Why Trump and Brexit are an indictment of the tech industry and its worldview

When the smoke clears on the demonization of Trump and Brexit voters, we'll simply see the discontent of an alarmingly massive swath of people left behind by the tech revolution.


Donald Trump's candidacy should be a wake-up call to the tech industry about an issue it has ignored for too long.

Image: iStockphoto/Getty/mfhiatt

I played several different sports in high school, but the one I enjoyed the most was cross country.

That was because high school sports can be surprisingly political. Stars always stand out no matter where they come from, but when there was a lot of similarly talented athletes competing for the rest of the spots, judging between them can get highly subjective. Making the varsity, getting playing time, and winning awards at the end of the season are often influenced by factors beyond athletic ability, such as which middle school you came through, whether you had an older sibling who had been a star, and how well the coach knows your family.

In cross country, it was based solely on how fast your times were. The top seven runners with the fastest times made varsity. The 15 fastest finishers in the city meet made all-city. The one who crossed the line first in the state meet was the state champion. It was about as close as you could get to a pure meritocracy.

Today, this is exactly how the tech industry prefers to see itself. It doesn't matter what country you came from or where you went to college or how much money you have. If you can build a device or a website or a piece of software that can solve an important problem and attract an audience, then you can succeed--sometimes far beyond your wildest dreams.

That's the narrative the industry puts forward, and it offers plenty of examples to back it up, from Andy Grove at Intel to Caterina Fake at Flickr to Sergey Brin at Google to Padmasree Warrior at Motorola and Cisco.

The tech industry is normally as apolitical as it can get away with, preferring to stay above the fray and avoid alienating any potential customers. However, on July 14, Warrior, Fake, and over 100 other tech industry leaders co-signed an open letter on "Donald Trump's candidacy for President." It was published on the eve of Trump's coronation at the 2016 Republican National Convention and the day before he announced that his running mate would be Indiana governor Mike Pence, who has openly clashed with the tech industry in the past.

In the open letter, the tech leaders were remarkably blunt--if incomplete. They stated:

"Trump would be a disaster for innovation. His vision stands against the open exchange of ideas, free movement of people, and productive engagement with the outside world that is critical to our economy -- and that provide the foundation for innovation and growth."

The letter is a 419-word polemic against Trump's policy plans, and a summary of the values that drive most of the tech industry. However, the piece also doesn't endorse Democrat Hillary Clinton. Instead, it concludes:

"We stand against Donald Trump's divisive candidacy and want a candidate who embraces the ideals that built America's technology industry: freedom of expression, openness to newcomers, equality of opportunity, public investments in research and infrastructure, and respect for the rule of law. We embrace an optimistic vision for a more inclusive country, where American innovation continues to fuel opportunity, prosperity and leadership."

While their high-minded ideals are admirable, they missed the most important issue of all. And, in doing so, they revealed their blind spot that has fueled the populist movements of 2016--both Trump's surprising rise and the unexpected British vote to exit the European Union.

The issue, of course, is jobs.

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While both Trump and Brexit are widely characterized as xenophobic grasps for an earlier time when life was simpler and we took care of our own, the repugnant attitudes on the surface mask the deeper, legitimate problem at the heart of this discontent.

The calls to limit immigrants, build walls, and become more insular are only symptoms. The real illness is in the job market. If it weren't for the troubles with jobs, it's highly unlikely that Trump or Brexit--which are both low on solutions but ample in giving the finger to the establishment--would have gained any legitimate traction.

But, for the past two decades as technology has moved to the center of the global economy, job growth has stalled. And, the tech industry has shrugged its collective shoulders about the issue, seeing it as a side effect of progress and something that it can't control.

Between 1990 and 2000, as the internet was taking off and businesses were getting computerized, the number of people employed in the US rose from 128 million to 147 million (+ 19 million). Between 2000 and 2010, it went from 147 million to 158 million (+11 million). From 2010 to 2014, it grew to 161 million (+ 3 million). So, according to these numbers from the International Labour Organization, job growth has been decelerating.

To put that all in perspective, it means that the number of people employed in the US grew by 26% in the past 25 years, while the US population has grown by 29% (from 249 million to 320 million). Job growth is simply not keeping up.

If you're a software engineer or a digital marketing manager or a web designer, then the opportunities are there for the taking--even if it might mean moving to a more expensive metropolitan area. If you're a machinist or a laborer or a retail worker--especially in smaller cities or towns--then your opportunities have slimmed and your wages have stalled out.

Throughout human history, every time there's been an advance in technology that has changed the demand for jobs and refashioned the labor market, we've always come out on the other side of it with more and better jobs and increased prosperity. But, that's also because we made a point of valuing labor and using it as an economic advantage.

SEE: Why AI could destroy more jobs than it creates, and how to save them (TechRepublic)

The tech industry of the past several decades has been built on automating away inefficiencies, speeding up cumbersome processes, and connecting people in ways that were never before possible. It's done an incredible job of pushing the world farther and faster than we could have anticipated. To do it, it's relied on the values of globalization that were expressed in the letter from tech leaders.

However, a lot of what has been automated away has been manual processes that used to employ a lot of human beings. It turned them from being viewed as economic assets into needless expenses to cut. If we look into the past, it's not unlike the farm workers who were replaced by combines, or the drivers of horses and carriages who were replaced by automobiles, or the seamstresses who were replaced by sewing machines.

But, there are now millions more of them--and in democracies, they have a vote.

The tech industry prides itself in being focused on solving problems. It's solved all kinds of problems that didn't seem like tech problems. But, it hasn't worked hard enough to solve the biggest problem of all: what to do with all of the excess labor created by these new efficiencies. How do we retrain them and give them an on-ramp to the digital age?

It's not that nothing is being done. Google recently announced that it would train two million Android developers in India for free over the next three years and Khan Academy has been working for a decade to offer a "free world-class education for anyone, anywhere." But, far more needs to be done. The tech industry can't just leave this problem to governments to solve. It needs an industry-wide, space-race-like commitment. Otherwise, it could find itself dealing with over half the world that views it as more a part of the problem than the solution.

The other thing I loved about cross country in high school was the way we trained day-to-day. We ran in a pack and we stayed together. The fastest runners had to slow down a bit sometimes and the slowest runners had to work hard to pick their pace. But, over the course of a season, the team performed far better than it would have if we all just ran as fast as we could have and strung out in a line with the quickest runners way ahead and the slowest lagging way back. The teams that ran together in a pack when they trained always performed the best in meets and also had the most runners win individual honors.

When it comes to jobs and displaced workers, the tech industry needs to stop carelessly leaving people behind. Tech has moved from a specialty into overarching necessity that touches virtually every part of the economy--and the industry needs a worldview that big. It needs to think of the people whose jobs have been dislocated or diminished and look for ways to put their talents to work in the digital economy--and not just to benefit its larger mission, but also to realize there's a tremendous economic opportunity in all of that labor as well.

If the tech industry doesn't broaden its purview, it could find itself governed by people who distrust its motives and put policies in place that hamper its goals, delay its progress, and impede its mission of global prosperity.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:

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