Berkeley Blog, Opinion

How the tech industry can lead in the Trump era

Co-authored by Simone C. Ross, co-founder and chief program officer at Techonomy.

This presidential election has kicked off tempestuous debates and much soul searching about the role of technology, especially social media, in the democratic process. These questions are vital, but now it is time to look forward.

The core issue is the question of how the tech community should respond thoughtfully and critically to what for many (including us) was a surprising victory.

Both of us, in different ways, have devoted our lives to conversing with and educating others about the ideals of technology — one of us as a law professor at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology; the other as a convener of conversations on how tech is impacting social and economic progress, as the co-founder and chief program officer of the Techonomy conference. Both of us had a hard time facing our respective constituencies the morning after the election.

Donald Trump

(Gage Skidmore / Backchannel illustration)

On campus, law students were sobbing. At Techonomy, many technologists sat stunned, wondering how they’d failed to foresee this outcome. For those of us who care about the intersection of technology and social welfare, Trump’s victory laid bare the deep-rooted divisions in this country, and was a stark reminder that in our own way, we’d become complacent and perhaps even part of the problem. In liberal, solutions-driven Silicon Valley, that’s a hard pill to swallow.

Nearly two weeks later, the tech community is now beginning to consider a few strategies to build lasting, sustainable social change. Though it remains to be seen how much Trump will embrace the tech industry (and it’s also clear, as Peter Thiel reminds us, that there’s not always a singular point of view in tech), we have an opportunity, albeit an uncomfortable, unwanted one. We can exploit pathways to social change and progress that, until now, have remained largely untapped because the federal government so readily embraced us. Now that the pathway is so unclear at the federal level, let’s see where else we can go.

Technology at its best has always been about imagining a better society, a more perfect union. To achieve that goal, we need to look well beyond our filter bubbles. We need to understand better the problems we claim to want to solve. As mentioned time and time again at Techonomy, tech is a tool and we are the ones that wield it—so we need to take more responsibility for our actions (or inaction). So where do we look for sources of inspiration? Where will the leadership come from?

Take a page from the LGBT civil rights movement. When the federal government was resistant to social change, the LGBT community did what it does best: it organized, it protested, it demanded better treatment, and it continued to redouble its efforts at the individual, local level. Even when Proposition 8 passed in California, families continued forming; people spoke out and continued marrying anyway. They literally demanded social change — even as municipalities voted against granting their families recognition. The federal government became not irrelevant, but not central to the LGBT civil rights movement. And that social change turned out to be for the most part sustainable, largely due to the social infrastructure that the LGBT rights movement created.

And, eventually, the courts caught up. Republican judges and justices changed their positions in response, so much so that even Trump, today, recognizes that marriage equality will remain the law of the land. So how can the tech industry learn from these strategies?

We need to massively decentralize our efforts. Make everything local. Let’s take principles like federalism and exploit them to our advantage: Rather than focus on the feds to offer us things like national broadband, let’s redouble our efforts at the local, municipal, and state levels to ensure broadband access. Let’s make cities so innovative that they manage to be open, smart, transparent — and operate as sanctuaries at the same time. For example, in New York you have Silicon Harlem, a for-profit social venture that aims to create a hub for tech and innovation in Harlem; you also have the New York Public Library, with its library hotspot program. In Michigan you’ve got Data Driven Detroit, a low-profit limited liability company that serves as a data intermediary: It partners with socially minded community groups, foundations, and governments to help them make data-driven decisions. Even the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded millions of dollars in grants for cities who pledge to integrate innovative technologies, such as self-driving vehicles and smart sensors. Now more than ever, localized, intelligent change has become essential. Tech companies and individual tech leaders can work more closely with local governments, communities, and other stakeholders to fill in where government is not reaching.

Ask companies, instead of the government, to push for social change. Let’s demand that the tech community become a leader in ensuring equality, privacy, and nondiscrimination—because the feds will likely not offer us much inspiration. When Facebook offered more than 50 terms for gender self-identification, or when Google proclaimed itself supportive of the transgender community a week after the election, these companies positioned themselves as leaders. They are not only supporting social change and equality at their headquarters in the face of potential government inaction and hostility, but also implicitly reminding us that social change doesn’t just take place at the ballot box: Sometimes it happens because the market demands it.
The same kind of courage that compelled Yahoo to refuse to comply with the NSA Prism Surveillance program is the very same kind of courage that can compel tech companies to oppose (and if needed, disobey) laws that are blatantly discriminatory. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is a great example here: In 2015 he fought Indiana (and Vice President-elect Mike Pence) on a law that allowed businesses to refuse to serve people who conflicted with their religious beliefs. Benioff led a similar movement in Georgia in 2016, and he openly fights for equal pay for women, starting with his own company. Tech can always do better in terms of diversity, in terms of supporting unions, and in terms of supporting equal pay for women. It is especially important to demonstrate progressive leadership on these issues, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because the government will likely do nothing.

Dilute the power of the feds by offering more ways to retain funding for creative ideas and disruption. Let’s figure out better ways to do it ourselves. Examples that can offer inspiration include social venture capital or impact investing, crowdfunding (and now equity crowdfunding), social innovation funds, grants, prizes, and competitions. Let’s not rely on government funding for biological and scientific innovation; let’s look to organizations like Breakout Labs, IndieBio, X Prize, and other private-public partnerships. Steve Case’s “Rise of the Rest” is a tour of American communities (run by his venture capital firm, Revolution) that supports startup ecosystems in places like Nashville, Des Moines, and Twin Cities. In partnership with mayors, local governments, and—most importantly—local entrepreneurs, Rise of the Rest bolsters the startup ecosystem in places beyond just New York City and Silicon Valley.
Universities, too, can be well positioned to take on some of these opportunities for the public good. Educators can think more creatively about how to use our lucrative partnerships with private industry — tech transfer, licensing, patent portfolios — to protect our undocumented students, our DREAMers. Here, obviously, technology cannot become the sanctuary. But it can feed the sanctuary by shielding educational institutions from threats of a loss of federal funding, and by bolstering our endowments to protect our most vulnerable.

The tech industry can be better, and smarter, about how it crafts winning strategies for the countless legal and political issues that we will undoubtedly face in front of the new administration. We need to know when to litigate something (and where to litigate it), when to ask administrative agencies to take up the issue, and when to delay our filings altogether in the face of an unfriendly jurisdiction. Here, too, we have historical precedent for this pragmatism. Advocates for racial and gender equality learned to hone their strategies even more powerfully during eras of outright discrimination by meticulously researching when to ask for incremental improvements, when to demand a sea change in legal treatment, and when to stand down entirely. The tech industry needs to consider similar strategies. The forthcoming Trump administration’s outright resistance to science in the face of climate change, failure to embrace clean tech, and clear opposition to net neutrality (demonstrated by Trump’s most recent picks for the FCC) show a clear need to redirect our efforts, keeping as much out of the federal government’s regulatory reach as possible. And at times, though this may be hard, we need to be able to be courageous enough to literally refuse to offer tech support for things that we find reprehensible (or potentially illegal or unconstitutional), such as Muslim registries.

Perhaps the most challenging but most important step is for tech companies to forge partnerships with the administration when its vision converges with the goals of the tech community. Consider, for example, Trump’s ambitious infrastructure plan to improve our nation’s airports, roads, highways, bridges, and pipelines. Any plan for infrastructure has to involve the tech industry, and specifically such innovations as the industrial Internet of Things and artificial intelligence. Every infrastructural element carries the potential for integrating technology for a greater purpose. Common ground can still be found.
Yes, things are uncertain.
But 14 days after the election, we have some glimmering prospects for hope. We don’t need Facebook to tell us what is true and what isn’t. We can do this for ourselves, with a strategy that is even more audacious — and more sustainable — than any we have seen so far.

Crossposted from Backchannel.