Trump tremors: how the election upended the tech industry

Trump tremors

Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times, writing about recent tech announcements:

But despite the baubles and billion-dollar office parks, I’m really not feeling it this year. The technology industry is still exciting; it still packs the capacity for surprise. But where the surprise once felt like Christmas morning, it’s now like the entering-the-darkened-basement scene of a horror movie.

Technology has crossed over to the dark side. It’s coming for you; it’s coming for us all, and we may not survive its advance.

I’d agree that we ought to be circumspect about technology (hence the name “Careful Tech”). Manjoo cites a broad range of legitimate concerns, from jobs lost to A.I., to undermined elections, to “revenge porn”, to distracted driving, to the Internet-enabled “post-fact” culture. Based on his companion piece, Manjoo believes that these problems have a common cause: the tech giants are simply too powerful.

Perhaps more interestingly, Manjoo also writes that this Silicon Valley influence felt manageable “until this year.” What changed “this year”? Why is the tech world “freighted with worry” now, but wasn’t a year ago?

Election as epicenter

I have a guess. In short, the election changed everything. Manjoo calls Donald Trump “the meta-narrative lurking beneath every other headline,” and he’s right. Trump’s rise to power has agitated dormant conflicts in every corner of American society, like rattling a stick in a hornet’s nest.

Consider how existing clashes in the tech sphere have been aggravated by the election:

  • Facebook’s cultural influence grew troubling years ago, but the Russian election ads scandal has brought its power into stark relief.
  • The decline of retail isn’t new, but Amazon’s dominance seems more sinister after an election where working-class resentment played a huge role.
  • Sexism was rampant in Silicon Valley well before 2016, but the alt-right’s November victory gave them a platform to protest when Google fired James Damore for his controversial diversity memo.
  • Apple has long been criticized for catering devices to the rich. But Apple’s thousand-dollar iPhone seems particularly out-of-step, considering the powerful populist movement that led to Trump’s inauguration. This ‘masses vs. elites’ divide was one of Trump’s favorite talking points on the campaign trail.

It’s hard to overstate just how cataclysmic Trump’s win was. The election has thrown American society into a sort of slow-motion shock. Tech, as our country’s nervous system and (increasingly) its economic engine, continues to convulse, too, and those tremors aren’t likely to subside anytime soon. ■

  1. Seismograph artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.