Since the dawn of time, any tool can be used for good or ill. While the current era of digital transformation holds great promise, the world has turned technology into both a powerful tool and a formidable weapon. This era of technology has also fostered an age of anxiety, and this tension is most pronounced for the world’s democracies. Wracked by unease about disparate unemployment rates, immigration, trade and a growing wealth gap, many democratic societies are facing populist and nationalist fissures that have resulted in part from seismic technological shifts. Technology’s benefits aren’t distributed evenly, and the nature and speed of change is challenging individuals, communities and entire nations.
Microsoft President Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne tackle these topics in their new book, Tools and Weapons, published September 10 by Penguin Press in the United States and Canada. The book takes readers into the cockpit of one of the world’s largest and most powerful tech companies as it finds itself in the middle of some of the thorniest issues of our time, including privacy, cybercrime and cyberwar, social media, the moral conundrums of AI, big tech’s relationship to inequality, and the challenges for democracy, far and near. While in no way a “Microsoft memoir,” the book draws back the curtains on some of the company’s most crucial recent decision points, as it strives to protect the hopes technology offers from the very real threats it also presents.
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In ‘Tools and Weapons,’ Smith and co-author Carol Ann Browne make a persuasive, pragmatic case for owning that responsibility, in everything from digital privacy and surveillance to cybersecurity and social fragmentation to artificial intelligence and facial-recognition technology.
Smith’s book is not the typical vanity project churned out by so many Fortune 500 leaders, the generic tomes on leadership and teamwork stocked at airport bookstores near the neck pillows. ‘Tools and Weapons’ is a glimpse behind the curtain as Microsoft reckoned with the Snowden revelations, defended against the vicious cyberattacks, and took both the Obama and Trump administrations to court. Smith also doesn’t shy away from taking Big Tech to task.
Smith’s influence is well known among tech-industry titans and policymakers in Washington, but he has wielded much of it behind the scenes. He will step more squarely onto the public stage with the Sept. 10 release of his first book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age. Filled with accounts of closed-door meetings, from Microsoft’s boardroom to the West Wing to the Vatican, the book shows tech leaders trying to respond to a seemingly endless series of crises: Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance of private data servers; Russia’s hacking and social-media disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election; the 2017 North Korea–sponsored cyberattack known as WannaCry, which crippled hundreds of thousands of computer systems worldwide; the livestreaming of the Christchurch rampage.
“When your technology changes the world,” he writes, “you bear a responsibility to help address the world that you have helped create.” And governments, he writes, “need to move faster and start to catch up with the pace of technology.”
In a lengthy interview, Mr. Smith talked about the lessons he had learned from Microsoft’s past battles and what he saw as the future of tech policymaking – arguing for closer cooperation between the tech sector and the government. It’s a theme echoed in the book, “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age,” which he wrote with Carol Ann Browne, a member of Microsoft’s communications staff.
In 2019, a book about tech’s present and future impact on humankind that was relentlessly upbeat would feel out of whack with reality. But Smith’s Microsoft experience allowed him to take a measured look at major issues and possible solutions, a task he says he relished.
“There are some people that are steeped in technology, but they may not be steeped in the world of politics or policy,” Smith told me in a recent conversation. “There are some people who are steeped in the world of politics and policy, but they may not be steeped in technology. And most people are not actually steeped in either. But these issues impact them. And increasingly they matter to them.”
In ‘Tools & Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age,’ the longtime Microsoft executive and his co-author Carol Ann Browne tell the inside story of some of the biggest developments in tech and the world over the past decade – including Microsoft’s reaction to the Snowden revelations, its battle with Russian hackers in the lead up to the 2016 elections and its role in the ongoing debate over privacy and facial recognition technology.
The book goes behind-the-scenes at the Obama and Trump White Houses; explores the implications of the coming wave of artificial intelligence; and calls on tech giants and governments to step up and prepare for the ethical, legal and societal challenges of powerful new forms of technology yet to come.
Tensions between the U.S. and China feature prominently in Smith’s new book, ‘Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age.’ While Huawei is its own case, Smith worries that broader and tighter strictures could soon follow. The Commerce Department is considering new restrictions on the export of emerging technologies on which Microsoft has placed big bets, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing. “You can’t be a global technology leader if you can’t bring your technology to the globe,” he says.