With Political Failures Left And Right, Tech Needs To Rethink Its Strategy

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Politics is the bête noire of hackers and entrepreneurs. It lacks the precision and logic of a function in a computer program while being incredibly inefficient to boot. Taxi services have been bad for decades in cities like San Francisco thanks to local politics, but a dedicated technology startup managed to ameliorate the situation in just a handful of years.

This aversion to the democratic process is not just an unspoken taboo though, but rather openly flaunted. HackerNews, the news hub for hackers, enshrines in its guidelines that “most stories about politics” are off-topic for its discussions.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision about Aereo though, it should be obvious that our general lack of interest of the political realm is becoming a burden. As the size of the technology industry has grown, fully grown startups are increasingly centers of power in our economy, touching on areas well outside their traditional ken of science and technology to issues like health care, employment, and education. These are socially contested policies in which many citizens hold passionate positions, and the technology industry’s agenda often becomes subsumed by larger objectives.

We can see this in a matter like immigration, which is perhaps the most important subject facing Silicon Valley’s economy today. Due to our current immigration system, founders coming to America to start a business are mostly out of luck, even if they receive investment funding or hire American employees (a small handful may get through in extraordinary visa cases, but this is exceedingly rare). Congress failed to pass a comprehensive bill on immigration the past two years despite bipartisan interest, and as my colleague Alex noted yesterday, further attempts at reform have been canceled for the foreseeable future.

It’s easy to blast Congress for failing to move forward on immigration (or on anything, for that matter) instead of blaming ourselves. But our interests in immigration have also failed within the Obama Administration as well, despite the heavy tech influence on the president’s campaign. In 2010, the US Citizen and Immigration Services agency changed its regulations on how it authorized visas, outlawing the practice where a founder sponsors their own visa through their startup. Thus, one of the key pathways for immigrant entrepreneurs to legally build their companies in the United States was closed.

The technology industry’s tribulations with immigration is a vivid vignette of our challenges in many other policy areas. If politics is a form of narrative, the tech industry is in desperate need of a new one. For years, we benefitted from a deep well of support among the general public and in Washington for progress in the technological arts, using a set of platitudes we all know well. America is a quintessentially entrepreneurial nation, a startup which saw its founders traveling across an ocean to start their new lives. Entrepreneurs create jobs, while keeping the country competitive. Technology is a force for good, creating incredible products that have truly made the world a better place.

However, as I wrote about in my first column on TechCrunch, Silicon Valley is increasingly a political target, partly due to its size, but also because of our callous approach to so many of the salient issues of our time. Employment remains the most important problem to people around the world, yet disruption is increasingly replacing jobs with automation. At a time when there is more concern than ever over manipulation and privacy, tech companies conspired with the U.S. government to allow all sorts of spying on citizens.

Thus, when we engage on an issue like immigration, our progressive notions of science and technology suddenly seem deeply incompatible with the exigencies of politics. Part of the challenge is that there remains a latent and at times boisterous nativism concerning American jobs, despite widespread evidence that high-tech visa holders are some of the most important stakeholders in building startup companies. But we have yet to develop the means to overcome such views and educate the American electorate on why a more open immigration policy is fundamentally good and also urgently needed for the US economic recovery.

But it is not just our interface with the world outside of the startup bubble that is problematic — even our internal narrative has become less cohesive. Take the issue surrounding Netflix, Verizon, and network neutrality. The interests of Netflix fundamentally diverge from those of startups in the video space, since Netflix has the budget to pay for net neutrality while startups don’t. The company originally agreed to pay Verizon additional fees for peering, then started fighting back. While the company has since pushed back on the issue at the FCC, the point remains the same: our largest companies and earliest startups don’t often share the same political goals.

Net neutrality can evoke quite passionate viewpoints, but to see a more intellectual example, take a technology issue like the right to be forgotten, a major new policy development that affects startups and large companies alike. While there has been a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the European Court of Justice’s decision, there is a truly interesting question for engineers and founders to think about in their own products. What kind of control should a user have over their information? How discoverable should it be? If information has been previously made public, how should a startup handle a request to restrict access to that data? Our angle on issues like this is discordant, and that makes it difficult to speak to policymakers with a collective voice.

I don’t want to turn the clock back on progress. Startups have done incredible things for humanity over the past decades, and I expect we will see even more incredible advances in the future. But we have to engage more with the issues of today if we desire to have any influence on these debates.

The challenge is that the tech world has not always been accommodating to alternative points of view on many technology issues. While the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most diverse places in the world culturally and economically, it is simultaneously one of the most homogenous places on its political views, as any election map can attest. On technology in particular, there is a very limited range of debate in places like San Francisco or Palo Alto.

There is no solution for guaranteeing that our voice is heard, but we can take some of the lessons from our startups and apply them to Washington. Building a startup means understanding our users and encouraging them to join our products, and that same empathy can be used in the political process. We also need to think in a more lean mindset, working on issues more locally first where change can happen faster. In short, we have the tools, and we certainly have the need to engage in politics. Now, we just need the effort.

IMAGE BY Bryce Durbin