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Donald Trump and the Digital Transformation of Everything

The people of the United States of America have voted. Donald Trump is their president-elect.

My overarching theme is how technology and digitization influence our world’s systems. So, while I don’t usually cover politics, I can’t ignore the Trump election. There is an angle to it that fits my domain precisely. Alas, it doesn’t do so by illustrating the emerging potential for improvement. Instead, it’s uncompromisingly spelling out the painful side of transformational periods.

Whenever we are faced with change — be it within the realms of a company or in society at large — we can confidently expect resistance and even pushback against it. The last two decades or so have brought an enormous amount of change, with technology and globalization as the two main drivers (btw: largely interconnected ones!). It’s only natural, then, to see opposition arise.

Trump ran his campaign largely on the idea of resistance. A large part of his appeal came from him being an outsider who dared to say what the establishment wouldn’t: That the system is rigged. He promised to restore order and make America great again. He called out to the forgotten men and women. And they responded.

In that regard, Trump’s campaign certainly was conservative, reactionary even. Especially among tech people these words almost sound like insults. But let’s make no mistake: resistance to change is usually not based on ignorance but on the (real or perceived) danger of ending up in a worse condition. Being opposed to change results from fearing one might belong to the losers it creates. And the changes brought along by globalization and technology — the disruption we seek and celebrate — are creating many losers for real.

It’s no coincidence that we speak of winner-take-all effects. While technology unarguably creates wealth, we can’t deny the fact that it’s more unevenly distributed than ever. Looking at the composition of the Trump electorate, it’s apparent that it largely consists of people — you know, the kind that has families to provide for, mortgages to pay back and the likes — who don’t reside in the winners column (except, of course, Peter Thiel). Donald Trump (of all people!) managed to convince them that he’d be their savior. Or that he’d blow up the whole thing; at least nobody is better off then.

I’m highly skeptical of at least the former proposition. But policies and the minutiae of governance were never at the heart of this election. As Matt Levine brilliantly put it:

“The basic fact of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was that it was a canvas for the projection of wishes.”

After all, Trump for the most part either avoided any specific policy proposals or continuously contradicted himself.

And this brings me to the second aspect I find noteworthy about this election. Western, representative democracies indeed have a systemic problem. I already wrote about it after Brexit (here and here; though in German) but I think it’s worth mentioning again.

It’s not news that our type of democracies, at times of uncertainty and fear, present the ideal environment for a rise of populism and demagogy. In line with my argument from above this is not a result of people being dumb (though probably of lacking education). Instead, it’s the result of systems which are not capable of competently dealing with large-scale changes in their environment.

A myriad of factors are at play here. Established institutions were, necessarily, built for the world as it used to be. Once the world changes, they are suddenly out of sync. Think about our current governance system: Its basic design assumptions origin from a time when information traveled via letters which were carried by messengers riding horses. Additionally, most modern-day systems lack a mechanism to critically reflect their own state. Most importantly, incentives are set so they don’t encourage systemic changes. Those who make decisions in a given system are usually the beneficiaries of its current structure. Allowing people to vote every few years might have been a reasonable solution under relative stability and change at a considerably slower rate; it’s not in a complex world of granular-but-intertwined issues and accelerated change.

Once a given change manifests and the system fails to offer a solution for the emerging issues (again: real or perceived) those who promise betterment attract voters. Alas, as we currently see all over the western world and certainly in the case of Trump, those promises usually originate from populists and reactionaries. It almost is a self-fulfilling prophecy (this piece by Andrew Sullivan is really, really good!).

At that point, most commentators blame the media and/or the lack of popular alternatives offered by established parties. However, this analysis falls short. Populism from insiders is also just populism; it’s not one iota better (mind you, technically Trump ran as a Republican). And as long as the media are a business they will always have an incentive to give airtime or headlines to shrill, attention-grabbing figures.

The real problem, at least from my perspective, is that democracy-as-currently-designed not only encourages such a behavior, it almost demands it. In order to win elections, you have to appeal to as many people as possible (this gets obviously worse in winner-take-all election systems). So, as we saw with Trump and as is generally agreed upon by political campaigners, optimally you condense campaigns into loud and catchy claims. Because we don’t vote on issues and specific policies but on broad packages — which are represented by either candidates or parties — voters are usually left to vote for a party despite many policy proposals they might disagree with.

This is the heartbreaking bit about Trump’s election. I’m quite certain that a considerable amount of Trump voters is not racist, xenophobic and misogynist¹. Despite this they voted for a person that pretty much ticks all these boxes because they regarded him the better alternative for reasons outlined above. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t justify this choice. Personally, I find it nefarious. But this is not a piece about ethics. Thus, when simply facing reality we need to conclude: Usually voters’ priorities are first and foremost based on their personal interest, not on society’s at large.

This is where the problem of packaging policy unfolds. The world is multidimensional and complex. Politics, in contrast, is two-dimensional: left and right. By not allowing people to vote on issues or at least narrow packages (e.g. economic policy, social issues, education), candidates who appeal to a majority because of a few-but-highly-relevant (to them) issues have decent chances of winning.

This problem increases the more complex the world and fragmented societies become. In such a world, two-dimensional systems will often only let us pick the lesser of two evils. Solving this won’t depend on better media or campaigning but on a smarter democratic process.

Technology will play a major role in developing the latter. I don’t have a blueprint for it but I’m certain of the following: If we were to develop a democratic system today, starting on a green field, it would look rather different from what we have today. In that regard, democracy is just another incumbent challenged by the new reality that is the internet.

¹ Don’t confuse this with me stating ‘everything’s gonna be alright’. Even if the majority isn’t racist, xenophobic and misogynist, there is certainly a radical core. Already there are reports of minorities being attacked a few days after the election (though some media overreaction might be involved; presumably such incidences also happened before but went unreported). More importantly though, radical minorities can shape much larger societies. Nassim Taleb explains the effect brilliantly in here.

Originally published in Digital Thoughts, my newsletter, on Nov. 13

About me

I work, think, write and speak about digital business, technology and decentralized systems. If you’d like to connect, follow me here on Medium, or check out my website to find out more. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

I’m always glad to talk & interested in inspiring discussions. My analog residence is Munich, Germany. My professional role is CEO of Eck Consulting.