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Technology and the Global Struggle for Power


Jacob Helberg, the former global lead for news policy at Google, debuts with a chilling study of how “techno-totalitarian” regimes are seeking to control the hardware and software of the internet. In The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power, he documents the spread of fake news by Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2016 presidential election and explains how advances in artificial intelligence, data collection, and “synthetic media,” or “deepfakes,” could make similar propaganda campaigns more disruptive and harder to spot. Even more threatening, in Helberg’s view, China’s efforts to gain “back-end” control of the internet by manufacturing cellphones, building 5G networks, and influencing international standards and regulations.

In the book, he also alleges that the Chinese company that owns TikTok has helped repress the country’s Uyghur Muslims, notes that TikTok videos could be used to refine facial recognition algorithms to better surveil non-Asians, and cites researchers who believe the app is collecting an “abnormal” amount of data from its users. Though Helberg’s call for democratic nations to form a “compact to resist authoritarian aggression and subversion” is on-point, his argument that breaking up big tech would threaten U.S. national security is less persuasive. Still, this is an informative and often harrowing wake-up call.

This tech-fueled war will shape the world’s balance of power for the coming century as autocracies exploit twenty-first-century methods to re-divide the world into twentieth-century-style spheres of influence. Helberg cautions that the spoils of this fight are power over every meaningful aspect of human lives, including economy, infrastructure, national security, and ultimately, national sovereignty. Without a firm partnership with the government, Silicon Valley is unable to protect democracy from the autocrats looking to sabotage it from Beijing to Moscow and Tehran. The stakes of the ongoing cyber-war are no less than the nation’s capacity to chart its future, the freedom of democratic allies, and even the ability of everyone to control their fates, Helberg says. And time is quickly running out.

Jacob Helberg has amazingly explained the interplay of technology and geopolitics in sharp, lucid prose. This book should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand one of the defining challenges of modern times.

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