Trump beat Silicon Valley at its own game. Now it must prove itself.
Walt Whitman wrote in his poem, “Passage to India,” that the Suez Canal would enable “the earth to be spann’d, connected by net-work, the people to become brothers and sisters. . . . the lands to be welded together.” Today, this passage captures the spirit of Silicon Valley: a conviction that technology will help spread knowledge, improve connectivity and create jobs.
But President Trump’s election last year shook Silicon Valley’s belief that the Internet always fosters societal good. Ironically, Trump used the tools of technology to win despite Silicon Valley’s overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton. It’s almost as if Trump bested tech leaders at the game they invented.
This is a defining moment for the valley — a chance to respond to the challenges facing our country. Techies are no longer the iconoclasts or the math whizzes who didn’t quite fit in at homecoming. They are now the largest winners in a 21st-century global economy. Their platforms are used by the vast majority of citizens. The hope is that they will answer the nation’s call to advance the common good, from expanding job opportunity to communities across the country to ensuring that online platforms do not contribute to polarization or misinformation.
Tech companies must offer an aspirational vision of how all Americans, regardless of geography, can benefit from a tech-driven economy. This means making investments not just in California, Massachusetts and New York, but also in start-ups and entrepreneurs in cities and rural communities across the nation. It means offering apprenticeships to help build tech capability in the heartland.
Of course, not everyone needs to be a coder or software engineer. But tech skills will be necessary for jobs in manufacturing, retail and construction as the software revolution continues to transform traditional industries.
Tech firms should continue expanding its recruitment strategies, looking to state schools and historically black colleges and universities beyond the Ivies, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. The industry has a long way to go in creating workplaces free of misogyny and sexism and to embrace gender equity. The industry also needs to ensure that its contract workers, whether janitors or cafeteria workers, make a decent wage and have some prospect for upward mobility.
But the challenge for Silicon Valley goes beyond expanding economic opportunity. The tools of technology should strengthen, not weaken, democracy. To that end, we should require greater disclosure of the funders of online political advertisements. Tech firms also need to make heavy investments into weeding out fake accounts and false news. This may require hiring thousands of people to do reviews, engaging with third-party fact checkers and implementing exceptional processing to prevent bad actors or foreign agents such as the Russians from becoming customers.
Even if tech companies do not adopt the journalistic standards of newspapers, they must offer readers, particularly students, some way of distinguishing fact from opinion. It’s heartening to see companies already making efforts to take some of these steps. Admitting their own shortcomings without delay and showing measurable progress will be key to earning the public’s trust.
The most difficult problem may be determining how to expose consumers to multiple perspectives and prevent the echo chambers that define our politics. Cultivating a thoughtful citizenry is a project for educators, parents, and religious and community leaders as much as tech leaders. Nothing can substitute for teaching young people analytical skills and critical thinking. But technology can help in providing the tools for people to expand their horizons. Without violating the First Amendment or imposing their own views, tech companies can offer links to articles that can help users, if they so choose, examine alternative views.
At its best, technology can empower people in extraordinary ways. The Internet and virtual reality make it easier for people to stay rooted in their communities and work for companies headquartered elsewhere. The Internet has also created countless small businesses, triggering the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
As far as citizenship is concerned, it’s never been easier to share views with one another. The same social media that helped Trump to win also paved the way for the rise of President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Does anyone doubt that millennials have a greater empathy for those outside our borders and a greater awareness of other cultures because of social media?
Technology offers us hope for a new prosperity and understanding for this century. But it will take enlightened leadership. More than stock prices or product launches, Silicon Valley’s legacy will be defined by whether tech leaders step up to contribute to the larger American experiment.