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Peter Thiel's $1.25 million contribution to Donald Trump — Silicon Valley's most conspicuous political act in this campaign — is a high-profile glitch; an aberration that emits a distorted signal about the tech industry's true place and ambition in political America.
Trump, with his penchant for ignorance and instincts that lean authoritarian, has been easy for Silicon Valley to oppose uniformly. But Thiel himself adheres to a breed of techno-libertarianism that feels increasingly anachronistic in the Valley. Today's techies, from Mark Zuckerberg to Ellen Pao, are instead more likely to profess a civic-minded mission, chasing pursuits that strive to optimize society as it exists rather than create it anew.
This is a civic Valleyism that embraces its entanglement in the public sphere, armed with the conviction that it holds a special charge to tackle society's biggest ills. But in the waning days of a campaign in which tech issues have been muted by questions of race and class, Silicon Valley looks poised to escape this election cycle having endured no real scrutiny of its emerging prominence in public life.
Deprived of a closer check of the nation's pulse — just as its profile expands and it spills out onto the political stage — the tech industry runs the risk of misreading the electorate. Trumpism, a movement set aflame by Trump's celebrity and built on channeling the nativist, nostalgic impulses of conservatives, will survive his candidacy. It now poses the most corrosive threat that Silicon Valley will confront to its aims to reshape society.
Trumpism stunned America with its exhibition of a substantial, revanchist slice of white working class voters who experience politics as a zero-sum game — a group that would rather burn the house down than witness the economic and cultural ascendancy of other identities. These are voters whose faith in institutions and procedural liberalism has collapsed; who refuse to trust the economic data on which the world runs and will not accept the outcome of the election; who have nothing to lose from being judged on the internet. And they are precisely the voters most likely to resist Silicon Valley's attempts to embed technology into public life.
The tech industry's aspirations have evolved alongside its innovations, from the hobbyist's personal computer to the networked world of mobile and the promise of a cloud-based, specialized artificial intelligence applied to improve how we live, work, and move. At least some of these newer pursuits meld a motivation for profit with a sincere interest in harnessing technology to enhance public life. They span efforts to upend the regressive economics of car ownership; salvage scarce food, water, and energy; democratize access to education and health care; eliminate cash; and do away with our need to work.
What's different in this next chapter of Silicon Valley is that the visions for each of these technologies are enmeshed in public processes. They raise questions of how people react when they witness technology changing their relationship to — and status within — their societies. For an AI-powered utility to coordinate efficient energy use, for autonomous ridesharing to take root, for a health system to orchestrate better patient behavior, or for a government to replace cash with an intangible algorithm, citizens will have to look beyond their individual user experiences and consider whether to place their trust in larger systems, authorities, and other people. A good app alone won't do.
Trumpism throws into question what once seemed to be the inevitable adoption of these technologies. Part of the problem lies with the nature of the technologies themselves. The sharing economy, driverless cars, and new platforms for health, energy, and resources will develop in ways that reward scale and data, thriving off of the network effects and density that cities offer.
If—as Silicon Valley hopes—their deployment first invigorates urban communities across the country, improving mobility, health, and access to jobs, how will white working class and rural communities respond? These voters may well be roused to resentment, and explicit political opposition, as they watch the benefits accrue first and foremost to liberal enclaves, only amplifying anxieties about demographic shifts and social alienation. What—if any—motivation will Trump voters have to trust a Silicon Valley that they believe is accelerating the decline of their relative standing in America?
For an industry that has raced to focus on palliatives for technological disruption — universal basic income to solve for the arrival of robots, for one — Trumpism leaves a warning that the implementation of technology is not a given, and may ultimately be the more pressing matter.
Navigating these political headwinds will require embracing a messy political process that has thus far been foreign to the tech industry. It will require that Silicon Valley develop a narrative that addresses concerns over identity politics, knitting Americans together behind a story of shared progress. A class of voters that is convinced that life will be worse for the next generation in America is not one that is inclined to accept with alacrity a tale about technology's promise. The mundane details behind who the winners and losers are perceived to be will govern how Silicon Valley's story unfolds.
The tech industry does, of course, have a powerful case to make for the future. Technology, widely adopted, carries the potential to unlock avenues of opportunity and access in urban and rural communities alike, giving the white working class new routes to prosperity. But the stated vision for these technologies rests on a time horizon that our political system, and especially Trumpism, has refused to comprehend. Even if this election had not compelled it, Silicon Valley must learn to tend to the human concerns around its work — including ones that seem irrational to those looking at them through an engineering lens. Whether the tech world can avoid being blamed for wrenching economic and sociocultural change hinges on its ability to do so.
Khan Shoieb is a communications strategist and served as the National Battleground States Coordinator for President Obama's reelection campaign in 2012.