an app for your government problems?
If the incoming backwards-looking Trump administration refuses to work with the future-focused tech industry, it can find another world leader who will.
One of the best things about working in tech is that you can easily create a solution to a very complex and abstract problem with nothing more than a computer and a few free apps which turn specially worded text into brand new software that can do anything from help your run a blog, to command machines to do your bidding half a world away. Technology is so powerful that it reshaped the world in a matter of a few decades, and is upending it ever more each day. But one of the worst things is the sheer hubris of the field, especially in Silicon Valley, which seems to consider itself as living in the future and untouchable by virtually anything outside of its discipline. A frequently cited anecdote is from a classic New Yorker profile of the Silicon Valley tech culture in which an unnamed programmer skips out on meeting President Obama because he was “making a bigger difference than anybody in government could possibly make” at the moment.
With the sudden ascendancy of Trump and the aftermath of the election, it seems that my fellow techies have finally realized that they’re not immune from the fray or above it. Industry pundits are freaking out about having to work with a president whose reaction to building the future, the primary preoccupation of most techies, is to look at the plans and tell us how things were so much better in the past. Much of the profession is based around the notion that if we build a new tool or a new platform, we will make our money and so will everyone else who uses it. Creating new markets for new entrants is considered a great thing and anything you build to facilitate that is immediately taken to a VC firm for an injection of cashflow to scale it and turn it into a major ecosystem. How do we deal with a political party whose command now extends over all branches of government and the majority of states and is buoyed by people whose goal isn’t growth but retaliation, who think that anyone doing well is secretly taking from them to do so?
So as techies recover from the shock, Silicon Valley is quickly pivoting to talk politics, create apps to break down echo chambers, and trying to experiment with different ideas for helping those left behind by globalization, from free code camps to help train new techies to feed the insatiable market demand, to pilot programs for universal basic income, which has its downsides, but is not the worst idea for the short term. Tech has reach and money, but it was largely ignorant of politics because it didn’t have to do more than lobby on a few issues here and there, and it hasn’t turned its strengths into any sort of a real political power. That’s going to change quickly. Techies can offer hope to exactly the type of communities that showed up to vote from Trump to save what they say is their way of life. They’ve been teaching laid off coal miners how to join the new economy, advocating for teaching new skills in schools, and can back up their future campaign speeches with concrete results. The next election has to be the new economy vs. the gerontocratic oligarchy.
Even more importantly, tech has a, pardon the phrase, trump card. While a whole lot of liberal columnists lament the supposed incoming tyranny of the Trump regime, I’ve lived under presidents like him, particularly Kuchma of Ukraine. He has no grand designs past his self-enrichment, and that’s going to put a leash on the dangerous ideologues in his administration. It’s not as of tech is a small industry. It covers over two million jobs, creates millions more, and has its tentacles into trillions of dollars worth of wealth. Picking fights with it for the sake of ethnically cleansing its top management, as the current chief strategist for Trump wants to do, will be political suicide that endangers jobs and profits, jobs and profits Trump needs to prevent unrest among those who might not be too fond of immigrants but certainly tend to like the naturalized ones who provide jobs for them. Techies do not have to sit there and take whatever cards they’re dealt by the new government, they have the resources to challenge dangerous, regressive edicts, and they know it, hence the hackathons looking for a toolkit to wield their power.
And there’s another option that I honestly kind of hesitate to bring up, but it would irritate the pedant inside me until I finally did. If tech goes nuclear, it can always start leaving. Ireland, Germany, and Sweden are turning into big hubs for tech companies. If cold isn’t your thing and you’d like to stick to the English language, or at least it’s passable version of it, and don’t mind a little aggressive wildlife, there are Australia and New Zealand, one of which has a hub in Sydney, and the other is trying to start one. This is the reason why to vote Leave during the Brexit to “punish the elites” was an awful decision and will end up punishing only the middle classes. The real financial elites could just pack up and leave for a new country where it’s easier to set up shop and the government is friendlier to them. Tech workers are highly sought out in those nations and every list of desirable jobs for immigrants or residents has at least five or six different kinds of technical careers. I’m not sure how much economic damage that could cause, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s not going to be something the American economy can just shake off…