Tech and Trump

I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending to be unbiased. I think exactly what you’d expect a Canadian who lives in San Francisco to think: how could anyone with a reasonable command of the available evidence even consider voting for Donald Trump? …But my search for an answer has led me to the uncomfortable sense that the tech industry is partly responsible for Trump’s support.

There exists a popular narrative that Trump’s support consists largely of white men from the so-called flyover states who have been left behind by our changing economy. It turns out this is not necessarily the case:

…but I do think it’s fair to say that his is a campaign driven by fear. (If you would question that, go reread his convention speech.) The cited fears seem truly bizarre, however, to anyone actually conversant with the facts; violent crime is way down over the last 20 years, the number of illegal / undocumented immigrants has decreased since Obama took office, Americans are 55 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist, etc.

So what are Trump and his supporters really so afraid of, exactly?

The easy left-wing answer is “women and dark skin,” and there’s some truth to that, but not everyone who supports Trump is racist or misogynist. (Though they do tacitly accept the support of those who are.) Yes, many Trump supporters live in a bubble wherein the other side is so demonized that Hillary seems like Satan in human flesh; but the demonization of those with whom you disagree is a pan-American phenomenon, not a right-wing one. Yes, fears of a entrenched parasitical ruling class, one shared among Trump and Sanders supporters who had little else in common, seem increasingly valid.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Here’s my theory. A lot of people who support Trump aren’t really afraid of crime, or immigrants, or women, or Muslims, or The Establishment, or even higher taxes. They blame those targets for a much deeper, inchoate fear: a fear that their world is slowly being taken away from them; the fear their future belongs to others.

I submit that this very message is one — inadvertently! — promulgated by the tech industry, more loudly with every passing day.

To an extent this is inevitable. The tech world embraces change, especially ever-accelerating change; to the rest of the world, change means uncertainty, which means anxiety and fear. This is especially true of the unknown — and to most people, technology is already indistinguishable from magic. Every time an ordinary user upgrades their smartphone, every time they see a Tesla in autopilot mode or another movie featuring an instant Internet zillionaire — every time software eats another morsel of their world — they are reminded that they are muggles, and that the Ministry of Magic is growing stronger ever day.

Some people respond by trying to break into tech. Hence a lot of the diversity-in-tech initiatives we’ve seen of late. Others respond by rejecting all forms of change: “some men just want to watch the world burn.” Including young men who, ironically, spend a lot of their time playing video games.

After all, it’s not like people frightened by technological change don’t like technology. Pierre Trudeau, when he was Prime Minister of Canada, once famously said to an American audience: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” The tech industry is becoming that elephant to more and more people, on all sides of the the political spectrum.

I’ve been arguing for some time now that a world devoured by software becomes an Extremistan world, where wealth and success follow a power-law distribution, rather than a bell curve or a straight line — a world of rising inequality, of 20% haves and 80% have-nots. I may well be wrong! …but even if I am, I think it’s fair to say that this is a thing of which many people are frightened.

Especially relatively well-to-do middle-class white American men, who were, as a class, by far the greatest beneficiaries of the old order of things. While technology mints millionaires, they’re struggling to hold on to what they have, against a rising tide of baffling change. What’s sad is that many of them are better positioned to surf it than most, thanks to their pre-existing advantages; but they’re too frightened to try.

Never mind Trump’s offhand asides about shutting down the Internet and requiring Apple to manufacture iPhones in the USA. What he’s really about is pushing back the great wave of change which his supporters feel threatened by. To them it apparently feels like a tsunami. That includes social change, cultural change, immigration, and globalization, yes — but it would take a blind fool not to identify technology as the proximate cause of much, if not most, of this wave.