It’s probably fair to say that the world doesn’t need another journalist trying to explain why Donald Trump won the US presidency right now.
Nonetheless, I think that we in the technology sector need to look at both the shock being felt by many people at his victory, as well as the jubilation of those who won, and understand the role that tech played in enabling the rise of Trump – and the lessons we need to learn.
When writing in this blog about the impact of the digital revolution, I’ve often used the phrase, “technology fragments” – using “fragment” as a verb, not a noun.
The usual context for that phrase is to explain what happens to businesses in markets that are being changed as a result of technology innovation. The most commonly used word by technologists for this process is “disruption” – a word that fails to accurately portray the way the digital revolution works.
What tech does is fragment markets – it breaks them down into component parts, atomises them, takes away old barriers to entry, and opens up those markets to new entrants with very low startup costs, thereby shaking up the established old order.
Take Computer Weekly as an example. Where once we were a print magazine, protected in a market with high startup costs (the cost of printing, paper, ink, distribution, people), now we operate in one where anyone can write an article that our readers might be interested in, at no cost, and publish it to a potential global audience. Where once we provided tech news once a week only on printed paper, now we provide content daily on a website, through video, in PDFs, on social media, via email, and so on.
Our market has been completely fragmented – broken down into its constituent parts and opened up to anyone with an inclination to take part. The same thing is happening in the rest of the media industry. And it’s happening in retail, in entertainment, it’s starting to happen in banking and elsewhere.
The signs of technology fragmenting the old order are everywhere to see in business.
So if it’s happening there, who’s to say that the same trend isn’t affecting wider society? You could make a reasonably convincing argument that the protests represented by Brexit and President Trump are just such a social fragmentation in action, enabled by technology.
Much has been written about the influence of social media around Brexit and Trump – the creation of echo chambers where people only read articles that support their views, and only see comments from like-minded people. That’s certainly an example of fragmentation – the atomisation of opinion. It hinders one side from understanding the fears and concerns of another.
In the US as in the UK, technology has both hollowed out local journalism and enabled the creation of high-profile single-issue websites with often extreme views.
At the same time, an increasing number of us access such content through top-secret algorithms that determine what we are most likely to click on – and based on which adverts we’re most likely to respond to.
Those algorithms are closed and protected. They are unregulated – and yet they determine information gathering for millions of people.
Facebook is often singled out here, but Google is perhaps a better example of the risks inherent in algorithmic selection. Its search results – by far the most popular way to find information on the web – are decided by a software program that attempts to determine, on our behalf, what is a “quality” website and what is not; what is “relevant” content and what is not.
If – as Google often does – that algorithm changes, then some websites who no longer fulfil Google’s secret, unregulated criteria for quality and relevance, lose out and disappear from the top of the search results. Is that not, in some way, a subtle form of unregulated censorship?
We are on the cusp of a new phase of the digital revolution, led by artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. We will be expected to put our trust in unregulated algorithms for more and more aspects of our lives. Let’s not forget the role that financial trading algorithms played in causing the 2008 crash, too.
Increasingly, those algorithms will be replacing people’s jobs. What happens to those newly jobless workers, and who is preparing the workforce and society for this potentially huge change?
Not governments, yet – and certainly not the tech companies that will make it happen.
I’ve also written here in the past that there is a very strong risk the digital revolution could cause the same sort of social unrest that happened in the industrial revolution, as those who felt left behind by technological progress fought back to protect their livelihoods.
Sound like anything else that’s been said lately?
Another fact being bandied about after the US election relates to driving being one the most popular jobs in the US. According to US websites I’ve seen, the country has 2.9 million truckers and delivery drivers, 674,000 bus drivers, and 181,000 cab drivers and chauffeurs.
If and when driverless vehicle technology becomes mainstream – probably within the next 10 to 20 years – what happens to those 3.7 million jobs? Is anybody planning for what to do, and how to retrain those workers?
The past eight years since the great banking crash have shown that few Western governments are inclined to invest sufficiently in the sort of skills training and career transfer ecosystem needed to ensure that people in markets fragmented by technology are not left behind.
Brexit and Trump are widely perceived to be a result of the anger of working people who felt ignored by an establishment who foisted austerity on them, while the people and corporations that caused the crash prospered.
Technology undoubtedly played a huge part in enabling that situation – much as it has allowed those angry people to come together behind the likes of Trump and Nigel Farage through a fragmented media where strident voices are algorithmically fed to them.
Technology has given us the benefit of choice – but it also allows those choices to be narrowly filtered for purely commercial reasons, potentially to the detriment of social progress.
Silicon Valley culture
Meanwhile, perhaps we need to once more question the role of Silicon Valley culture here.
The Ayn Rand inspired, everyone-for-themselves approach of many tech entrepreneurs has, undoubtedly, led to great innovations that benefit us all. But it also rides roughshod over anyone left out of that digital progress. Who of the driverless car entrepreneurs are proposing ideas for how to help the out-of-work drivers their innovations will create? Their usual response is that “the market” will provide the answers. The last eight years has shown that “the market” does not.
Instead, we get billionaires in the Valley like Peter Thiel who wants to create an offshore island to avoid inconveniences such as taxes, regulations or employment rights in favour of unfettered entrepreneurialism. Look at Elon Musk, who wants to create a colony on Mars.
It’s no surprise that Silicon Valley has been a proponent of the movement for California to secede from the US. If you don’t like the laws of the land, make your own. Society –thanks to technology – thereby fragments. This is not a healthy attitude if you want to marry digital and social progress together.
In the UK, we might finally be starting to have some of these debates. The ongoing court case about the employment status of Uber drivers could be an opportunity to have a mature, forward-looking discussion about how 20th century employment laws need to change for 21st century jobs.
In the Uber case, both sides are partly right, and both are partly wrong. Uber is correct to say that it has attracted plenty of taxi drivers who want the flexibility of work on offer, and are happy to be considered self-employed. These sorts of jobs are growing in the so-called sharing economy – there’s a similar debate around Deliveroo drivers.
Uber is also wrong to say that it has no obligation towards the employment rights of its drivers. But it would be equally wrong to prevent Uber from using workers who feel they don’t want a blanket rule for how they should be employed.
The answer is somewhere in between – in devising employment rights that fit the new style of jobs that will increasingly be created by digital innovation.
But we are not having that conversation, at a time when many of our accepted, democratic, liberal social contracts are already being questioned. The digital revolution is only going to fragment those social norms even more, unless we acknowledge it and work to prevent that happening.
A networked society
Another phrase I’ve often used here is that technological progress is inevitable and unstoppable – barring any extreme Trumpism perhaps. A digital society is going to be very different from an industrial society, just as an industrial society was very different from the rural society it displaced.
For a start, a digital society will be networked, not hierarchical. That has huge implications for “the establishment” and “the elites” – phrases we’ve heard a lot in recent weeks. If Brexit and Trump represent a backlash against those at the top of the hierarchy, then it’s a step towards the networked society of the future.
Unfortunately it’s a step forward that has instead been co-opted by populists like Trump, who have one foot in the elites but who understand how to appeal to the frustrations of many of those who are not. A networked society offers progress – it is (or should be) by its nature equal, open and democratic. Populism led by the people can be a good thing. Populism led by political opportunists, perhaps less so.
The tech sector is making this happen. The reactions to Brexit and President Trump show us, in my opinion, the very real risks of what could happen if we allow society to fragment. Let businesses fragment through technology – that’s called competition. But people are not companies. Society is not “the market”.
Technology needs to be inclusive for everyone – it cannot allow some to be left behind purely for the benefit of others. The digital revolution will mean we need to evolve our 20th century social contracts for a different age. The technology sector needs to ask itself, seriously and soon, what its responsibilities are to making that change happen in a way that supports social progress and inclusivity, not fragmentation.