Losing the future

There’s a story that Silicon Valley likes to tell about the future.

Part of that story, of course, is the idea that technological change will continue to accelerate and make our lives better. But when I talk to entrepreneurs and investors, I hear a broader narrative of progress — a belief that society is becoming more diverse, meritocratic and rational. Things are getting better, and we, as a community, are making the world a better place.

That’s the assumption behind so many conference pitches, where someone talks about how something hasn’t changed in umpty ump years and isn’t that crazy? “We’re going to disrupt Industry X,” we’re told again and again and again (yes, it’s partly TechCrunch’s own damn fault), and we’re meant to assume that this disruption will be a good thing. Heck, when people ask me why I write about technology, I usually tell them it’s because I want to write about the big forces of change.

I also hear echoes of that narrative when I discuss the challenges facing diversity in the tech industry, and then friends and acquaintances assure me that people like us (the industry’s young-ish, educated, urban professionals) don’t think that way. Soon, they say, everyone will be like us.

That’s the narrative that Donald Trump just punched in the face.

To be clear, I’m conflating a few different things here — economic growth, technological progress and political change. But this combination is part of what we’re talking about when we point to Silicon Valley’s unique blend of ’60s-era counterculture with corporate capitalism.

And the ties seem particularly clear in this election, where Hillary Clinton attracted the backing of most of Silicon Valley. (Well, Trump had Peter Thiel.) Where she reportedly ran a data-driven campaign of extreme sophistication. (And yet …) Where she, like Obama, has been frequently described as a “technocrat.” And where, most importantly, the candidates offered two diametrically opposed visions of the future.

I expect that we’ll be reading post-mortems about why Trump won for months and years to come: To what extent was it about economics? Or race? Or gender? Or all of the above, in a white, working class uprising?

But here’s what seems clear to me: Trump, for all his back-and-forth on the actual issues, told a consistent, resonant story. He told Americans that we are at “a moment of crisis,” that the changes that many welcome as progress actually reflect a once-great country in decline. That people are right to fear immigration, to fear growing protections for minorities and the LGBT community, to fear abortion rights, to fear disruption — the disruption brought by free trade, by automation, by new technologies.

He told us that things aren’t getting better. And it seems that more than 59 million people were ready to hear that story.

What did Clinton and the Democrats offer in response to that fear? “America is already great.” They told us that we’re making progress, and that the problems that remain can be fixed with the right combination of policy, data — and technology.

Don’t get me wrong: The case for progress has its own believers, enough to give Clinton a narrow victory in the popular vote. And despite plenty of my own reservations, it’s the story that I, fundamentally, believe. Or at least I believed it yesterday. I hope I’ll be believe it again sometime soon.

But right now, it rings a little hollow.