Europe Wants Tech to Be Force for Good. Who Cares?

Climate change, social media topped the DLD conference agenda, but the tech is controlled by the U.S. and China

Eytan Avriel
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Protest on climate change protest in Germany, November 2019.
Protest on climate change protest in Germany, November 2019. Credit: Jens Meyer/AP
Eytan Avriel

Want to know what's the winning technology of the next few years? Want to know which startups will be making the most money? Are you angling to meet the new generation of young investors or the biggest names in venture capital?

If so, you should steer clear of the Davos conference of the world’s business and political leaders due to start on Monday and stay for the final day of the European DLD conference now taking place in Munich.

Why? The threat of climate change and tensions between the global technology giants and the public has conquered the economic and media agenda. DLD, which for the last 15 years has been meeting annually to chew over trends in the digital world, technology and society in general, has not done a bad job at capturing trends. When the market was down, the conversation turned to the troubles of entrepreneurs raising capital; when it was rising, it focuses on the new rich.

The same applies to technology trends: Every year the conference has a new story – from the first days of the internet, then how it penetrated a growing range of businesses, then to internet 2.0 and social media and to artificial intelligence in the last few years, block chain, quantum computing, and electric and self-driving cars.

During the first two days of the conference this year, which began on Saturday, there were plenty of lectures and roundtables on these tech subjects, but this year they were little more than decoration for the topics that really interested the participants – climate change and the challenge social media is presenting to liberal culture and democracy.

What does climate change have to do with a conference on technology and the digital world? The truth is there’s no direct connection, but in Europe at least many have come to understand that the climate change crisis is a real, existential threat to the world and the quality of life in the West. They now connect everything to the struggle against global warming.

The conference provides no shortage of opportunities to do so. On the stage, for example, a group of young people proposed ideas for requiring venture capital funds to only invest in startup companies that commit themselves to generating a zero carbon footprint, i.e., balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal or simply eliminating carbon emissions altogether.

Unfortunately, seeing that it’s an industry peopled by young, hip entrepreneurs, the venture capital field has displayed a stunning apathy to climate change, even more so than the institutional investors in the stock market, who at least give lip service to the idea.

Other entrepreneurs talked about the link between technology and our ability to cope with the main challenges of climate change – providing drinking water, improving the performance of photovoltaic cells and, of course, artificial intelligence, which could do some interesting things in all these areas.

Each of these discussions were laudable and encouraging. The many speakers addressing global warming attracted a lot of attention and sincere applause. Many of them knew how to tell the story well, each in his or her own way, and offered graphic descriptions of the plight humanity faces now and in the future.

However, the truth is that none of them offered a breakthrough idea, technology or strategy. All of them urged conference attendees to recognize that global collaboration was needed and to take responsibility, but no one had a convincing strategy of how to do it.

The same problem arose over the question of the future of democracy. For the last decade and a half, the giants of the high-tech industry – Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like – were the stars of every tech conference. But now they have morphed from solution to problem.

If in the past, said this year’s DLD speaker, we thought that social media would spread democracy, personal expression and the liberal worldview, today we know it does exactly the opposite.

In countries where democracy was weak to begin with, social media has been turned into a weapon used by authoritarian leaders to repress opposition critics. In developed democracies, social media is being used to undermine them, as Russia did in the United States during the 2016 presidential elections.

The strongest applause at this year’s DLD was reserved for remarks by climate activist Marc Buckley and by Maria Ressa, the founder of a Philippine online news organization and battler for freedom of the press, and not for Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, as was the case last year.

In Europe the overall sense is that if in theory there is a conflict of interest between democracy and giving a free hand to business to encourage innovation, the needs of democracy should prevail. The problem it’s not at all a given that European determination is what will decide the future.

The reality is that the big internet companies are American and Chinese, and Europe’s influence over them is limited. In reality, say many of the conference participants, the big online platforms have already won the battle – the authorities in America and China have no desire or ability to rein them in.

The Europeans know this. Much of the discussion – tediously for non-European participants – has dealt with the despair Europeans are feeling for their inability to deal with other countries in the digital arena, the issues of data and their inability to create a sizable industry of startups and venture capital, certainly not one equal to America’s.

At moments like these, they sound like Israelis bemoaning the sorry state of our education amid high-tech success. In Europe’s case, it’s the grieving for a part of the world, which historically did so much to advance science and technology, now watching others carrying the baton.

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