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Tools and Weapons

The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age

By Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne
15-minute read
Audio available
Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne

Tools and Weapons (2019) outlines the many different ways in which digital technology can both empower and endanger us. As Microsoft insiders, Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne offer unique insight into the digital present and the future we face, from advanced AI to devastating cyberwarfare. Here they argue for a world where big tech firms and governments collaborate to ensure that the future is better for all of us.

  • Anyone interested in how technology shapes our lives
  • Tech-heads and nerds
  • Businesspeople getting to grips with a digital future

Brad Smith is the president of Microsoft, leading the company’s work on all of its key issues, such as cybersecurity, AI and human rights. The New York Times called him “a de facto ambassador for the technology industry at large.” Carol Ann Browne is senior director of communications and external relations at Microsoft. Along with Smith, she writes the Today in Technology blog.

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Tools and Weapons

The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age

By Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne
Synopsis

Tools and Weapons (2019) outlines the many different ways in which digital technology can both empower and endanger us. As Microsoft insiders, Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne offer unique insight into the digital present and the future we face, from advanced AI to devastating cyberwarfare. Here they argue for a world where big tech firms and governments collaborate to ensure that the future is better for all of us.

Key idea 1 of 9

Data has always been an integral part of human civilization.

We’ve always relied on data. All human civilizations have passed information down from one generation to the next. Without being able to record our methods, we wouldn’t have been able to make progress.

Without the scrolls of antiquity, our great architectural techniques wouldn’t have developed over centuries, mathematical solutions wouldn’t have traveled from one mind to the next, and military strategies wouldn’t have made it from Caesar’s battlefields to Napoleon’s.

Then, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, there was something of a data explosion. As more individuals gained access to the achievements of humankind through the printed word, a democratic revolution began. This had momentous consequences for religion, politics and cultural life.

Later, the acceleration of commerce in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries meant an exponential increase in the amount of data in the world. By the mid-twentieth century, there were filing cabinets overflowing with data in every organization, for every imaginable purpose.

And today, through digitization, we store a quantity of data inconceivable at any other moment in history. We call this digital architecture the cloud.

And though this word brings to mind a fluffy, soft cumulus floating above us, the reality is more like a fortress. The cloud has a very definite physical reality. Every time you look something up on your mobile device, you are pulling a piece of information from a gigantic data center.

These are modern marvels that almost nobody gets to see. Take the one in Quincy – a tiny town about 150 miles east of Seattle. Here, there are two campuses with more than 20 huge, nondescript buildings. Each building is the size of a football field and can comfortably house two large commercial airplanes.

At the heart of each of these buildings is a computer center, where thousands of servers are lined up in long racks. Somewhere, in one of these buildings, each of us will have our own digital file. In one of these humming, cavernous rooms, there are our photographs, private emails and bank account details.

Even more remarkable is the fact that each data center has an exact double, with another set of buildings, just like the one in Quincy, somewhere else. This way, if there’s a natural or humanmade disaster, our data – our memories, messages, private details – will be kept safe.

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