The contentious, often raucous, and sometimes raunchy (thanks to the winner) US presidential election is now over. Among those licking their wounds are the many titans of Silicon Valley, who nearly unanimously backed losing Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. They did this despite the fact that a Clinton presidency might well have ushered in the prospect of another term like that of Barack Obama. That is to say, light on transparency, heavy on secrecy and surveillance, and disastrous for privacy-lovers and advocates.
Obama famously rode the digital revolution to victory in the two previous presidential elections, and was cozy with the Silicon Valley moguls even as his administration tried to bend and break them to suit its needs. Peter Thiel, billionaire Facebook board member and PayPal co-founder, was the lone-wolf who supported Donald Trump, and may well join Trump’s transition team and reap other rewards that come with victory.
The Obama years saw a tech-laden Silicon Valley become the economic and social engine of a new digital century. Some might argue that this would have occurred regardless of who occupied the White House. In fact, given how we’ve seen this government try to weaken encryption and abuse surveillance powers, and the aforementioned dearth of transparency of Obama’s administration, one could make the case that tech might have flourished even more under a different Oval Office occupant. But that is just conjecture. What, then, is the reality?
A Trump administration which takes anti-trust action against Amazon, and forces Apple to make products in the United States may be popular with his base, and may even help awaken a sleepy American economy. But calling on folks to boycott Apple over its lack of cooperation with law enforcement over the iPhone in the San Bernardino shootings, as he did during the campaign, and criticizing them for not unlocking the phone for the FBI, is more worrisome to the tech moguls.
Yes, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are driven by the desire to get richer, but they would like their increased wealth to be in conjunction with advancement of social issues through code. Trump’s often caustic campaign rhetoric seems an anathema to this. Alluding to Trump’s promise to stifle illegal immigration, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said during the heated campaign that “instead of building walls, we can help people build bridges.”
Was Trump’s campaign oratory all just talk? Or will the new president, who used social media so effectively in raising his profile, now embrace the tech sector as a partner in economic growth? Can a software-driven economy be compatible with the “smokestack” economy which Trump says will return jobs to America?
Most tech bigwigs were bemused by the unlikely scenario of Trump winning, even as he was effectively and economically using their technology to boost his cash-strapped campaign and his (in their view) meager prospects for victory. That they missed the many signals that suggested otherwise is worrisome, given that it was their technology that was driving voters to express discontent in America.
This misjudgment suggests they are out of touch with the very constituency they are trying to influence and capture, as well as being part of the elite that Trump so successfully identified and ranted against.
Yes, the vast majority of average Americans enjoy the benefits of technology that have made their lives simpler yet more productive. But technology is also something to be feared by these same folks when it is the cause of job losses. The tech industry, in this regard, failed to connect with the average American, and thus was poorly positioned to predict their mood, and ultimately, the outcome of the election.
By the way, this may be said also of the Democratic Party as a whole, which failed on two fronts. Firstly, they missed the boat in gauging the tenor of the electorate in Middle America, outside the liberal, leftist bastions on either coast. Secondly, their campaign didn’t energize or motivate millennials to turn out in the numbers they did for Barack Obama.
It remains to be seen if President Trump can govern differently than candidate Trump, and allay voters’ fears. Former New York Governor, Mario Cuomo, once quipped, “You campaign in poetry but govern in prose.” Will Trump’s “prose” be fair to personal freedom and privacy and more transparent than Obama’s? One can only hope. Time will tell.