Won’t someone please think of the shareholders? That’s the question Kevin Roose posed in a recent New York Times column, “Why Napalm Is a Cautionary Tale for Tech Giants Pursuing Military Contracts.”
Silicon Valley has been under heavy fire lately. By now, Facebook’s faults need no introduction. And Google’s problems are so numerous it’s hard to know where to start—from censorship for China to artificial intelligence for drones. Consequently, the search engine long ago stopped adhering to its unofficial motto: “Don’t be evil.”
Twenty-first century advances have ushered in more new moral dilemmas that many tech employees feel compelled to respond to. “Much of our most cutting-edge technology is dual-use,” former Bulletin editor Elisabeth Eaves explained last year. “It could be used for good, or it could be used to help kill people.”
Roose acknowledges “this is a debate worth having.” But he wants to focus on a “more pragmatic” question: “Could Big Tech’s decision to pursue controversial defense and law enforcement contracts be a financial mistake?”
Roose points out that some of the disputed government contracts are in no way critical to the tech giants’ total revenue. An augmented-reality headset adapted for US Army use would bring Microsoft less than one percent of the company’s 2018 revenue. Consider the long-term costs of public outcry instead, Roose suggests (nevermind that such outcry depends on the ethical debate he set aside—we’re only talking about bankable dividends here.)
Exhibit A: Dow Chemical, which produced napalm for the United States during the Vietnam War. While the contract for the infernal substance lasted only four years, horrific images of violence cost the company through years of boycotts and damage to the company’s reputation. At the end of the day, the $5 million Defense Department contract ultimately cost Dow Chemical billions of dollars, Roose says.
The tech industry’s apparent missteps may already be costing them valuable prospects. Roose notes evidence that boycotting or refusing to partner with controversial corporations and government agencies may actually now be more lucrative than cozying up with the big employers.
But for old times’ sake, let’s give the last word to Dow Chemical’s former CEO, Andrew Liveris: “We went from being a company that made Saran Wrap to keep food fresh to a kind of war machine.” Will Silicon Valley’s leaders get the memo?