Updated May 29, 2018 - Technology

Turner: Silicon Valley's military work shouldn't be a surprise

Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There's been a recent wave of resignations at Google over the company's participation in a Pentagon project, but the tech industry has a long history of working for the government and military, says Fred Turner, a Stanford professor and author of a book on Silicon Valley's cultural history.

Why it matters: "The tech industry has been entirely intertwined with our military-industrial complex," he tells Axios. "These industries were military industries," he adds in reference to the early federal investments that fueled the development of technologies like the internet.

Here are excerpts from Axios's chat with Turner.

What are your thoughts on recent reports of Google employees resigning because of the company’s work on a military project around analyzing drone images?

I think it’s wonderful, actually. It's an act of courage. It's hard to step away from the kinds of opportunities that Google affords... The ways in which the Maven project contradicts the company’s longstanding line of "don't be evil"... I think it undercuts the firm’s moral legitimacy.

[Note: Turner is one of many academics who signed an open letter urging Google to withdraw from Project Maven.]

Given Silicon Valley's military roots, was building technology for the government something that was inevitable?

I think it’s been ongoing, I don't think it’s ever stopped. I think the notion that it’s new is not true.

Why haven't people been worried about DARPA (also a defense agency) funding self-driving car competitions, for example?

I think first it’s because we don't see self-driving cars as military imagery. We see drones as directly connected to what’s going on on the battlefield.

Do you think the current political climate is a factor in this reaction?

Yeah, without a question. If you build a drone that Trump used on the battlefield, then you helped Trump.

Tech companies talk about working to change the world and building tech that's bigger than them, but they're also corporations—what's going on with this tension?

The tech industry here in the Valley has convinced us that they're a counterculture... I think that sort of naïveté is pretty cultivated by the companies—"We’re not companies, we’re world changers"... Tech companies are like every other company, they too will be military contractors. But I also think that it’s incumbent on us to say, “Is this something that's good?"
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