Tech Meets Trump
It’s clarifying to see the oligarchy assemble itself in the open. President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet selection show has offered a murderer’s row of venal billionaires, spousal abusers, wild-eyed ex-generals, Christian fundamentalists, racists, and the self-admittedly incompetent. Beyond a shared ideology, the common thread is Trump’s total obsession with money and success and his inability to see the world as anything but a series of business deals. As Ben Tarnoff persuasively argued in The Guardian, Trump’s victory is, above all, a victory for the already ascendant forces of neoliberalism. For years, conservative politicians have pledged to run the country more like a business—slashing taxes on the rich, privatizing services, eliminating regulations, condemning workers to immiseration—and Trump is in many ways the limit-case example of this promise. “Trump has taken it to an extreme,” Tarnoff writes, “applying the logic of neoliberalism so literally as to be almost parody.”
Trump’s boardroom meeting this week with tech bigwigs was cast as a clash between Silicon Valley social liberalism and the Orange One’s boorish outer-borough ‘tude. But as Tarnoff and a few other critics have noted, this was a meeting of mostly like minds, united by the driving logic of the market. In digitizing so much of life, the tech industry has established surveillance as its standard business model and remapped the world as a series of competing metrics. The unceasing appetite for personal information and ever-more granular ad-targeting reflect neoliberalism’s drive to turn all of life into markets. By capturing more and more human activity in the form of personal data, and by turning the internet into a vast arbitrage machine for human attention, tech companies have distinguished themselves as the lead proselytizers of the neoliberal faith. In Trump, whose pathological fixation on “deals” and tacky luxuries is only matched by his wounded narcissism, they’ve found a suitable match. As his oscillating party affiliation shows, Trump is loyal only to himself and his profit-making impulses. He may not understand what Silicon Valley does, but he knows they make money. Why not have a meeting?
But if tech titans and the cartoonishly corrupt president-elect share an essential fealty to money and markets, they couldn’t be farther apart by other measures of culture and temperament. Or at least so goes the narrative promulgated by those trying to parse why a dozen-plus of the country’s innovators-in-chief would make the embarrassing perp walk to Trump Tower. Some critics suggested that the tech summit was an opportunity for the industry’s leaders to put on their Sorkinesque big-boy pants and speak some harsh truths. Kara Swisher, a leading industry chronicler, spoke for many when she told the leaders of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and other top firms that they “should be ashamed of themselves for lining up like sheeple after all the numskull attacks Trump has made on what is pretty much the United States’ most important, innovative and future-forward business sector.” Swisher called on tech’s leadership class to support immigrants, defend climate science, and invest in new technologies. “You can do what made Silicon Valley great again and again.”
This is what passes for conscience in Silicon Valley, which has been blindsided not just by Trump’s unexpected victory but also by the pivotal role played by Peter Thiel, who remains among the more villainous Valley personages and practically the only major tech figure to support Trump from the outset. Despite repeated criticisms, Mark Zuckerberg has declined to remove Thiel, an early Facebook investor, from the company’s board and has otherwise remained silent on Thiel’s affinity for Trumpian demagoguery (in addition to a host of regressive beliefs spanning the elimination of female suffrage to harvesting the blood of youths for personal longevity). But it has never been in-character for tech leaders to take bold political stands. Besides a weak-tea cultural liberalism and support for skilled immigrants, Silicon Valley has rarely displayed any genuine progressive instincts, much less a cohesive political program.
Gates’s remarks comparing Trump to JFK are typical cable news nonsense, Vegemite filler between Citibank commercials, but they reflect that Gates and his coterie are loyal first to their class.
Indeed, amid the many dismal market and civic reckonings over the past year, the signs of political dereliction, and of the tech industry’s essential amorality, are everywhere. Recently Facebook was outed for developing a tool to censor content in China—part of a putative effort to re-enter that country’s vast market. Politically driven censorship is a key feature of practically all large tech platforms, who have accepted that doing business in Turkey, Pakistan, or even the United States requires cooperating with some unsavory government pressures. By focusing on the rhetoric of connectivity or some limp digital humanitarianism, companies like Facebook can act like they are supporting democracy—rather than an increasingly pernicious form of surveillance capitalism—as they spread their monopolies to authoritarian nations. But few have complained about the many shameful compromises tech firms make to do business overseas, nor do I recall, pre-Trump, much tech denunciation of AT&T’s decades-long cooperation with the American surveillance apparatus, Amazon’s furnishing of cloud computing services to the CIA, Dell’s NSA contracts, Microsoft’s development of New York City’s “Domain Awareness System,” or the ghastly working conditions of Chinese factory laborers. The familiar litany of the toll that tech-driven gentrification has taken on San Francisco hardly needs to be recited, but it serves as an ongoing reminder of the costs of technological innovation and of an industry’s relative indifference to what happens in its backyard—so long as the Google buses run on time. If the tech industry wanted to prove its political mettle, it could have done so long before its leading lights had been summoned to the boardroom by America’s new chairman.
This week, a site called neveragain.tech appeared bearing a solemn petition by tech professionals to never participate in the creation of a database of Muslim Americans. The petition has since garnered hundreds of signatures and contains pledges to “minimize the collection and retention of data that would facilitate ethnic or religious targeting” and “to scale back existing datasets with unnecessary racial, ethnic, and national origin data.” Other promises include: “We will raise awareness and ask critical questions about the responsible and fair use of data and algorithms beyond our organization and our industry.”
Not bad, though hardly a Port Huron statement. And it comes with more than its share of unintentional irony, since the tech industry’s surveillance economy is premised precisely on cataloging people in detailed data sets. It was only last month that Facebook banned the ability to target ads based on ethnicity. The goal of this kind of digital capitalism is exactly what the Never Again-ers protest: compiling detailed records on individuals that can then be used to personalize services, prices, and information. With those bounties of the liberated market, we also know, come discrimination and abuse. No matter what tinted VR goggles it sees the world through, the tech industry can’t avoid these grim realities. Lower paying job listings for women, ads that reflect racist stereotypes of black Americans, facial recognition software that classifies minority faces as animals, digital redlining, the plague of online harassment—these are all too vivid reminders that discrimination and bias remain persistent features of the digital agora. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so if tech companies showed more interest in the political conditions that surround them.
But who could doubt that Trump and the tech community would find a way to do business together? Both sides are expert tax evaders. The nation’s chief philanthropist, himself a reformed tech mega-mogul, came away impressed. On Tuesday, Bill Gates compared Trump to JFK, telling CNBC, “in the same way President Kennedy talked about the space mission and got the country behind that, I think whether it’s education or stopping epidemics [or] in this energy space, there can be a very upbeat message that [Trump’s] administration [is] going to organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and have American leadership through innovation.” The remarks are typical cable news nonsense, Vegemite filler between Citibank commercials, but they reflect something important about Gates and his coterie: they are loyal first to their class, not to some hazy tech-utopian idealism. If Trump is talking about doing deals, slashing corporate taxes and regulations, and juicing the stock market, tech leaders are all too glad to grin and bear it through some stilted meetings with a mindless vulgarian. (Gates’s line about “this energy space” is a reference to Gates’s own recent creation of a billion-dollar clean energy investment vehicle. Why stop climate change through politics when you can monetize it through the market?)
After all, it hurts to be on the outside, particularly when the president has promised to be less a political leader than a kind of all-powerful corporate kingmaker. “You’ll call my people, you’ll call me,” Trump told the assembled executives. “It doesn’t make any difference—we have no formal chain of command around here.” In the great plutocratic tradition, the president-elect is in a position to hand out favors, and he’s checking to see who’s worthy of land and titles. (As Trump explained, Thiel made the final determinations about which companies to invite to the meeting.) For Trump, everything is personal, from his grudges against Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney to his need to see his name stamped on whatever he sells. According to Politico, Twitter didn’t merit an invite because Trump & Co. were still peeved that the social network refused to create a custom #CrookedHillary emoji as part of a paid ad campaign. These are the petty inanities on which millions of dollars and reserves of political attention are wasted—at least when a hysterically insecure man-child holds the throne.
Whatever dregs of the counterculture claim to survive in Silicon Valley, they are as curdled as last year’s Burning Man costume. Some flickers of dissent, if not real animus or rebellion, seem to remain. A number of companies have been emboldened to challenge information requests in court or to rally public opinion against the latest flawed cybersecurity bill. In May, Twitter barred intelligence agencies from using Dataminr, an analytics service it owns, although Dataminr had previously received venture capital funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s investment vehicle. (Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has expressed interest in using In-Q-Tel as a way to channel DoD startup investments.) But the overall flow of talent, money, and relationships between D.C. and tech companies, particularly their security departments, signals that these two sets of elites operate according to shared interests.
Whatever dregs of the counterculture claim to survive in Silicon Valley, they are as curdled as last year’s Burning Man costume.
The history of Silicon Valley is deeply entwined with that of the Cold War, so it follows that a new generation of tech firms would operate in some kind of symbiosis with today’s mass surveillance and twilight wars, which rely on access to the latest technologies and data feeds. The uncomfortable truth is that Silicon Valley is, and always has been, a paid-up member of the military-industrial complex or, as it’s more officially called, the defense-industrial base. The libertarian streak now peddled by tech luminaries is simply another fashionable ideology tried on by the former hippies who managed to preach a mantra of emancipation as they were getting rich by industrializing corporate surveillance of consumers’ lives. The supposed enlightenment represented by tech giants’ pro-LGBT policies, by their pushing for immigration reform, by—god forbid—“leaning in” is corporate liberalism as its finest. The general politics of Silicon Valley might be summarized as a selective cultural tolerance masking a profound commitment to, in the grand neoliberal tradition, commoditizing as much of human life and communication as possible. This essentially authoritarian mindset—one in which monopolistic companies are expected to lead on social issues and to positively influence government policy—makes tech corporations natural partners for a political establishment that preaches airily about liberty at home while waging horrific violence overseas. That these same tech companies also design and run many of the systems that make the U.S. government’s worldwide surveillance net possible—that, in fact, Silicon Valley and the U.S. intelligence community share similarly insatiable appetites for personal information—reflects a useful synergy.
Over the past few years, with establishment of its innovation-minded DIUx unit, the Defense Department has shown its desire to be in business with tech companies—or at least those it’s not working with already. The ascendance of Thiel to D.C. influence and the relative acquiescence of the tech community to Trump’s victory signal that these relationships may grow. (Thiel, who’s one of the founders of the big data company Palantir, with its many government contracts, has already spanned the Valley-Beltway divide.) That includes cooperation with the intelligence community, which despite having been spurned by swathes of Silicon Valley following the Snowden revelations, still maintains profitable relationships with tech startups and industry behemoths alike, along with some sympathetic executives like Eric Schmidt, who used to enjoy occasional “classified threat briefings”—you know, the sort of thing that our president-elect has professed no patience for—from former NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander. (More recently, Carter appointed Schmidt to head a new Defense Innovation Advisory Board.)
The rise in major cyberattacks and data breaches has pushed industry and government, however reluctantly, into one another’s arms. The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015 passed despite opposition from some tech companies and civil liberties groups, which argued that the bill’s attempt to facilitate the sharing of cyber-threat information would instead prove a massive data-grab for the government’s insatiable surveillance apparatus. But corporations have long shared information with government agencies about cyber-threats or data breaches; it’s just that these exchanges have often been selective or not mandated by law. About six years ago, for example, Google worked closely with the FBI and NSA to investigate an apparent breach of Google’s systems by Chinese hackers.
Like it or not, the political maturation of Silicon Valley is complete.
Public anxieties over the presence of ISIS on social media platforms have given tech firms and government another opportunity to close ranks. Private sit-downs in San Jose and D.C. saw intelligence officials brainstorming with tech sector counterparts about how to kick extremists off their networks. These hushed confabs show how the differences between the tech and intel communities are more complicated than the trending topics of encryption, the sinister distribution of “fake news” and DNC hacks, or Apple vs. FBI. The various subsidiary disputes—the supposed “going dark” phenomenon, the technologically impossible “backdoor” that Senator Dianne Feinstein would mandate for encrypted systems, the demands to kick terrorists off Twitter faster—are mostly a Kabuki theater performed by parties who know that at the end of the day they are on the same side. The politicians and intelligence officers will push for more powers for as long as they’re in office and then will pass gently through the looking-glass into the private sector, where there’s little meaningful difference between Google, Amazon, Booz Allen Hamilton, IBM, or any of the boutique security consultancies formed by long-tenured politicos finally cashing in. And suddenly, as Michael Hayden did earlier this year, they’ll find themselves siding with their new colleagues in firms like Apple. Meanwhile, the ever-more interlocking directorates of Silicon Valley and the national security state create a vague impression of yet more entrepreneurial innovation in hacking the various threats supposedly besieging the country, permitting corporate fantasists in the future Trump White House to continue ignoring the far more consequential questions about how all these wars might ever end, the futility of mass surveillance, and why the long arm of national security has to reach into so many parts of life.
Donald Trump’s crashing of this party will change the tone but not the stakes. Going forward, tech companies will have to confront some of the same moral dilemmas that beset a previous generation of academics and private corporations tempted by the government’s power, money, influence, and appeals to patriotism. For now, though, the main challenges revolve more around tech firms fighting National Security Letters, pursuing DoD IT contracts, or giving intelligence agencies a peek inside their networks. It’s not enough simply to cite legal compliance, to hide behind the rhetorical smokescreen of PR speak and legalese, or to claim that an organization’s line of research is, according to some immutable law of technology, morally “neutral.” Like it or not, the political maturation of Silicon Valley is complete. The region—and the tech industry at large—now holds an immense amount of power, information, and influence over millions of people. And on top of this, the Valley, like our incoming reality-TV omni-executive in chief, has captured the public imagination as the center of American entrepreneurialism and capitalist derring-do. The homeland security establishment wants to take some of that power and information for itself. An unstable, authoritarian megalomaniac, who depends on Silicon Valley’s products to propagandize, is also ready to make a deal. The question is: will Silicon Valley oblige? And what price will the rest of us pay?