The tech-social justice conundrum

Now, suddenly, our much-vaunted tech leaders find themselves confronted with a conundrum that’s been quietly evolving for a long time: the conundrum of whether it’s possible to create an innovative, data-driven, smart and futuristic society without also taking care to ensure a societal foundation of rules and laws that are just, fair, equitable and humane.

For decades, now, the Future-is-Here-Today tech sector has been driven by very smart men (mostly) who sold their customers and investors on a singular vision: that human life of tomorrow could be perfected through hardware and software. All that formula needed were the primary inputs of lots of financial backing and lots of a very specific type of braininess that viewed every human problem as one that could be solved with the right app or algorithm.

Lacking in this vision was adequate respect for — much less adequate interest in — the messy realities of government and politics, especially in a democratic society.

In its more benign forms, this vision simply viewed legacy, democracy 1.0 matters as mostly irrelevant: given the smartest and most innovative tech, the thinking went, people would be able to resolve all of society’s pressing problems with smart apps and increasingly affordable, accessible consumer devices. Obesity? Pollution? Lack of economic opportunity? Mercury in the soil or water? There’s an app for that! No need to attend town hall meetings or call your Congressman or -woman to urge legislative action in the right direction.

In its more aggressive, less-benign incarnations, this vision placed tech above governance and politics. Uber’s regular flouting of municipal taxi licensing requirements and business norms is an example of this. So too is “PayPal Mafia Don” (and now-advisor to President Trump) Peter Thiel, with his Libertarian-influenced love for things like “Atlas Shrugged” and “seasteading.” Also slipping into this category is another member of the “PayPal Mafia”: Elon Musk, who has long been visibly determined to eclipse public-sector programs in space, transportation and other areas with his own private-sector ventures such as SpaceX.

Understanding this mindset meant it should have come as little surprise when both Musk and Uber’s Travis Kalanick were named to President-elect Trump’s business advisory council.

It was only after the president-elect became the president that the pretty facade of the future that Silicon Valley has so long painted for us was smashed in by reality. (And it’s worth noting here that the male-dominated tech sector was relatively silent when women took to the streets by millions the week before to protest Trump’s policies.)

Brilliant visions of tech-enabled utopia, it turns out, can be quickly dispersed by grotesque nativism, racism, hate and willfully proud anti-intellectualism. The smart, algorithm-driven future, we suddenly find, can be derailed by an administration that bars from U.S. entry many of the bright immigrants and foreign workers who have been helping to build that future. Turns out good government and smart politics still matter after all… maybe even more so than shiny devices and clever software.

Only now, some Silicon Valley “thinkfluencers” are discovering, is the potential damage from neglecting society in favor of tech becoming painfully obvious. And the damage might only be beginning.


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