the way we live – that is, by actually managing to fulfil their corporations’ ambitions – they have also change the way we work. And what gadgets we need. The iProducts have led to an alteration of how we use Microsoft Office. Office 365 is a clear example of that. The market forces literally force the companies to come up with new inventions that can outbalance the position of competitors who have products that acquire greater market space.
Yet, to claim that the big tech-companies bare resemblance to dictatorships may be an exaggeration that brings out a mocking giggle. North-Korea and Zimbabwe comes to mind. We think of Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-Un, of torture and depleted populations. Nobody in their right mind would blame Apple for execution of their opponents. That is also not the point. But, the big tech-companies want to change how we behave. How we behave is essentially who we are.
In research we have conducted 2015 on the general population in Norway, interest in technology is likely the decisive factor for whether or not you’ll be successful in the society we strive towards creating, a society that pushes towards digitalization. That is to say that if you are interested in technology, you are a winner. Those interested in technology learn from experts; those who are not don’t learn from anyone in particular, but pick up some tricks here and there, by friends or whoever tells them something of interest. They don’t ask unless they have a serious problem. Those interested on the other hand play a completely different game. Interest breeds knowledge, network, competence, insights that in turn bring new knowledge, new competence, added insights…
The major tech-companies are not the only ones to have lofty ambitions. But these companies are successful. They not only want to change how we are – they actually do change how we are.
That obviously raises a whole range of both ethical and judicial questions. They are not all negative. The fact that Apple is an example of a corporation that has the ambition to change humanity – and even manages to do so – does not necessarily imply that they should stop doing what they are doing. Even if it were, good luck to those who want to try to stop them. And that is perhaps also the point here: The influence of the tech-companies is unstoppable. They will continue to move forward with a speed and force that we cannot fight, even if we wanted to. The only choice we have is to embrace them. They change the rules of the game, and all we can do is to adjust to it.
Yes, the big tech-companies are in it for the money. But still. Without them – that is, without these companies’ products – modernity as we know it would cease to exist. We need Apple and Microsoft to be interested in our lives, in our societies, in how we live. We want them to listen to our needs, we’d want them to focus on making our lives easier and better. Is it too much to ask, then, to be allowed to vote?
Elections are coming up in the US. So here’s an idea: Let’s vote for Apples Tim Cook for President! No thanks, we don’t need buttons or a caps to show off our partisanship. We have smart phones.