Technologists in the era of Trump

If innovation is the religion of the technology industry, then industriousness is the religion for the rest of America’s workforce.

Most of America is as foreign to the technology industry as China might be to Americans. Pound-for-pound, immigrants are a larger part of companies founded in technology. The average yearly salary of a data scientist is above $110,000, almost double the median income across the United States.

About 48 percent of people in Silicon Valley have bachelor’s degrees or more compared to 32 percent or so across the United States. And, of course, while close to 7 in 10 Americans describe themselves as either somewhat or very religious, many technologists are famously secular — or even indifferent — to the idea of religion.

It’s important to note these differences because they help blueprint the cultural walls that have built up year-by-year. And tearing down the barriers to more equitable economic prosperity will involve reconciling the people building technology with the cultural effects of that technology on the citizens that they do not understand.

Most Trump voters are actually quite wealthy. They earned more than the average Cruz voter in the primary, and typically earn more than the average American. In many ways, this election split among cultural lines more than they did among economic ones.

While Trump may have picked up a category of union workers and working class voters that usually go more strongly for Democrats, he did not, by himself, flip a dynamic that had lower income groups voting for the Democrat and higher income groups voting for the Republican. Many minority voters suffered the most during the 2008 recession — the racial wealth gap in America has only increased. Yet that did not significantly affect their voting patterns.

What did affect voting patterns was the desire for a change in the direction of the country, but it’s not the change through innovation that remains the promise of Silicon Valley technologists.

Robots on a shelf at MassRobotics innovation hub in Boston

The seeds of automation

Why does change and culture matter so much? The Midwest and the South that delivered the election offer a hint as to why. J.D. Vance, in his moving book (Hillbilly Elegy, part-memoir, part-elegy), offered that the church was the only social support left for towns wrecked by a lack of work.

It argued that losing work not only created economic chaos, it created cultural tension with groups of people cut off from all support. It argued that economic displacement was never wholly economic and that it came with cultural effects.

People in the technology industry talk often of a universal basic income and imagine it’ll solve every problem inherent to the loss of work. What we don’t realize is just how meaningful work truly is to the American identity.

Loss of work doesn’t just put economic stability at risk. It causes health issues. It leads to breakdowns in cultural identity, and loss of status, and perhaps most importantly a loss of respect. It can kill people by driving suicides and crime up. These are things that thoughts of a universal basic income will never be able to solve fully.

Voters who embraced Trump weren’t just thinking of absolute economic growth: They were thinking of relative economic growth and what it meant for their relative status. A universal basic income doesn’t help people cope with the loss of purpose or status. This is something working and middle-class America, for better or for worse, has been conditioned to see as their life’s purpose.

Coupled with this is an epidemic of drugs that has gripped parts of America — especially in the smaller cities and rural counties that overwhelmingly voted for Trump.

It changes the argument if you think of a job as more than a salary, which is how most Americans rightfully regard their jobs.

Technologists can be guilty of treating work with contempt. Many of us may assume that because Americans are dissatisfied with their current working conditions means they don’t value the jobs they have.

While that may be true of individual jobs, it’s grievously false when it comes to employment itself. A realization that work is the religion of America, and that industriousness is the floor upon which your status rests, is one of the most concrete ways to view the shattering of a bubble that had warped the technology sector’s vision.

Economists have estimated that almost 50 percent of all job losses in the United States in the last few decades are because of automation. This is widespread, with job losses in manufacturing to service jobs. Now it is threatening to encroach on jobs seen as belonging to the upper-middle class to the upper class just below the richest in society, from medical specialists to lawyers.

Networks built to augment human drivers are now looking to replace them. Human labor, the largest input cost for many companies, is at the losing end of a ferocious war to determine who controls the wealth and power in a society. Increasingly, that looks to be technologists devouring the world.

Those who have the technical skills needed to build, understand and control the systems of the future have nothing to fear. Those who are being subjected to the effects of those efforts are confused and angry, and they don’t know why opportunities seem to be decreasing. Some may blame immigrants. Some may blame a rigged system. What can’t be denied is that this feeling is real, and backed by the data both systematic and anecdotal. Saying everything is alright doesn’t mean it’s quite so.

Economic prosperity is coming, but it has been divided increasingly into polarized classes of haves and have-nots — and no amount of universal basic income or new types of work can tackle that issue head-on with the urgency it needs.

Those who voted for Trump were not voting necessarily for their economic present. They were voting for the future — a future filled with economic and cultural desolation that would continue to pass them by if they did not take a wrecking ball to the systems around them. We have, all of us, started reaping the seeds of automation.

Broken accessibility

All of this wouldn’t hurt as much, perhaps, if the technology sector were as inclusive as its ideals. Tech is a meritocracy in name. Yet beyond all of the technical skills one should look for, the deadly truth remains that we are very much a place where success is found in access and networks.

For a group of people so data-driven, the obsession over unscientific variations of culture fit can become a quick way to exclude different types of people for scant reasons. The need to look beyond traditional sources of engineers highlights a simple fact… that the technology sector is in many ways less diverse and inclusive than the rest of America.

With the revolving door spinning to tech and away from finance, the question of accessibility to Silicon Valley’s riches and status will only grow larger. The diversity of thought and demographics in the Bay Area will loom ever larger in the national conscience as technology grows in scope and influence.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy admonishes the white working class that encourages “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible” — yet he also has words for the upper-class elites and the aspirational (and diminishing) upper middle class. While he may have been applying his critique to the traditional guardians of mobility, the elite Ivy League schools he attended — his train of thought applies as much to the new gatekeeper of wealth mobility, the startups and investment firms that dot the world with exclusive cocktail parties and private pitches.

There is a new, almost Gatsby-esque contempt for those who don’t pattern-match with the traits associated with a successful entrepreneur. The nerds might have won — but we’ve left precious little space for others.

As much as we might not understand the rest of America, they may not understand us, as well. And when not understanding the rituals of a new ascendant economic and cultural class costs people a fair share of the pie, they will fear what they don’t understand, and hate what they fear — if they haven’t started already.

Data-driven disruption

Pattern-matching is the natural default of technologists. It extends to a love for data, for rational, hard facts that determine ideal courses of action. Beyond just a fascination for the underdog and new technologies, a love of being data-driven is part and parcel of the gospel of the technology sector.

It’s something that’s not naturally obvious when you look at the tech sector, a collection of people bound by ideas that go beyond them. Yet this love of data can take an unhealthy turn.

Above all else, the Trump campaign used social media to maximum effect. A campaign that was heavily outspent on all dimensions by Hillary Clinton had to rely on free and earned media to get its message out. In many ways, the Trump campaign built itself on the efficient use of tools technology has made available to all.

Yet another layer of this story goes much beyond that. Fake news swayed many people during the campaign, and often spread like wildfire. Much has been written on this topic, so many of the key points don’t bear rehashing — however, the main point to be made here may be that when you have an algorithm that prizes engagement in the goals of monetization, your data can lead you to bad outcomes.

With the wrong approach, you’ll often get results that supersede your original intent. In this case, Facebook’s standards prized the wisdom of the crowd, and, at that, a segmented one. In effect, Facebook has determined that we are the wisest to determine the content around us. That has led to several implications beyond healthy revenue for Facebook.

It has led to different disjointed bubbles of communication where you can live in the same city and get vastly different opinions at all times. It doesn’t consider authentic content to be the most valuable: rather it optimizes for reaction. At times, that has led to the rise of clickbait empires such as Upworthy. Now, it has led to the rise of alternative media sources that trade in truths and conspiracies.

The answer isn’t to have better human intervention or more editorial standards. It’s to realize just how much data collection matters, and how the algorithmic treatment you apply to immensely valuable data can lead to vast societal impact. Forty percent or so of people get their news from Facebook — it is by far one of the largest gatekeepers of information and trust in the world.

The trust users have placed into it, revealing every intimate detail of their lives, will now be entrusted into the hands of a company that is bound by law to obey and submit to federal surveillance agencies controlled by a Trump administration.
surveillance camera

A personal story

As I take the time to wind down my thoughts, I have to note that writing this story has been very personal to me. I work in tech. When Donald Trump says immigrants take away American jobs, and when he tries to restrict legal paths to immigration, that directly affects people like me.

I think back to my work with Springboard. We’ve helped train people around the world, but mostly Americans, in cutting-edge digital skills, from UX design to data science. We’ve helped many people gain jobs in the new digital economy, jobs that promise satisfaction and high pay.

Despite that, I wonder if I’m the “burden” Trump implies I am. I pay taxes and don’t receive any benefits, yet I watch a president teeter between saying he wants high-skilled migrants, and cutting off every possible route to become one. J1s, H-1B, TNs, green cards — alphabet soup for most Americans, but essential sounds to anybody seeking to navigate the byzantine legal immigration system.

In many ways, magnified much beyond my personal story and in situations that are much graver than mine, Trump is America’s personal repudiation to many elements of technology.

It is a personal rejection, one encompassed in a wave of rejections. It is clear to me now more than ever that the technology sector is its own special place — yet if we don’t reach out, our isolation will crush everything we seek to build.

The way forward

Ironically, it’s on Twitter where I’ve found closure after this election season. Every time I’ve reached out to Trump fans there it has sometimes resulted in them questioning my ethnicity and belonging (I keep a Twitter strongly correlated with my identity). That’s a vast minority of opinions though.

I’ve had good conversations. I’ve learned certain things. I feel like I’ve imparted to at least a few people the prosperity immigrants can bring. Most importantly, I feel like I’ve fulfilled part of the sacred promise of technology: that more information would bring a better understanding of the world and that the potential for humans to connect across vast geographies could lead to insight that might never have been created.

I still believe in that sacred promise. And even though charges can be levied on how America perceives technology, we have to look inwards and fix what’s broken and confining us from understanding the rest of America first. We can examine the effect of automation, and be very earnest about the displacement it creates. We can make high-paying technology jobs and opportunities more accessible to all. We can use data for good.

Fundamentally, the technology sector is an island of optimism that is looking to do good while doing well — this above all else is what will pave the way forward.