There’s no app for this: the role of technologists in the Trump era
Thoughts on what the tech sector can do for America and the world over the next four years
Fellow technologists: we can’t “innovate” ourselves out of this one. The consequences of this administration will be so profound and pervasive that there’s literally no number of new apps or websites that can prevent the damage. Every single one of us needs to be more engaged in politics and our communities than ever before. Need ideas? Anil Dash has a great list. To be completely clear, this is the most important work to do.
Now, if you have tech skills and you care about the world as I do, you might also find yourself thinking: “I know how to do some stuff and I want to help.” I began my career as an organizer and activist and I now work as a designer in government (obligatory note that the opinions in here are mine and mine alone, not my employer’s). Like many people, Trump’s election is a profound, personaly disruptive moment that has me thinking a lot about how I want to spend the next four years.
As someone who’s worked both inside and outside the tech world, here are a few ideas for how we, as technologists, can begin to think about how to pitch in.
1. Help the helpers
When I woke up on Wednesday morning, my mind immediately went to the people who would soon be targeted by both the hateful policies of the incoming administration and Republican-led Congress and by the acts of hate sweeping the country. There are a lot of questions we need to answer about the long term direction of the movement and the fate of the country, but right now, millions of Americans are facing very real dangers.
Rapid, sweeping and direct support is going to be absolutely necessary, and these efforts will likely need digital tools. From connecting immigrants and other vulnerable people with legal aid to making sure that trans people have access to crisis counseling and necessary medications, we need to move swiftly and powerfully to provide support.
But here’s the thing: in order to provide the right kind of help and to provide it when and where people need it, we absolutely have to work with the people who have been doing this work for years on the ground.
I’ve seen two insightful threads from from folks on Twitter about this. In this one, Dave Guarino raises a bunch of great points about how important it is to look to the people who truly understand the problems and to work with them to build solutions. The whole thread is full of great advice.
Make no mistake: technology will only ever be just a part of the solution when it comes to direct service, and even then, it may be just a small part. What I do know is that there’s countless people of color, women, LGBTQ folks and more who dedicate their lives to helping the communities who will now be most at risk. These community leaders know their needs better than people in the tech sector ever will. We have to follow their lead.
2. Help the fighters
There’s about to be a massive, newly galvanized opposition movement. This movement won’t appear out of thin air; it will be formed by community organizations, campaigns, faith-based organizations and more. These organizations have been fighting this fight forever and they continue to score policy and electoral wins all over the country. It is because of groups like these that Hillary Clinton won the nation-wide popular vote.
This movement will be organizing everything from acts of civil disobedience and direct action (like this effort to disrupt deportation raids), to advocacy campaigns to stop legislation, to electoral efforts to flip Congress in 2018.
This movement needs to grow rapidly and in order to grow it will need to communicate, raise funds, mobilize resources, organize collective actions and more. And considering the people who will now be in charge of the surveillance state, the movement will need the technology to keep the names and information about its members and the people it serves private and secure.
In many cases, the tools already exist, but organizers will need help assembling them quickly, effectively, and securely into the right package to meet their needs. We need technologists to set up websites, donation systems, external communications and secure, encrypted data management systems for activists and organizers running cause-based and electoral campaigns in the next four years.
Again, there are people who know how to fight. They’ve been doing it forever. It’s our job to work with them to see how we can help.
3. Invent solutions for the things the federal government will no longer care about
One of the hardest pills to swallow about this election is the thought of losing the federal government’s power as a force for good in the world.
The outlook for catastrophic climate change is as bleak as ever. With the federal government set to roll back crucial policies and implement still more that will only hasten the disaster, the onus will now be on states, cities and the private sector to continue the work of saving the world. This great post from Bret Victor nailed so many ways that technologists can join the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, I have deep skepticism about the ability to solve this problem without the kind of broad-based collective action that’s only possible with the federal government, but hey, it’s better than nothing.
At the same time, if the Trump administration follows through on their promise to repeal Obamacare (even if that’s now in doubt), 20 million people may very well soon lose their healthcare. And things look even worse if Paul Ryan gets his way and starts to privatize Medicare and Medicaid. What can technologists do to make health care more affordable, more accessible and more effective? Maybe nothing. But it’s worth a try.
We need to start thinking: if this administration’s first 100 days go anything like they’re promising, what gaps are about to open up and how can we fill them?
4. At a minimum, don’t contribute to the problem
This election has cast a new sense of urgency on some of the ongoing discussions in the tech world. Four things in particular come to mind when I think about the responsibilities that people in the private sector need to start fulfilling.
Intensify the fight for inclusivity
It all starts with this: if we want to stand a chance at successfully doing any of the points that follow, we need to build companies that reflect the full diversity of America. We need to double down on hiring more women, people of color and LGBTQ folks. Tech companies also need to break out of their geographic comfort zones and investors should look to fund startups in places other than Silicon Valley and New York. This isn’t a cure-all for reviving Rust Belt economies, but it is a vital ingredient in building technology that meets the needs of more people and an economy in which prosperity is more equitably shared.
Social media has to change
Twitter absolutely needs to address its abuse problem so that it doesn’t continue to be a tool for amplifying the newly emboldened hate mob. Facebook needs to address the way its algorithmic sorting of us into ideologically homogenous tribes stifles productive discussion. And as Max Read identifies, it needs to address the way it has become “the most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history” and the way that it amplifies extremist views that would have never found an audience before.
Privacy and security are as important as ever
Google, Facebook and Apple need to reckon with what kind of role they want to play when an administration hellbent on vengeance and quelling dissent are in charge of the FBI and NSA. Will they sell-out their users’ data when served a subpoena? Or will they ramp up their efforts to protect their users at all costs? Now would be a great time for Apple to get iMessage on Android. It’s no Signal, but it’s better than anything Google’s offering.
The new economy must be just
We need to grapple with the social consequences of the new economy we’re building and we need to do a better job anticipating and mitigating the destabilization that our innovations produce. Exhibit A:
I firmly believe that technology can and will make our lives better, but we need to make sure that the benefits are equitably shared. We need to make sure that when an industry or profession is made obsolete, the displaced people will not be abandoned. Anyone working in a company doing this kind of work has a moral imperative to consider these consequences and work to address them.
5. Continue to support civic and government tech
Several people have already wrote about what this means for the civic tech movement in government. Noah Kunin, Jen Pahlka and David Eaves have all written about the greater-than-ever importance of public service and continuing the work of building digital services that serve the needs of the American people. I agree with most, if not all, of what they’ve said.
While I’m unsure of my longterm plans, I know I’m staying put for now. My work is meaningful and important for the American people. While there’s great uncertainty about the role of government tech at the federal level, government must continue to modernize. Americans now, more than ever, need better, faster, easier to use services. This may be a growing area of concern in the coming weeks and months, and I anticipate lots of opportunities for technologists emerging in cities, counties, and states across the country.
That’s all I can come up with for now. Like many, I wasn’t expecting to spend my weekend thinking about this, so it’s all pretty fresh and off the top of my head.
If anything I’m saying here is dumb or out of touch due to my own biases, please let me know. And I’d love to know what other folks are seeing. If you’re in tech, what are you going to do? If you’re involved in politics, policy, organizing, activism or direct service, what needs do you anticipate that technologists can help with?
This is an all-hands-on-deck moment in American history. Every single person in this country has something to offer. Let’s make our contributions count.
Huge thanks to my friend Mollie Ruskin for the thoughtful edits and helpful additions to this post.