Apple, Big Tech, and Their Role in Conflict Prevention and Mitigation: They Can Do Better

big tech conflict management

Key points/TLDR

  1. The current war is symptomatic of a conflict of opposing systems of governance and societal direction

  2. Apple and Big Tech has a stake in this conflict, and can promote stable open societies

  3. The tech sector’s strategic use of social capital can stabilize and cultivate productive and free communities

  4. These communities can become engines of peaceful productivity and innovation, reducing the spread of conflict

  5. Such communities would provide Apple and Big Tech with new markets and more theaters of operation

The Problem

War has been brewing for some time. Not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but a confrontation between two competing and diametrically opposed systems of governance and societal order. The first is free and open societies, organized by representative governments accountable to the people, civil liberties upheld by the rule of law, and the routine peaceful transfer of power. The other is autocracy, with power concentrated in the hands of an authoritarian with varying levels support by a subordinate party or oligarchy, elastic civil liberties that expand or contract in service to preservation of the State, and the transfer of power, peaceful or not, without the consent of the governed. 

The private sector, and the tech sector specifically, finds itself an obligatory and often unwilling participant in this contest. Its products and services have been co-opted and deployed by state actors as tools of war and suppression, societal disruption and subjugation. In response, it is right for Big Tech to install countermeasures to such use, to retaliate in courts of law, and to withdraw its business from aggressor states during conflict. However, it can do more, and recent events in Europe argue that more is imperative. 

Economic and Social Capital: Their Use in Times of War and Peace

While the use of punitive measures against a belligerent nation, using economic capital as a means to end conflict, such as sanctions, the repealing of most favored nation trading status and the withdrawal of business are reasonable, these are merely remedial actions; a reactive use of economic capital as leverage to terminate conflict. A human and economic cost has already been paid. 

An alternative involves the use of social capital, a concept first described by Lyda Hanifan in 1916, but popularised in the 1990s to explain how industrialization and urbanization were irreversibly transforming society and social relationships. The idea is the use of capital to enable mutually beneficial relationships between corporations, communities and nations by addressing social disorders, including poverty, crime, disaffection and conflict, and it can be applied to personal or public benefit. 

This affords the private sector an opportunity to do what governments cannot; competitively invest in countries on a pre-defined merit basis without the constraints of domestic politics and bureaucratic process.  

The Strategic Deployment of Social Capital for Stability, Growth and a Deterrent to Conflict

Thus far, investment and partnerships have been opportunistic – simply finding stable locations with existing infrastructure that can serve as sites of manufacturing, logistical support and product development. This has led the tech sector in particular to cluster its production and logistical investments in a few sites, like China, thereby creating an over-reliance on these few locations with outwardly favorable conditions but troubling human rights records that can affect stability downstream, not to mention the security of local staff and industry intellectual property (IP). 

If ever there was a time to re-examine that practice, and ‘think different,’ it would be now as we witness the invasion by a belligerent kleptocracy, aided by a motley assortment of other failed and repressive states, of a smaller nation on a path to sustained representative government, competitive free markets and civil liberties.  

There is ample literature regarding justice as the foundation of peace, with justice itself consisting of reward and punishment. In the criminal justice system, we tend to focus on punishing bad behavior. We seldom consider the power of reward; not for some vague notion of good behavior, but for behaviors that extend societal good. 

Big Tech, notably Apple, with its vast cash stores on par with nation-states, should reimagine the strategic and proactive use of its capital for rewarding those communities and nations that have committed themselves to becoming free and open societies. These would consist of investments to fuel sustainable growth on a stable platform of intellectual and infrastructural development. This is the corporate world voting with its wallet for the type of behaviors that will create new and growing markets.

For this to work, and not suffer the selection bias that prioritizes only certain regions and ethnicities over others, the deployment of social capital must be based on communities achieving pre-determined milestones. These milestones should be evidence-based determinants of social stability and economic growth that correlate with decreased violence. Here are four such indicators.

Indicators and Milestones

Women’s rights and the education of girls. A nation’s greatest resource is its children. While studies have shown that the vocational and socioeconomic success of children correlates with the education and vocation of the father, child survival correlates with the education of the mother, including verifiable metrics like infant mortality, height for age and immunization status. For this reason, a reduction in child mortality was selected as a millennium development goal, which has now been supplanted by the Sustainable Development Goals. These educated girls become productive adults. The Grameen Bank has shown that, when given opportunity, women and especially mothers, will invest in their children, families and communities. Education is strongly correlated with opportunity, and the ability to acquire small business loans, and to be able to run a business. Not only have the women themselves enjoyed better lives, but also their children and communities benefit from a reduction in poverty, crime and violence. Education of girls leads to them becoming agents of community growth and peaceful societies. This should be an essential milestone. 

A codified commitment to individual civil liberties, as well as a free press that can hold all stakeholders accountable. One of the first targets of authoritarian rule, and virtually every fascist state, is freedom of information as well as the redefinition of civil liberties in service of patriotism and national identity, both of which become inseparable from the person of the authoritarian ruler as the embodiment of the state and the national ideal. Repressive societies restrict information, including through the banning and burning of books, control of the press, and controlling what people can know and discuss.  A free society permits and encourages independent thought, freedom of expression including dissent, and access to information. These liberties, when applied equitably to society, create a social well-being and stability becoming peaceful societies. 

A third is free and fair elections with a record of the peaceful transfer of power – an indicator of societal and governance stability and continuity.

A fourth, along with representative government, is an independent judiciary. This will safeguard civil liberties, and promote fairness in conflict resolution according to the rule of law. This has been observed across societies. An independent judiciary is associated with non-arbitrary, fair and consistent recourse for infringements on both personal and intellectual property, becoming a major contributor to societal stability and sustainable growth. 

Rewards From the Tech Sector

These and other societal achievements can be seen as milestones, individual and combined, that can earn increasingly greater investment commitment. It could begin as simply as providing grants or donations to be applied towards education and vocational training, including but not limited to skills that would be of interest to the tech sector. For example, beyond funding STEM-related education (science, technology, engineering and maths), Apple in particular might be interested in courses or seminars on learning to code. This would create a generation skilled in creating apps relevant to that society. A further stage might be the opening of an office, or in Apple’s case, an Apple Store and hiring of employees for sales and servicing. A later stage might involve a factory, server or energy farm, and the benefits that technology brings to the local economy.

Benefits To Society and Industry

Unlike much foreign aid from state actors, these targeted investments would have immediate and direct effect with outcomes measurable in relatively short timescales. These would create jobs and development opportunities with direct and measurable societal impact, especially when combined with international partnerships facilitated by the tech sector. Such growth would reduce the prevalence of income inequality, which is a major contributor to social instability, which in turn affects investment. Finally, such development could inspire other countries at similar developmental stages, particularly neighbors, to emulate these milestones to attract investment. 

There would be tangible benefits for the tech companies as well. Apart from creating new and emerging markets, clearly a benefit in their own self-interest, investments such as factories would create dispersed redundancy in production and logistics, making these companies less vulnerable to single-site compromise or failure. These could run in parallel or be activated for surge potential in productivity as needed. 

An increasing number of markets of engaged users who are involved in creating their own solutions would further expand the representativeness, and therefore the appeal, of products and services that would reflect the needs of their own populations, simultaneously expanding markets and reducing potential harm from bias. 

In short, these tech companies would be creating the very environments essential to their own economic and market growth, whilst the communities would see not only infrastructure and jobs, but capacity-building to enable their own societies to become partners and independent players in the tech sector. This expansion in social capital leads to growth in human capital, productivity and societal stability, all of which are essential to sustainable wealth. 

To Cooperate or To Compete?

While tech companies could decide whether or not to cooperate in such social capital ventures, what matters most is that a) they commit to doing them, and b) agree upon a common set of reliable and measurable indicators or milestones for undertaking and scaling them up. Nothing could be worse than inconsistency in either the metrics or rules for engagement, such that societies that meet the same metrics receive unequal treatment. 

It is fair for tech companies to propose regional cooperation between small states with limited population sizes and infrastructure. It is unfair to avoid investment once a society demonstrates stability and growth, but is overlooked due to historical neglect of that nation or region. Although the relationship between investment and societal stability is complex, the absence of investment contributes to an absence of opportunity, and to lawlessness and civil disorder.

Insofar as cooperation between tech companies on these investments is concerned, perhaps the best practice for them is to do what they do best, compete. Competition would have the advantage of creating natural checks and balances. If one company is slow to invest in a setting, another company could use that to its advantage to steal a march on a potential market. Apple has already shown a willingness to proactively bring its investors along with it in the corporate commitments to clean energy and recycling. Moreover, it has an active and vocal user base that will hold it accountable for inconsistencies and evidence of bias, not to mention third-party watchdogs who hold Apple to higher standards than many of Apple’s competitors. 

Conclusion

The conflict between free and open vs autocratic and repressive societies is present and shows no sign of abating. At stake is not only freedom, but societal stability and sustainable prosperity. The tech sector, led by Apple and other Big Tech, has a stake in this, and can strategically invest in those societies and countries that show promise for growth not only as emerging markets but platforms of stability as a buttress against conflict. These sites could not only encourage other communities to follow suit, but decrease risk to Apple and others by creating dispersed redundancy and production surge capacity. These communities could also become dynamic engines of innovation, accelerating the distribution of tech benefit to resource-poor settings, reduce income inequality and opportunities for conflict. In a world with more prosperity and less conflict, everyone wins. 

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John Kheit

Couldn’t disagree more. Big tech should regulate nothing. The phone company does not regulate your speech. Big tech should be neutral and not regulate anything. They are common carriers and they should be held to that standard.