Silicon Valley and the Military

At first glance, the world of the tech industry and the world of the military could not be any further apart.

In fact, in the eyes of the public, the two spheres seem to embody opposing ideals and management styles. Tech companies aim to be disruptive, replacing old ways of doing things with unprecedented technological solutions. The military, on the other hand, values tradition, insisting on etiquette and ceremonies that are centuries old.

The work of tech companies can be described as haphazard, as epitomized by a Mark Zuckerberg quote “Move fast and break things”. Products are released quickly, then patched hurriedly the moment users run into a problem. New features are bolted onto existing code the moment they’re thought up.

The military, on the other hand, has an emphasis on doing things right the first time. Operations are exhaustively planned and practised months before the actual thing. A strict chain-of-command is in place to ensure maximum coordination. In fact, many peculiarities of military communication (like military time, or the military alphabet) have the purpose of averting miscommunication before it happens (e.g. the military alphabet exists because of the tendency for pronunciation to get garbled over radio).

However, in our current era, there are differences between these two professions that go beyond just attitudes. In fact, they even seem to disagree on moral grounds.

A good example of this would be the reaction to Google’s involvement in Project Maven. Project Maven is a project by the Pentagon seeking to use machine learning to efficiently sift through massive amounts of data (usually gathered by spying and reconnaissance). Fellow tech giants such as Facebook and Amazon were also involved in this project. Despite this, and Google’s assurance that the work had nothing to do with frontline combat or violence, its employees still protested. A petition by Google employees with more than 3,000 signatures was sent to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, reading “Google should not be in the business of war“. In the end, Google pulled out of the project entirely.

This state of affairs wasn’t always the case, however. Indeed, for most of history, technology and warfare were closely intertwined. Advancements in technology were also used as advancements in war, no matter the creator’s intentions. Dynamite was originally intended as a tool to make mining safer, but it’s usage in war horrified its inventor (Alfred Nobel) to the point where he set up prizes rewarding achievements in peace and literature in his will.

The invention of the Internet, though, was the direct opposite of dynamite. The idea of the Internet started as a project of the US Department of Defense (DARPA) called ARPANET. Its original purpose was to be able to function as a communications system for the military that did not have a central core or headquarters. Such a network would not have any weak spots for an enemy to target, that could take down the entire network in one fell swoop.

Things didn’t actually pan out that way, though. ARPANET was used more for academic research than military command, before being replaced by dozens of other computer networks that improved on ARPANET in some way. Eventually, one of those copycat networks provided the inspiration and the technical backbone for Tim Berners-Lee to introduce the World Wide Web for civilian use in 1992. The rest, as they say, is history.

If there is any reason we can point to the modern differences between tech culture and military culture, it could be summed up in two words: “Silicon Valley”. The founders of the most iconic tech companies of the 21st century (e.g. Google, Facebook, Apple) had ideals regarding their technology that went far beyond the profit motive. They also viewed them as a moral duty, that they could genuinely change the world for the better with enough cutting-edge technology. This is a quote from Larry Page, one of the founders of Google:

“Sergey [the other founder] and I founded Google because we’re super optimistic about the potential for technology to make the world a better place.”

Similarly, this is a quote from Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook:

“By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.”

Their aspirational hopes covered the entire world. In hindsight, one could have predicted them eventually butting heads with the military, who tend to value the security and interests of their own nation over others.

Will these two divergent worldviews ever see eye-to-eye? Perhaps they already have. Research by non-profit Tech Inquiry revealed that Silicon Valley companies actually have thousands of contracts with US military and law enforcement that go under the radar everyday, mostly for services such as data management and technical support that traditional contractors are unable to provide. Despite their initial idealism (epitomised by Google’s old unofficial motto: “don’t be evil”), they might have opened themselves to more and more types of clients as they grew larger and more established.

Regardless of their motives, though, it is clear that the technology of Silicon Valley has changed the world forever. Anyone who wants to keep up on the cutting edge of technology (like the military) will have no choice but to deal with them.