Una Mullally: Will the tech overlords save us from Trump?

Will they use their power to resist or do they want a piece of greatest ever act of ‘disruption’: the disruption of US democracy itself

“As multibillion dollar companies took hold in our world, many people naively assumed – for no real reason – that tech companies would always do with “right” thing.” From left are, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Alphabet chief executive Larry Page, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, US vice president-elect Mike Pence, and president-elect Donald Trump. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP Photo

“As multibillion dollar companies took hold in our world, many people naively assumed – for no real reason – that tech companies would always do with “right” thing.” From left are, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Alphabet chief executive Larry Page, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, US vice president-elect Mike Pence, and president-elect Donald Trump. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP Photo

 

The ongoing farce that is Donald Trump’s series of “transition” meetings at his penthouse palace in Manhattan featured a meeting on Wednesday made up of tech overlords.

This meeting included Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon), Larry Page (CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company), Sheryl Sandberg (COO Facebook), Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal and on Trump’s transition team), Tim Cook (CEO Apple), Safra Catz (Oracle), Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, and now an adviser to Trump), Gary Cohn (COO Goldman Sachs and Trump’s Director of the US National Economic Council), Wilbur Ross (Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce), Stephen Miller (Trump adviser), Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft), Ginni Rometty (CEO of IBM), Chuck Robbins (CEO of Cisco), Jared Kushner (Trump’s adviser and son-in-law), Reince Priebus (Trump’s Chief of Staff), Steve Bannon (Trump’s chief strategist and executive chair of the far-right conspiracy “news” website Breitbart), Eric Schmidt (executive chairman of Alphabet), Alex Karp (CEO of Palantir Technologies), Brian Krzanich (CEO of Intel), Brad Smith (Microsoft president), Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump jnr, Mike Pence and Trump himself.

Egomaniac

Trump is an egomaniac and a narcissist, and therefore every “meeting” will be about him, not about issues, not about the other people at the table. The meeting was reported as “genial” by the New York Times. Yet it begs the question, what are these people at this table, people with tremendous wealth and power, doing to confront the downfall of American democracy and the danger Trump poses not just to the US but to the world?

There will be no compromise or appeasement with Trump. Those smart people around that table only have to look at who he is installing in his cabinet to realise that the ideals they so often trumpet about progress and equality and education and science and intelligence and innovation will be plundered and dismantled by Trump and his administration. But these tech overlords are not just turning up to meetings, they’re jumping on board.

Thiel, a billionaire who has used his massive wealth to fund a gallery of anti-women, pro-gun, anti-LGBT rights (clearly Thiel doesn’t let his own sexuality get in the way of his conservatism), climate change-denying Republican politicians poured money in Trump’s election campaign and was rewarded with more than just a seat at the table. Thiel may be viewed as an outlier in “progressive” Silicon Valley. But is he?

Now Elon Musk and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick have joined an advisory team of Trump’s. Uber is of course engaged in the type of “disruption” that is infuriating taxi drivers and driving down wages, as the company contests offering its drivers protections and benefits. But highlighting the endless hypocrisies of Trump’s actions and appointments is pointless. Attempting to project the previous rules of engagement on to US politics now, offering reason or logic or fact as the basis of an argument or opinion is so pre-Trump. That is the old world order, and it’s over.

As these multibillion dollar companies took hold in our world, many people naively assumed – for no real reason – that tech companies would always do with “right” thing. In giving up so much power to them, we hoped they would stay on the side of good.

But tech companies have been driven by a lust for insane profit, an evangelical belief that everything they were doing was right, and that a company or a platform or an app was only successful if it changed behaviour – regardless of whether that change was positive or negative.

‘Broken’ systems

Progressive liberalism is not necessarily the philosophical foundation of the tech world. It’s a strain of libertarianism that also views all existing systems as “broken”. They view these systems as pockmarked with inefficiencies, weighed down by labour laws, living wages, tax laws, housing regulations, and unions. They think “communities” are only online and a citizen is a “user”. These users exist primarily to have their privacy invaded and data sucked for the purpose of targeting advertising, or figuring out how we think and feel to better control and make money off our own mindlessness.

Hotel industry? Smash it, inefficient. Personal transport? Get rid of it, make everyone a driver. Dating? Too time consuming, remove face-to-face contact and just give people a human menu. Music? Film? News? Steal it, and then design systems where the creators get next to nothing.

All of this is problematic in an America that managed to keep the lid on its democracy. With the lid off, it’s clear that so much power concentrated in the hands of so few in Silicon Valley will haunt us. People in positions of power in America, those who have the potential to influence beyond citizen protest, now have two options: resist or collaborate. So what do tech overlords think about sitting a table with Trump and his children? What are they doing to save their country? Will they use their power to resist Trump’s fascism, white supremacy, racism and misogyny? Or do they want a piece of the action in the greatest act ever of their beloved “disruption”: the disruption of American democracy itself.

For years, Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s personal motto was “move fast and break things”, a profoundly anti-intellectual stance that is tech speak for “act now, think later.” Well guess what, the world has moved fast, and now it’s broken.

At the disposal of these tech overlords, and already utilised by the US National Security Agency, is the largest spy network ever created in the form of social media accounts, email, online chat, free messaging apps, photograph and video sharing apps and online document storage, and so on, making the Stasi look like a seven-year-old in a high-vis Garda jacket.

At the start of the 1995 Mathieu Kassovitz film La Haine, the voiceover of one of the characters says, “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good . . . so far so good . . . so far so good.”

When we look back at dark moments of history and think “how could that have happened?”, we have to acknowledge that it is happening right now. Disrupt that.

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