Every year I am lucky enough to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It’s one of the best places for getting real-time insights into the big issues that are shaping the world. This year, I detected three big emerging trends from the technology sector, the changing nature of threats to global order, and the general disappearance of trust in institutions.
1. Tech on the Back Foot
There was a time when the heads of the big tech companies were feted like heroes at Davos. That has changed. They are no longer seen as the face of a benign future. This year, Silicon Valley stars like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, and Satya Nadella of Microsoft all faced tough questions. They had to defend themselves as the public mood toward the tech sector soured.
A major power shift is taking place. The tech companies are becoming the big brother corporations that everybody loves to hate. What has caused this abrupt change in perception?
I think it’s a whole host of things, some small, others big. On the small end, there was the sheer rudeness of Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, and the tactlessness of Facebook’s Year in Review, which presented the death of a user’s daughter as a fond memory and funny story to share with friends. On the big end, we had the aggressive tax minimization practices of firms like Apple; issues of privacy (data collection and usage, the right to be forgotten, etc.); and the use of the internet for nefarious purposes, such as the Sony Pictures cyberattack or terrorist propaganda and recruitment.
At Davos, Fadi Chehadé, the president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), pointed out that the relationship of the internet and society was set to become a major issue at the United Nations General Assembly from September 2015. “If the industry does not step forward to makes its own rules,” he warned, “then governments around the world will likely begin to implement regulations and restrictions.”
Tech companies are accumulating power through massive profits, political influence, and global dominance in their particular niche. Jeff Bezos’s personal acquisition of The Washington Post is a clear example of how the vast financial resources of tech companies are enabling them to encroach on new realms of the public space.
The tech firms’ own hubris has triggered a general desire to restrain their influence. The very nature of the internet, however, makes tech firms hard to regulate. Servers can be moved from one jurisdiction to another, and shell companies can be set up in accommodating places like Ireland to help reduce taxes. Lobbyists can take control of the political agenda. (Witness how Silicon Valley crushed Hollywood’s efforts to get legislation against online piracy passed.)
How these issues will play out is anybody’s guess, but lesson one at Davos was that the honeymoon period is well and truly over for the “star” tech firms. They have become the new establishment and will be expected to behave, addressing not just their own interests, but those of stakeholders.
Tech firms will need to balance their interests against the needs and demands of government, individual users, and other companies—and it won’t be easy.
2. Shapeless Monster Threats
Once upon a time, threats to the global order came from unique, clearly definable entities—states like Libya, Iran, and Iraq. Now the biggest threats we confront are all from non-state actors—“monsters.”
These new monster threats are unclear and hard to define. They continuously evolve and shapeshift. They are hard to pinpoint or understand, and indifferent to conventional restraints such as moral values or national borders. Monsters take a variety of forms. They can be ad hoc transnational groups of people like the Islamic State (ISIL) in the Middle East or Boko Haram in Africa. They can be a disease like the Ebola virus or an environmental problem like climate change, both of which freely cross borders. They can even be a stealth technique like cyberterrorism, which can inflict huge damage while concealing its point of origin.
Engagement with these complex monster threats will be ugly and messy, but not engaging them is more dangerous. At Davos, I attended a session on tackling ISIL, sponsored by the Wilson Center. A consensus emerged that the only way to deal with the ISIL threat is through cooperation, and with the US leading a coalition of European and Arab forces.
A similar flexible, alliance-based approach is, I believe, the right one for all monster threats, whatever form they take. Complex, border-crossing threats demand complex, border-spanning solutions.
3. Trust Goes Missing
The third trend I noticed is more abstract than the first two, but no less serious: trust has evaporated in every sector of society.
Government has lost trust due to its incapacity to fix problems. The private sector, especially banking, has lost trust due to endless scandals. The market has lost trust because all it has done is give us increased inequality. The media has lost trust because it is no longer seen as honest and truthful. (Think of NBC’s Brian Williams with his fantasy helicopters crashes in the US, or the Asahi Shimbun newspaper having to retract its reports on the forcible recruitment of comfort women in Japan.) The technology sector has lost trust because of tax evasion and privacy issues.
So where can we put our trust now?
At a Davos session coordinated by Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company, there were various proposals. NGOs were one candidate—until their limited capability and scalability ruled them out. Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, was confident that government would regain trust and rise again—a point of view that few others shared.
The final consensus was this: In a complex world of multiple monster threats, no single entity is capable of solving problems alone. For the public not to trust any one entity, then, makes sense.
We have already seen that, in the future, the best—indeed perhaps the only—way to tackle global problems will be through the multi-stakeholder approach: everyone gets together to discuss the issues, devise solutions, and co-implement them.
The leaders of the various stakeholder groups involved, from the government on down, will win the trust of their publics through proactive, ultra-transparent communication. They need to explain everything they do and why—exactly as it is done at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Perhaps the simplest way for me to sum up my takeaway from Davos 2015 is with a film analogy. In Hollywood, when the world faces an existential threat too big for any one superhero to deal with on their own, several superheroes unite to do battle as the Avengers or the Justice League.
We have to do the same thing. To deal with our current existential problems—an over-powerful tech sector, shapeless transnational “monster” security threats, and the general collapse of trust—all the global “good guys” have to get together to fight for the world.
And we need to get behind them.