In September 2015, when Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg during a U.S. visit, it was in a way a meeting of the leaders of the world’s two largest countries. With 1.59 billion users, Facebook’s population is bigger than China’s, which is 1.37 billion. Jinping also met with President Obama during the same visit, but not until after he’d met with Zuckerberg and other tech CEOs. The meeting order may have been a quirk of Jinping’s itinerary, or it may have been symbolic of a shifting balance of power, in which tech CEOs increasingly behave like heads of state.
More than any previous generation of industrial leaders, technology CEOs have the fewest intermediaries between them and their customer base. They also have a far closer relationship with their customers than politicians have ever had with their constituents. For an elected official to know what voters are thinking, they turn to a pollster or to the news media. For a tech CEO to know what their users are searching for, buying, or paying attention to — even their real-time physical location — all they have to do is consult the data.
The newfound power this confers on tech CEOs is visible in their direct interactions with political leaders, both in the U.S. and abroad. When tech CEOs meet with heads of state, they don’t talk about business but about areas that have traditionally been the purview of politicians, such as infrastructure, the environment, and law.
When Uber CEO Travis Kalanick met with Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi last September, their topic was how the principles behind UberPool might help India solve some of its transportation infrastructure problems. And when President Obama met with Alibaba CEO Jack Ma at APEC in November, their topic wasn’t commerce, but global climate change.
The most notable recent example of a tech CEO pronouncing on policy is Tim Cook, who has made sweeping statements about privacy and encryption that are directly at odds with President Obama’s policies. When he refused to unlock the iPhone of one of the shooters in the late 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, Cook cited his own wide-ranging vision of privacy’s role in a democratic society. While Cook is on record as saying that he did not seek out the role of policymaker, he was unafraid to take it on when the role was thrust upon him.
Because it takes Washington longer than Silicon Valley to understand the social effects of new technology, we are likely to see more tech CEOs forced to take on the role of de facto policymaker.
In some instances, tech CEOs have already weighed in on policy because it is in their company’s best interests. In 2012, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visited France to negotiate whether Google would pay French news sites for linking to snippets of their content. Schmidt met one on one with French President François Hollande, who represented French publishers. In the ensuing negotiations, the French government lost out to Google. Seeing photos of Schmidt and Hollande seated next to each other signing the resulting agreement, you could be forgiven for mistaking them for two heads of state.
This is not the first time that the emergence of a new technology has empowered its early adopters to self-consciously challenge the existing political order. The international network of literate, cosmopolitan scholars who launched the Renaissance and published the first printed books referred to themselves as the “Republic of Letters.” They did not have the critical mass to change the balance of power within their own generation, but when their style of communicating was democratized at the end of the 18th century, the Republic of Letters expanded into the system of nation states ruled by elected leaders rather than nobility. The U.S. Constitution is an enduring artifact of that transition in communications.
The Internet has spawned its own version of the Republic of Letters. Marc Andreesen, author of the first widely used Web browser and currently partner in the prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, calls it “Nerd Nation,” and says its citizens are all those who feel more defined by the Web and its related technologies than their countries of birth. Some tech CEOs, like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, actually favor the establishment of independent technocracies on offshore islands.
Whether or not such ventures actually come to pass, citizenship in Nerd Nation, like many of technology’s influences on our lives, may work on an opt-out basis. We may already be citizens of Nerd Nation, whether we know it or not.