This presidential election has kicked off tempestuous debates and much soul searching about the role of technology, especially social media, in the democratic process. These questions are vital, but now it is time to look forward. The core issue is the question of how the tech community should respond thoughtfully and critically to what for many (including us) was a surprising victory.
Both of us, in different ways, have devoted our lives to conversing with and educating others about the ideals of technology — one of us as a law professor at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology; the other as a convener of conversations on how tech is impacting social and economic progress, as the co-founder and chief program officer of the Techonomy conference. Both of us had a hard time facing our respective constituencies the morning after the election. On campus, law students were sobbing. At Techonomy, many technologists sat stunned, wondering how they’d failed to foresee this outcome. For those of us who care about the intersection of technology and social welfare, Trump’s victory laid bare the deep-rooted divisions in this country, and was a stark reminder that in our own way, we’d become complacent and perhaps even part of the problem. In liberal, solutions-driven Silicon Valley, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
Nearly two weeks later, the tech community is now beginning to consider a few strategies to build lasting, sustainable social change. Though it remains to be seen how much Trump will embrace the tech industry (and it’s also clear, as Peter Thiel reminds us, that there’s not always a singular point of view in tech), we have an opportunity, albeit an uncomfortable, unwanted one. We can exploit pathways to social change and progress that, until now, have remained largely untapped because the federal government so readily embraced us. Now that the pathway is so unclear at the federal level, let’s see where else we can go.
Technology at its best has always been about imagining a better society, a more perfect union. To achieve that goal, we need to look well beyond our filter bubbles. We need to understand better the problems we claim to want to solve. As mentioned time and time again at Techonomy, tech is a tool and we are the ones that wield it—so we need to take more responsibility for our actions (or inaction). So where do we look for sources of inspiration? Where will the leadership come from?