Obama’s Weakness for Big Tech Hurt the Country
SAN FRANCISCO — It’s a hard week on anyone who supported, worked with, or just plain loved Obama. From my point of view, my life has never been the same since I first met him as an ABC News Radio reporter the day before he gave his speech to the convention in 2004. I later found myself giving up my objectivity as a journalist (something that was valuable in those days and still is to me) to drop everything in my life and work for him in 2008 on what was then known as his New Media Department in his Chicago campaign headquarters. I’ve only worked for one other candidate since. https://medium.com/@dan_44950/dont-forget-jason-kander-42e18f7570f7#.8r1km9582
I know others know Obama better; Arun Chaudhary, the White House video documentarian once told me Obama is the closest thing to what I would do if I were president and we were lucky to have him. I also know there are always going to be mixed interpretations of a president and their administration. We’re still talking about George Washington. But in being fortunate enough to have gone to his Farewell Address in Chicago this week, I was happy to finally hear something from Obama in what I think is THE PROBLEM of our times — and has been for my entire life since I was born in 1980 — what productivity gains from our computers means to working class people we all share our country with. How technology displaces American workers.
This is not new. Over a hundred years ago we faced a similar challenge. But one area that I feel was a weak spot for the Obama administration was their belief that, what I call “BIG TECH” (Google, Facebook & Amazon + Uber .. airbnb, in that order), can do no wrong. No group of companies has been more disruptive (although they are not alone) during his presidency. And while Obama did finally mention their impact indirectly in his speech while essentially still defending their actions, the effects of their disruptions hurt the traditional, working-class democratic base more than just about any other group or industry.
Obama & BIG Tech’s Rise Together
From the beginning of Obama’s ascendance, an argument can be made that it’s not just tech that helped give Obama an edge to overtake Hillary as a start up campaign and win two terms in office, but BIG Tech. Particularly, Google and Facebook. It’s been well reported that many employees came to work on the campaign from those companies and were instrumental in using those platforms for electoral gain.
There was nothing wrong with this on its face. People who work for companies are allowed to leave and support candidates they chose. These platforms benefitted a lot from being used well on a campaign and the candidate and his administration certainly began to think they worked well. Accordingly, it made sense that people from these companies and a handful of others were brought in as experts often, worked at all levels of the administration and let’s face it, there was a tremendously close relationship between Silicon Valley and Obama’s White House. Not only would no one deny it, the administration is somewhat proud of it — all the way up to the President himself. Watch his speech to SXSW last year where he basically begs those working at these companies to help out poor Uncle Sam.
While the European Union asked serious questions and tried to regulate the tech industry, including the humane right to be forgotten https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_be_forgotten, the Obama administration, not only failed to ask questions, they also stopped anyone else from asking them http://www.recode.net/2016/4/5/11585894/senate-tim-wu-google-antitrust. No one wondered: what Facebook would do to the media industry, or if a foreign government could use it as a propaganda tool? No one asked: what does Uber do with our information and how are they tracking our movements? No one questioned: is there anything wrong with Google basically owning all the display traffic that funds our media-which employs hundreds of thousands coast to coast? Google could do no evil, but they did do incredible harm to the journalism industry we wish we had right now.
There was even ONE REPORT on data science and its perils released from the White House — https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/05/04/big-risks-big-opportunities-intersection-big-data-and-civil-rights . It sparked no hearings, investigations, rulings, mandates, executive orders or even Town Hall Meetings, despite the fact that it SAYS that the use of these “technologies can deliberately or inadvertently perpetuate, exacerbate, or mask discrimination.”
Not Theory: BIG TECHs Negative Effects Are Here
At the end of Obama’s administration we have:
One major retailer online —Amazon
One phone book — Google
One tv channel — Facebook.
And if you consider one attempt at spreading the magic, one example from the other campaign I worked on, Kansas City, Missouri has Google Fiber, which they are proud of yet, very few jobs have followed as a result.
Tech disruption these days means one person smashes and grabs money while breaking a social contract that was sort of working. I’m all for tech improvements — I operated a BBS in high school and I love technology — but I don’t think anyone I nerded it out with in the 90s ever thought they would get rich from it, especially at the expense of just about everyone else around us. The resentment from this VC fueled, disruption, aided in the sales of the Trump “Make America Great Again” hats. Most of us ain’t got nothing from your tech, even though we put all the interesting things we could think of into these companies from our wedding photos to our business addresses to our money — we are not even the customers of Facebook & Google, but instead their free labor putting our lives on display for advertisers to pay for. We do all this work for them, yet these companies don’t even need to answer a single question about what they’re doing publically before our government?
And whilst they say that these companies will be our saviors, contributing to amazing technological advances (never realized)…
Google is still just an advertising billboard company.
Amazon is still just a mail order store.
Facebook is still just a place to check out your old girlfriend (with ad billboards too!).
They have no significant business models beyond that, despite trying. Google couldn’t even start its own social network. They buy other places that try to innovate, and suck in smart labor to keep them from competing. They eat up everything else in their categories. We don’t know what we’re missing from having any sort of competition in these areas. Lauded and praised by our government. No questions asked. This created a barrier to entry for new competitors from Sand Hill Road, through every college and other city’s attempt to spark their own tech start up juggernaut, to our nation’s capitol in Washington, DC.
Venture capitalists with interests in Google, Facebook or Amazon would fund companies with promising founders only to make sure they sold to one of the big guys they owned part of in 2–5 years — creating an impenetrable funnel that cornered the labor market. How could What’s App NOT sell? Would they go the way of Twitter? What’s App under Facebook’s control has done little to innovate, but Facebook got a potential competitor off the market. There are hundreds more. Snapchat doesn’t want to sell? Facebook just literally stole all of their functionality and built it into their messenger app. Was Venture Capital supposed to be designed as a 2 year job interview/signing bonus to keep smart programmers happy while they suck you in? Or to fund actual risks we need as a society in order to advance? What could have been if we had another social network beyond Facebook that simply was not creepy? Would that have been so bad?
In the End — — not asking questions contributed to our undoing.
What’s the problem with this? Aren’t these companies great!? Aren’t we lucky to have them?! And aren’t they leading our economy? If you look at our electoral results, there’s something quite alarming here. Over the past two years I’ve spent a lot of time around ‘real people’ in swing states, most of which went to Trump. It comes as no surprise to me that they would feel left behind by this tech revolution we’ve just experienced. Laid off postal workers cannot start tech companies, nor should most people. And let’s be honest, even those with computer science degrees will notice, most of this innovation came at the expense of worker protections or from smashing industries that may not have been all that efficient but employed a hell of a lot of people (and formerly Democratic voters). Ask even any digital agency, and most of their good paying work comes from inefficient, old guard, fortune 500 companies; new darlings are cheap, nimble and maybe living off investment fumes. Trump has so far filled his economic board mostly with members of that old guard (although he did recently add Elon Musk (someone whom I respect) but also unfortunately Travis Colonic of Uber who is basically a tech version of Trump).
Right now, trucking is the top job in roughly 40 of the 50 states. It’s good paying, consistent work — and in the next 5–10 years, those jobs could be eliminated along with all their support services coast to coast. What will all those people do? I’ve had tech people tell me survival of the fittest! That was before Trump won.
The so called ‘shared economy’ started on Obama’s watch, and despite significant union backing that also helped Obama get elected, no questions were asked of these disruptors and what they would mean to Labour. Consider the biggest DISRUPTOR of them all, UBER. There was no discussion on what Uber’s practices would mean for labor rights or public safety. Many people displaced by or stuck in the shared economy heard something in Trump’s voice, at the same time Labour was trounced in Wisconsin, with Right to Work on the rise in states throughout the land. Unions didn’t get as much buzz as tech in ’08 & ’12, but considering Hillary’s results from her tech/data heavy campaign, and considering who didn’t vote for her, I think she could have benefited from both a more serious and credible approach to these issues affecting working-class people, and from keeping them organized to help get out the vote. (maybe Labour Day should soon be labeled day after burning man)
And now the sexier topic of discussion… “Fake News.” As someone who has watched my entire industry get destroyed — more so by “Fake Academics” like Jeff Jarvis https://www.amazon.com/dp/B001NLKYT2/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 who claimed user generated content and Google’s smash and grab were our future, I find it not funny at all that we’re finally talking about the credibility of our information sources online well after most of the damage has been done. Obama brings the accuracy of our news up almost daily now, yet again, no consideration was made into how our system structurally incentivizes Fake or stolen news.
We also should all know by now, we aren’t all seeing the same version of the news anymore either. From the perspective of BIG TECH- their algorithms are designed to keep you on their platforms for as long as possible or give you predictable search results. It has no interest in showing you anything new or disagreeable like the mainstream media used to do occasionally when they had you as a captive audience. Doing this may hide the crazies you went to high school with, but it also obscures the fact-based stories carefully crafted by people who put themselves at risk to bring you real journalism, now for very little pay and even less job security. The Media business is a great one — look at all the money Google and Facebook have made by getting in between advertisers and the people actually doing the work.
If you look back to the late 1800s, William Jennings Bryant sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders. All this already happened before, and yes, the U.S. Government then was gung ho about factory owners — it took a labor movement to turn things around. You would have thought Obama and our Democrats would have brought up some of these points for us — but unfortunately, Donald Trump found an opportunity.
I’ve been living in San Francisco for 10 years. I’ve benefitted from Big Tech in the short term, but in the long term, I’ve watched my friends get evicted out of town as BIG TECH created their own bus services that compete with our underfunded mass transit. Tech workers trip over our long time San Franciscan homeless residents after turning a world-class city into a bedroom community. Tech workers don’t mix with other classes, other industries or other tech workers largely because of this segregated bus system — it’s a real life manifestation of why there was so much shock in those circles that Trump won.
Most of these people I consider my friends and did nothing wrong! A lot of them want their companies to show some leadership in the communities they call home and they’ve disrupted. Unfortunately the way this often manifests itself with our new guard tech emperors is exemplified in our public hospital, the one that San Franciscans have been paying taxes into for over a hundred years, enough that our city held the naming rights — San Francisco General Hospital is now called Zuckerberg General Hospital (name’s changed even on his rival’s google maps too!) — who’s the audience for this display Zuck? Homelessness contributes to poor health and segregation/lack of opportunity among classes to animosity. Everyone wants to know when will it become Sean Parker City Hall?
It happens first in California — in this case, your cities, towns and way of life may just disappear as your kids flee to regional centers to pay gentrified rent. It happened to just about everyone I know who could manage it from the middle class place where I grew up, Toledo, Ohio. If even half of us could have stayed there and in larger places like St. Louis, Detroit, and others, property would be more affordable across the board.
It wasn’t good for BIG TECH EITHER
Am I the only one who for a moment liked seeing all the tech kings going to Trump Tower wearing ties — not putting any water in their glasses and having to bow before Trump/Pence after they all did everything they could to stop him (except in some cases avoid Russian infiltration of their website)? Peter Thiel wore no tie! Yes Trump is a Neanderthal asshole, but what I saw there is Tech paying respects to our country and all the people who elected Raccoon Hair and Angry White Asshole — in their flaky brass tower.
Having no counter balance, in the end, will not be good for BIG TECH either. Maybe some governmental crusade will break them up — that won’t be fair. Or they’ll be surprised again when they hear that people everywhere actually don’t like them, and definitely don’t see them as visionary saviors of mankind if we all just get out of their way. Destroying a person’s sense of self worth with reckless abandon still comes to get you. Trump, more than anything, proves Singularity is as ridiculous as his face. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity We all share this planet. I’m not against technology, nor innovation — I remember the days when there was competition in the tech space. I am for inclusion and basic consideration for humanity (watch out for the UBERs in your crosswalks downtown SF!). Silicon Valley has an abysmal record of including people of color, but also women — who last time I checked make up half the population — but let’s face it, they’re lacking people of all shapes and sizes who didn’t go to one of a handful of colleges.
People exist in Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — all those middle parts of the country and they’ve spoken. A truly worthwhile innovation doesn’t just pay them a base salary to leave you alone either (basic minimum income). They would all have the same buying power in ‘dumb people ghettos’ as you float away in your space paradise. They need inclusion or they will revolt — and they have revolted — and that revolt looks like Trump. If you’re being honest that you’re not just greedy — that means that all of your users — the ones in the cities, but also the ones in the middle of the country and in the towns you presently live in but don’t ride the bus with— shouldn’t just be making things for you for free that you use to make money from on the backend. If we knew what you were doing with our data, we may just be in favor of it and could actually make money off of it ourselves. This is the American way, no matter who is President. In my kindergarten in flyover country — they taught us to SHARE.
Data Portability: SAY IT — Rinse, Wash, Repeat — SAY IT AGAIN.
I want to end with something I really want to spread throughout the land. We need data portability. It’s the ability to take your data, understand what it is, and put it wherever you want. This would allow some much needed competition online in search, social networks, and life. Don’t make the argument for these powerful companies that it would be bad for their businesses or they would never do it. You should own your own data. Beside, they have a head start, with piles of cash; please don’t worry about them. AT&T is still around today; Facebook and Google will be too, even if they have some competition. Keep in mind neither of them invented what they are doing right now, they only improved it.
I will miss Obama. I don’t defend Trump, nor look forward to his presidency. But what if Obama treated every other industry like BIG Tech? A rationalization will come to Silicon Valley, they know it will, the question is whether its civil or not — whether when it comes will it allow progress to continue. That’s part of the Obama legacy all we have to grapple with now.