The United States and consequently much of the world are in political uproar. Much of that is about very general and vital issues such as war, peace or the treatment of women. But quite a lot of it is to some extent tech-industry-specific. The purpose of this post is outline how and why that is.
- There’s a worldwide backlash against “elites” — and tech industry folks are perceived as members of those elites.
- That perception contains a lot of truth, and not just in terms of culture/education/geography. Indeed, it may even be a bit understated, because trends commonly blamed on “trade” or “globalization” often have their roots in technological advances.
- There’s a worldwide trend towards authoritarianism. Surveillance/ privacy and censorship issues are strongly relevant to that trend.
- Social media companies are up to their neck in political considerations.
Because they involve grave threats to liberty, I see surveillance/privacy as the biggest technology-specific policy issues in the United States. (In other countries, technology-driven censorship might loom larger yet.) My views on privacy and surveillance have long been:
- Fixing the legal frameworks around information use is a difficult and necessary job. The tech community should be helping more than it is.
- Until those legal frameworks are indeed cleaned up, the only responsible alternative is to foot-drag on data collection, on data retention, and on the provision of data to governmental agencies.
Given the recent election of a US president with strong authoritarian tendencies, that foot-dragging is much more important than it was before.
Other important areas of technology/policy overlap include:
- The new head of the Federal Communications Commission is hostile to network neutrality. (Perhaps my compromise proposal for partial, market-based network neutrality should get another look some day.)
- There’s a small silver lining in Trump’s attacks on free trade; the now-abandoned (at least by the US) Trans-Pacific Partnership had gone too far on “intellectual property” rights.
- I’m a skeptic about software patents.
- Government technology procurement processes have long been broken.
- “Sharing economy” companies such as Uber and Airbnb face a ton of challenges in politics and regulation, often on a very local basis.
And just over the past few days, the technology industry has united in opposing the Trump/Bannon restrictions on valuable foreign visitors.
Tech in the wider world
Technology generally has a huge impact on the world. One political/economic way of viewing that is:
- For a couple of centuries, technological advancement has:
- Destroyed certain jobs.
- Replaced them directly with a smaller number of better jobs.
- Increased overall wealth, which hopefully leads to more, better jobs in total.
- Over a similar period, improvements in transportation and communication technology have moved work opportunities from richer countries to poorer areas (countries or colonies as the case may be). This started in farming and extraction, later expanded to manufacturing, and now includes “knowledge workers” as well.
- Both of these trends are very strong in the current computer/internet era.
- Many working- and middle-class people in richer countries now feel that these trends are leaving them worse off.
- To some extent, they’re confusing correlation and causality. (The post-WW2 economic boom would have slowed no matter what.)
- To some extent, they’re ignoring the benefits of technology in their day to day lives. (I groan when people get on the internet to proclaim that technology is something bad.)
- To some extent, however, they are correct.
Further, technology is affecting how people relate to each other, in multiple ways.
- This is obviously the case with respect to cell phones and social media.
- Also, changes to the nature of work naturally lead to changes in the communities where the workers live.
For those of us with hermit-like tendencies or niche interests, that may all be a net positive. But others view these changes less favorably.
Summing up: Technology induces societal changes of such magnitudes as to naturally cause (negative) political reactions.
And in case you thought I was exaggerating the political threat to the tech industry …
… please consider the following quotes from Trump’s most powerful advisor, Steve Bannon:
The “progressive plutocrats in Silicon Valley,” Bannon said, want unlimited ability to go around the world and bring people back to the United States. “Engineering schools,” Bannon said, “are all full of people from South Asia, and East Asia. . . . They’ve come in here to take these jobs.” …
“Don’t we have a problem with legal immigration?” asked Bannon repeatedly.
“Twenty percent of this country is immigrants. Is that not the beating heart of this problem?”
I plan to keep updating the list of links at the bottom of my post Politics and policy in the age of Trump. Also:
- (Added February 2, 2017) The Washington Post has a round-up of the tech industry’s opposition to Trump/Bannon on the subject of immigration (and a bit on general discrimination as well).