Trump’s election & Three lessons for Silicon Valley

There is so much to say about Trump’s election and what it entails, what it reveals. Among others, it seems to be the rebuke of the ethos and underlying ideology of much of Silicon Valley.

I see this event as an opportunity for the tech community to reflect deeply on some of its assumptions and much of its impact — on three themes at least :

1/ the near-religious belief in controlling life through rational analysis & big data

Backing everything by data is one of the tech world’s mantras. Whether it applies to health, relationships, philanthropy or any other area of life, information and computing ought to be the dominating forces.

Yet, what did we see in this campaign?

Hillary’s was rooted in data analysis, uber-strategizing, full control of every step of the campaign through very carefully thought-through marketing campaigns, alliances, positioning, field offices’ location and so on. It was a campaign ruled by data and by the mind.

On the other hand, Trump’s was arguably the most chaotic and haphazardly run campaign in decades. Cambridge Analytics and its big data psychological profiling of all American voters helped tremendously in the last months of his campaign. But still, Trump’s data operations were tiny compared to Hillary’s. Accounts surfaced of ‘strategists’ playing with darts to determine where he should go next to deliver a speech. His main pollster was fired shortly before the election. And nothing he did made sense in terms of logical, traditional political strategy. He spent a third of Hillary’s advertising dollars and had two and half less field offices. His campaign was ruled from the guts and the heart, with relatively little control from the “logical mind” and data.

And we know who won …

All polls indicated Hillary would win. The data was wrong. The reasons might be manifold. But the bottom line is the same: may the Silicon Valley zealots of the “backed by data” religion beware. Data has its power but also its many limitations.

And if we were to only take logical arguments, based on competence, values and so on, there is no question that Hillary should have won. Trump lied repeatedly, showed utter ignorance of basic historical and geopolitical facts, he never released his tax records, he used arguments full of fallacies and contradictions. In a country of mostly literate people, logically, all of this should have ensured his defeat. Yet he won. Similarly, many “rationally” expected that most women would vote for Hillary, if only because of Trump’s misogyny and self-disclosed sexual assaults. Yet a majority of white women voted for him. How come ?

“Logical, rational” arguments are weak when dealing with the immense power of unconscious forces lodged in the human psyche, in the “collective Shadow” (see my article on this theme). So for those in Silicon Valley who base their worldview on the supremacy of the rational mind, the message is clear: think twice, because Life might prove you very wrong.

2/ the pros & cons of going for robots and immortality

One of the tech worlds’ main theme is the robotisation of as many tasks as possible; in parallel to it, a powerful undercurrent of Silicon Valley focuses on “longevity” or rather on the extension of Life to (near) immortality.

As we know, much of the Trump vote came from areas won by Obama in 2008 and 2012 — we therefore cannot blame it on racism only — and where jobs have been lost with no hope of coming back. Trump’s rhetoric of blaming it on globalization, China, bad trade treaties and so on resonated with those voters, even though it runs contrary to the facts: most of the jobs lost in the past few years were gone because of automation, not because of foreign factories. If technology pushes for robots to replace humans, and at the same time it invests on having humans live to 120 or 150, what are those humans supposed to do? How are they supposed to make a living, and most importantly to derive identity, pride, fulfillment and meaning from their work ? Some in Silicon Valley argue that a minimum income might be the answer once too many jobs are lost to robots. Yet we know jobs are not only about a paycheck. They also are about identity, pride, belonging, and in better cases, about growth and meaning. What is the point of living to 150 if one cannot derive satisfaction and nourishment from a fulfilling career, and from the way it affects our relationship to the community?

When forging ahead enthusiastically with research and development pushing for automation, Silicon Valley should also think carefully of the consequences for the social fabric. “Making the world a better place” is its anthem. If it doesn’t look more carefully into the consequences and impact of its creations, the contrary might actually be the reality and come back haunting it as a nightmare.

3/ the world as a global village vs. ancestral tribal instincts

One of the original ideals of many Internet luminaries has been their vision of the world as a global village. Instead of being confined within the limitations and boundaries of our culture, of our country, we can now be interconnected to everyone around the globe. We are now one village. And ideally this would mean a decrease in incentives to fight each other, an increased chance to live in peace, as we get to know each other more, and can communicate with each other so easily.

Trump’s election is rooted— among others — in a deep rejection of that ideal. As humans we are made of a variety of needs, desires, fears, which can seem contradictory at times. One of them is lodged in our reptilian brain, and its survival instinct — it is the need to feel the belonging to a tribe, to a group which ensures our safety, and a clear sense of identity. One of Trump’s campaign’s main theme was aligned with this need: building a wall, cancelling trade treaties, projecting all ills on “others”, on immigrants minorities and so on — thus exalting the “White identity”, celebrating the uneducated as a separate group. It is the exact opposite of the “world as a global village” ideal.

And it won.

Paradoxically, one of the ways Trump carried his message so efficiently was to use aggressively and relentlessly the tools created by Silicon Valley: the barrage of tweets, the echo chambers of Facebook, the countless fake news and conspiracy theories spread all over the Web — they all contributed to his victory. Facebook is meant to “connect the world”. For now, it mostly connects people with those sharing similar beliefs and worldviews. It actually seems to reinforce insular perspectives rather than expand our horizons.

In a nutshell, what gets created within the tech world has immense benefits for humanity, in countless ways. Yet, it also carries major drawbacks and dangers. May Trump’s election trigger thorough introspection and deep thinking across Silicon Valley. If this happens in a meaningful way, it could end up being one of the best side effects of Trump’s victory.