In the months prior to the outbreak of civil war in Syria, I led a State Department delegation on a controversial trip to Syria that included a sit-down with Bashar al-Assad. Our intention was to muscle the Syrian dictator on a series of security issues in the field of technology. The weaponization of widely available consumer technology was making it easier to surveil, spread disinformation, and both develop and destroy political movements. Our delegation was there to apply political and economic pressure to try to get Assad moving in the right direction.
The thing that made this delegation walking into Assad’s office different from any other was that it was not composed of diplomats or government officials from the Pentagon or CIA. It was comprised of senior executives from American companies including Cisco Systems, Verisign, Microsoft, and others. Our view was that the companies held the power to be more persuasive under the circumstances and given the topic, the executives actually had the expertise on the topics being discussed.
In the case of Assad and Syria, digital technology did end up having deadly effects. The Assad regime followed digital organizing on open social media platforms, including Facebook, and then targeted attacks at the locations of protests organized online. When they detained people, they would take their mobile phones, force them to log on to Facebook, and then make a kill-or-let-live decision based on the person’s posts and Facebook friends. The Syrian government developed Android apps that outwardly appeared to be apps tied to the Covid pandemic, in one case masquerading as an app to take users’ temperatures, but which also served as powerful spyware, accessing users’ data, texts, and contact lists and providing real-time geolocation data to the Syrian government.
America and our technology companies did not persuade Assad. Instead, he stood with Russia, and in the same way that Russian aircraft bombed Assad’s Syrian opponents, Russia and hackers who worked inside and outside government conducted the cyber war for Assad.
There is a lot that could be taken away from this, but one thing that stands out to me is that democracies including the United States need to do more to intentionally bring people with skills in technology and technology policy into government. During my time in government, it was too often the case that I was sitting in a room full of people with grand titles, long resumes and tons of responsibility but zero understanding of technology. And sure enough, the topics under discussion increasingly required an understanding of technologies that were reshaping power and governance ranging from surveillance to AI to crypto to social media to quantum computing and much, much more. It doesn’t matter if your title is “Mr. Secretary” or “Madame Ambassador” if you don’t know the difference between hardware and software.
Land was the raw material of the agricultural age. Iron was the raw material of the industrial age. Data is the raw material of today and tomorrow’s world. Competition for political and economic power during the agricultural age largely rested on seizing and controlling physical territory. Competition for political and economic power during the industrial age meant mastering machinery and new weapons of war including aircraft, tanks and battleships. Competition for political and economic power in the 2020s is being shaped by understanding how to collect, manage and weaponize data. We’ve moved from a Cold War to a Code War. The industrial age cold warriors are often lost in this world. This has created a need for a new kind of person in government—one who knows how to maximize the promise and minimize the peril of emerging technologies.
The aspect of this that I saw closest up was in the national security realm, as was the case in Syria. But this need is not just in national security and foreign policy. We need people setting agriculture policy who understand precision agriculture. We need the kinds of people who know how to build technology platforms that reliably deliver goods, information and services to tens of millions of customers in consumer markets to bring their know-how to the public systems in health and veterans affairs. And we need the executives and HR managers who are best at understanding what skills will be needed and how to develop those skills in our workforce to bring that to the nation’s largest employer: government, with more than 24 million people working in public service at the local state and national level.
People with technology skills will enter government if they’re given real responsibility and access to projects that change and save lives. I was lucky that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton created a position for me that allowed me to lead projects ranging from protecting vulnerable women in refugee camps in the east Congo from sexual violence to training civil society organization in developing countries how to multiply their effectiveness through digitization. More and more technologists are trying to apply their skills toward challenges that improve the health, wealth and well-being of distressed communities. Government offers an opportunity to do that at scale. Those of us in the technology world love scale, The idea that our efforts can create a multiplier effect that reshapes the lives of millions. Government is not often the most nimble organization, but it is the one that almost always works at the greatest scale.
In the absence of innovators coming into government, it will continue to founder, grow weaker, and we will all be the worse off for it. As HG Wells wrote at the conclusion of World War II, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”
Alec Ross is the New York Times best-selling author of The Raging 2020s. He served as convenor for technology and media policy on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and served for four years as senior adviser for innovation to the Secretary of State.