The rocky start to Trump's presidency has enacted a deeply felt moment of introspection and growing resistance in Silicon Valley. Before now, the tech elite have been left alone to grow, accumulating wealth and power for themselves and stakeholders without thought toward the societal consequences.
Google and Facebook didn't get hijacked by fake news purveyors so much as they created a system that made them inevitable. Now tech companies are coming together in opposition to Trump while leaders like Tim Cook are calling for the technology industry to create "tools that help diminish the volume of fake news".
How did we get here?
The ability of the media to report the truth has been slowly eroded away by pressures from the new digital advertising industry to generate the most clicks. Investigative journalism has been diminishing in value in favor of listicles. "Free" news in return for giving up our privacy is the worst trade a liberty-loving society can make. Meanwhile tech firms continue to go blithely about building businesses with a shocking indifference to the negative impact they're enacting.
But the stakes are being raised, and the utopian future the tech industry sold us on is fleeting more each day. Alternative facts are now in the White House. Rash executive orders curry favor with the public in the name of protecting our national security. Fear spreads that AI automation will threaten nationwide employment. Patriotic-Nationalists target the globalized tech elite and the borderless data they depend upon. These issues threaten the business values and models the tech world thrives on.
Earlier this month a group of entrepreneurs and technologists came together at the NewCo Shift Forum in San Francisco hell-bent on dissecting the realities of 'Tech under Trump'.
There were the "Warners". Those with policy experience and knowledge of how political power and propaganda can be used. They cautioned that the gig economy is a "highway to poverty", that the media is failing our democracy, and that AI automation equals millions of jobs lost. On the other side, there were the "Pacifiers" reassuring us that the gig economy is going to be great, the media is stronger than ever, and that a more educated workforce will solve our employment woes.
Whichever side you lean towards, what was clearest was the political inexperience of the tech industry. Young and prone to being bullied, the industry needs to learn to engage in political fights strategically if it is going to earn a seat at the table. In politics, waging war starts with policy.
Here are three policy areas I believe the technology industry should rally behind.
Rebuild The Credibility of Journalistic Media
In a time when the media is being positioned as "the enemy", it is more important than ever to have the Fourth Estate functioning well and credible in the eyes of the public.
The tech community should start by supporting efforts to strengthen the credibility of media companies dedicated to reporting fact-based news. If Facebook users can't determine the trustworthiness of the news and the tech community does nothing to help them, users may leave the social platform altogether. Or worse, keep propagating false information and further distorting public discourse.
Open Source Education
Overtime our current education system has participated in breaking the links between the economic growth of the country and that of the people. Many states still allocate K-12 funding based on physical seat-time in the classroom. Innovation in education has been impeded by entrenched interests and worse, targeted by opportunistic innovation demagogues interested in profiting from the decay.
As a country, we need to adopt smarter policies that consider how skills and educational advancements are actually acquired. What if the tech industry helped support and drive an open sourced education system? We could support local communities to design the right system for their children while providing peer reviewed modules of physical and digital education, downloadable at the speed of the Internet. Gaming techniques could be used to measure and nurture achievement while also tracking each kids progress for the benefit of education not just for advertising. Education advancement must move at the speed of tech advancement. The tech industries future workforce depends upon it.
Enable Digital Healthcare Delivery
Given the current health policy environment, the tech industry has an incentive to promote healthcare delivery reform. Advancing policies that advocate for new models of care through digital health technologies should be a cause we, as an industry, get behind. But in order to deliver new healthcare solutions, we first need to alleviate the thorny issue of personal health data and the policies that surround it.
Digital health systems are being widely adopted by consumers, but because of regulatory hurdles, we're still limited on integrating our personal health data into the healthcare delivery systems our physicians use.
Driving a public policy agenda that offers solutions for encrypted, portable, and usable health records feels like a lay-up for the tech industry. The best data security minds reside in our ranks. What is stopping a coalition of data and technology experts from leading a policy debate in support of an affordable, accountable and secure exchange of health data?
Putting Talk Into Practice
Is the above agenda too much to ask for the technology industry? Well, five of the six largest companies in the world as measured by market cap are technology companies. That remarkable strength, combined with a highly educated employee base that NewCo rightly points out is demanding socially proactive involvement from their executive leadership, is formidable enough for any policy fight.
And while grassroots movements like Tech for Campaigns push for change using all of our industry's modern talents, they aren't policy. Leaders in technology need to develop a way to pursue pro-innovation policies that focus on reinforcing our liberty, democratic values, and capitalist ideals.
With policy comes true leadership. We are missing the much-needed initiative of leaders like Aaron Swartz, who died fighting for his beliefs on Net Neutrality and an Open Internet. Instead what we're left with are tech leaders buying safe zones in New Zealand to hedge against social chaos. Not the sort of guidance and hope we are in sore need of today.
The forces that led to today's Washington were years in the making, and many of them were policy driven. As an industry, we have the opportunity to move beyond our previous indifference to political involvement by channeling our efforts toward societal progress at the policy level.