Weekend Roundup: Innovation vs. Precaution

Silicon Valley’s quest to “move fast and break things” clashes with Europe’s “better safe than sorry” mindset.

Nathan Gardels

Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on Feb. 18. (Stephanie Lecocq/Pool via REUTERS)

Advances on the technological frontier, from AI to synthetic biology, are reshaping the geopolitical landscape. Not only are China and the U.S. battling for dominance in information technologies, but the political culture of Europe is clashing with the innovation culture of Silicon Valley.

While there is some alignment of the entire West against China — with significant departures such as Britain’s recent decision to allow Huawei communications hardware in non-critical areas of its networks — two opposite approaches to technology are dividing the West within itself.

This week, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, famous for his motto on innovation — “move fast and break things” — met face-to-face with top European regulatory officials who are guided by the “precautionary principle” enshrined in the European Union constitution which, in effect, means better safe than sorry. Originally established with respect to environmental damage, the European Commission determined in 2000 that: “Recourse to the precautionary principle presupposes that potentially dangerous effects deriving from a phenomenon, product or process have been identified, and that scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty.”

On Wednesday, the EU called for clear rules to rein in “high-risk AI systems” so they are “transparent, traceable and guarantee human oversight,” particularly in areas such as policing and health care.

Zuckerberg was in Brussels to make his own proposals to counter regulations under consideration that range from a moratorium on AI facial-recognition technology in public places to requiring an audit of algorithms so users know how they are being tracked and directed, and to what end.

In a paper released for Zuckerberg’s visit titled “Charting the Way Forward: Online Content Regulation,” Facebook proposed global standards for online content and argued against holding social media companies liable for the information they convey, which it said would inhibit free speech. The way forward, the paper suggested, is a middle way for platforms between telecom-like status, where companies are not responsible for what is transmitted over their networks, and publishers, who are responsible for their content.

By all accounts, Zuckerberg made no friends in the councils of Europe, who roundly greeted his ideas with a big thumbs down. “It’s not for us to adapt to those companies, but for them to adapt to us,” as European Commissioner Thierry Breton bluntly put it.

In many ways what we are witnessing in today’s headlines is a deeper clash within the West between the no-holds-barred futurism of America and a history-bound continent long suspicious that uncontrolled technology driven by commerce is not only a danger to society, but to being itself.

It is, perhaps, more than just a coincidence that Ursula von der Leyen, the current president of the European Union who is leading the charge to free Europe from the grip of America’s technological dominance, hails from the land of Martin Heidegger. When the German philosopher argued that post-war Europe should depart from the path of enslavement to technological systems born in Europe but most pronounced and developed in America, he was articulating something deeply rooted in the “volksgeist,” or spirit of a way of life, that still animates the European and particularly German worldview today.

As Heidegger put it, “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.” In a famous interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1966, he posited that “technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the Earth.” Yet, he continued, “everything essential and of great magnitude has arisen only out of the fact that man had a home and was rooted in a tradition.”

In many ways, critically minded Europeans today see Zuckerberg, like America itself, as the monstrous child of their own Enlightenment, “charting the way forward” under the very kind of algorithmic hegemony that would have horrified Heidegger.

Though no less searing, a more recent French thinker, Jean Baudrillard, would be less surprised that Europe’s conception of itself and America is driving the present clash over technology.

“Like primitive societies of the past,” this provocative philosopher once told me in an interview, “America doesn’t have a past. It has no ‘ancestral territory’ — speaking not of land but of symbolic terrain — that has accumulated centuries of meaning and cultivated principles of truth. In short, America has no roots except in the future and is, therefore, nothing but what it imagines. … America is only nature and artificiality, space plus a spirit of fiction.”

Delving deeper into the cultural chasm as deep as the ocean that divides these pillars of Western civilization, he proclaimed:

America is, in concrete form, the traumatic consequence of European dreams. America is the original version of modernity, the weightless paradise of liberation from the past. Europe is the dubbed or subtitled version. What is only thought in Europe becomes reality in America. It is we who imagine that everything culminates in transcendence, and that nothing exists that hasn’t been conceptualized. Americans are not interested in conceptualizing reality but in materializing ideas.

Americans inhabit true fiction by giving it the form of reality, while we are condemned to the imaginary and to nostalgia for the future. We anticipate reality by imagining it or flee from it by idealizing it. Americans merely radically implement everything we think about, from mass egalitarianism to individualism to freedom to fantasy. In so doing, ‘utopia achieved’ has transformed into the anti-utopia of unreason, weightlessness, value neutralism, indifference, the indeterminacy of language and the death of culture.

These woke reflections pretty well sum up the fundamental dynamics of the clash that will redefine geopolitics within the West as Europe and America grow further out of step with each other as they approach the new frontiers of science and technology.