Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
When a massive technology corporation declares that their current CEO will be retiring in the next year to be replaced by an as-yet-unnamed successor this may simply appear to be a case of rearranging deck chairs…on a very large and expensive deck. It may be tempting to read into such changes the company’s underperforming sales, its unhappy board, the perception that the executive has a deficit of vision, or the company’s failure to keep pace with more wily competitors. While all of these things, or none of these things, may be factors in the executive’s departure, from the position of those outside the company how much difference does it truly make?
Potentially, quite a lot, but first…context.
The news that Steven Ballmer will be stepping down, he took over Microsoft after Bill Gates moved on, has generated quite a bit of coverage. After all, it was in the years of Ballmer’s reign that Microsoft saw a sizable cut of its market share move into the wallets of Apple and Google; and the Microsoft phone and Microsoft tablet (Surface) both failed to do particularly well at the very moment when smart phones and tablets seemed to be eclipsing the traditional market for personal computers. Ballmer is stepping away and the question of who will replace him is unclear, though it seems highly likely that whoever does replace him will be tasked with revitalizing the company – the Microsoft board will be looking for somebody to do for Microsoft what Marissa Mayer did for Yahoo!.
To what extent does it matter to those who do not work for a given tech company if that company shifts its senior leadership? Apart from the person giving the presentations does it make such a big difference that Tim Cook is now announcing Apple products instead of Steve Jobs? Would it be fair to say that Microsoft’s problems stem from Steven Ballmer replacing Bill Gates? As these individuals become important characters to be integrated and regurgitated by the culture industry this may seem to be the case, but regardless of who is in charge of these companies you can feel fairly safe in your certainty that they will be producing new operating systems, and shiny toys to replace your previous operating systems and your toys that have lost some of their sheen.
The person at the helm of these corporations can be quite significant; however, the way in which it matters is not so simple as the question of how many years it will be before you need to update your operating system. In a technological society those who are in charge of technology firms command quite a considerable amount of power, and even if (as Jacques Ellul might have claimed) they are ultimately just human faces upon technological systems beyond their control, it makes a difference the extent to which they try to reassert human control. Or, to give a clearer example, consider the fact that Microsoft has been a stellar ally to the NSA in its efforts to spy upon electronic communications. In July 2013 (which seems like ages ago in the ongoing tale of the NSA’s misdeeds) the Guardian reported that Microsoft had helped the NSA gain a better foothold in Outlook and made it easier for the NSA to access information from Skype (which Microsoft owns).
Or to put it another way: what if the CEO of Microsoft had an ironclad commitment to privacy and when the NSA came knocking took the issue to the public?
While it is impossible to know all of the reasons why Ballmer is leaving (some of which may be personal) it seems that Microsoft’s hand in glove cooperation with the NSA is not one of the reasons for Ballmer’s depature, despite public outrage. It is laughably unlikely that a company like Microsoft (or Apple, Google, Facebook, etc…) would take the same actions as Ladar Levison who preferred to shutter his company (Lavabit) rather than turn it into a voyeur’s playground for the NSA; yet the case of Levison stands as a stark reminder that those in charge of tech companies truly does matter not just for stockholders and the board of directors but for those who use these technologies.
To give another example take the case of Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook: along with several other tech groups Zuckerberg is currently on a quest to provide better Internet access to the world. While this may be an admirable goal (“may be” being the important words) the fact remains that Zuckerberg’s willingness to mutilate privacy for the best interests of his company instead of the best interests of Facebook users suggests a worrisome precedent. Thus, to bring it back to the hypothetical: what might Facebook look like if the person in charge was committed to privacy?
Those in charge of technology companies wield a great deal of power, but power (as we’ve noted repeatedly on this blog) can go in multiple directions as is demonstrated by Microsoft using its power to further strengthen the NSA when it could have used its clout to take a principled stand. It may not be the case that Ballmer was involved in every one of these decisions (regarding the NSA), but as the head of the company his attitude towards such issues would have steered many future choices and if the sentiment was sincere (more than just bluster) it may have actually helped define the way the national conversation developed. Again, imagine if an executive insisted that the next model of the e-mail service in their operating system had ironclad encryption, or if an executive decided that maybe an upcoming project idea had too many privacy concerns about it (Google Glass) for it to really be unleashed on the public.
The vision held by these leaders makes a difference, we have just become accustomed to their vision mainly alighting on dollar signs.
Citizens have even less ability to “elect” corporate leaders as they do to elect government leaders, and the notion of “voting with your wallet” is a laughable corporatist notion even were not all of the choices similarly bad. While options on the fringe (such as Lavabit or Mailpile or the Fairphone) may provide some better options the lack of clout of such companies makes them far easier to bully than a massive firm like Microsoft. Though they were only elected by a cloistered and unaccountable corporate board, those who are put in charge of technology companies make decisions that will have a very serious impact on your life (and this could certainly be extended to other non-tech companies). Thus there is reason to care about who replaces Steven Ballmer, as one way that Microsoft could really compete at the moment is by being the company that cares about users’ privacy. Although the truth is that the new tech leader will likely be brought on to make superficial changes to the marketing of the firm while doing nothing to address the centralizing and surveillance mad rot that is overtaking the technology world today.
For good or for ill: it matters who replaces Steven Ballmer.
Don’t get your hopes up.