Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, thinks the coronavirus pandemic should teach Americans to be “a little bit grateful” for powerful tech companies — and angry at their government.
One of the country’s richest people, Schmidt made his most extensive comments about the pandemic to date on Tuesday, criticizing Washington’s response to the crisis as so ham-handed that it “cost us lives.” To the contrary, Schmidt argued, private companies like Amazon have stepped up as leaders, which Schmidt suggested should soften our criticism of tech giants more broadly.
“Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon, for example. The benefit of these corporations — which we love to malign — in terms of the ability to communicate ... the ability to get information, is profound — and I hope people will remember that when this thing is finally over,” Schmidt said on a livestream to the Economic Club of New York. “So let’s be a little bit grateful that these companies got the capital, did the investment, built the tools that we’re using now and have really helped us out. Imagine having the same reality of this pandemic without these tools.”
That messaging, which few other tech leaders have made so starkly, comes amid two related trends: Big Tech is indeed using its resources and know-how for the common good, such as the announcement last week that Apple and Google would deploy their technology to trace people who may be infected with Covid-19. But concerns are also mounting that these companies — and the billionaires leading them — will emerge more powerful than ever as we gravitate toward digital companies like Amazon and away from their competitors in traditional retail.
Some activists are worried that the calls for antitrust scrutiny of Big Tech — which have been rising from both the left and the right in the years leading up to the pandemic — will recede in part due to the big roles that tech companies and its leaders are playing during it.
Schmidt is no longer operationally involved at Google and is now a technical adviser to its parent company, Alphabet. But he remains one of tech’s highest-profile figures, with broad influence in Silicon Valley, big-dollar philanthropy, and Democratic politics.
And on Tuesday, Schmidt voiced deep frustration over US politicians’ speed, or lack thereof, in responding to the virus. Without ever uttering “Trump,” Schmidt said it was “amazing” and he was “curious” as to why the government had not acted more quickly to allocate money to scientists, organize research priorities, and ramp up testing capabilities in the first two months of 2020.
“We probably were one month late in the way we organized ourselves,” Schmidt said. “That month cost us lives.”
At this point, Schmidt is squinting to see if there is a way to begin reopening the economy anytime soon. But because of the lack of widespread testing, governors will essentially be “making stuff up” and are “flying blind” as they make some of the hardest decisions over the next few months, such as when to reopen schools. The hope would be to turn this judgment into a “straightforward math problem,” he said, where you could deduce which establishments are the easiest to open.
“This will change our society for much longer than we think,” he said. “It’s not going to be a quick recovery back to the hugging and kissing and restaurants and all the behaviors that were perfectly fine before the pandemic.”
And yet Schmidt appeared quite sympathetic to the notion that the status quo of total lockdowns could not go on, predicting a “significant bankruptcy cycle” if it persisted for another month or two. However, he said it will be impossible to reopen the economy until there is sufficient personal protective equipment, testing, and progress on a vaccine.
“That strategy keeps us closed for months — which is neither a politically reasonable solution nor economically viable,” Schmidt said. “And it’s not fair to the people who are really suffering.”