A note from our editor, Elizabeth MacBride:
I wrote a few weeks ago that the military-industrial complex, having retreated from Afghanistan, would soon be looking for a new story to sell its wares. I predicted it would be China. Today, in the Wall Street Journal, we saw Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Google, lobbying for the Pentagon to buy big tech companies’ systems to counter the rise of China. This makes me uneasy for two reasons:
Any division between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon is a straw man; Silicon Valley was built on defense funding and the various arms of the government remain some of the Valley’s biggest clients. Big tech companies have more to gain from a cowed China than the military has from a tech infrastructure it is already deeply invested in.
And second, tech leaders and Schmidt in particular are well-positioned to make the case, in the White House and the media, for the why and how of an aggressive stance against China. Here’s one connection I’ve had my eye on: Tom Kalil, the chief innovation officer of Schmidt Futures, the Schmidt family’s venture facility for public benefit, is also a consultant in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It’s an unpaid role, a spokeswoman told me, and Kalil (who is by all accounts and in my experience well-respected and thoughtful) will recuse himself from matters related to Schmidt Futures.
But cozy connections raise red flags for journalists. They turn into fait accomplis — and I wonder if a military-tech buildup against China has already been written by the Biden Administration’s stars. And if that’s the case, who benefits?
Of course, there are real reasons to be uneasy about a world in which an authoritarian regime is the ascendant power. But I’m not crazy about one that’s run by and for tech giants, either.
Originally published in Times of E’s weekly newsletter, Sept. 8, 2021
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