This week Twitter (or at least my corner of it) has been buzzing over an essay penned by Om Malik about the tech industry’s lack of empathy for the people its products hurt. For example, Otto, the self-driving truck startup, will someday displace some three million trucking jobs. He warns that by 2020, “Silicon Valley will have become an even bigger villain in the popular imagination, much like its East Coast counterpart, Wall Street.”
The essay stirred up lots of scolding and self-loathing among the so-called coastal elites of the tech industry. I experienced that in real life last night at a dinner with some of those coastal elites, where the conversation inevitably turned to the topic.
I’ve concluded that yes, the tech industry is doomed to be hated, because that’s what happens to concentrated centers of wealth and power. Right now, Silicon Valley happens to be in that position, and likely will be for a long time. But my view is that the tension isn’t just a tech thing or a finance thing, it’s a capitalism thing. And for the record, it’s not just economically oppressed Rust Belt voters that are frustrated with the system. The majority of all millennials in the U.S. do not support capitalism.
But we can’t stop progress — some of it life-saving — to keep doing things the old way. In his essay, Malik stopped short of telling techies to stop building their products. In addition to displacing jobs, Otto is expected to save lives and increase productivity. It’s the same reason keeping 1,000 factory jobs in Indiana doesn’t change the broader economic trend that those jobs will be increasingly done by robots. And it’s why the Universal Basic Income idea has become so popular in Silicon Valley.
Taking a more hopeful approach, someone at the dinner asked what happens when tech displaces all of our jobs. Our jobs are our identities; they give us self-worth. That’s one reason many argue that simply paying people not to work won’t work. Can we all be artists? Will we be satisfied? To that question, I point to Life Magazine, which famously addressed the “threat” that too much leisure time posed to American society in the wake of increasing automation. That was in 1964.
Just like coastal elites never leave their bubbles with their five-dollar lattes and freshly pressed juices, as Malik sneers, many residents of red states never interact with anyone different from themselves. (I say this as someone who grew up in one of those red state bubbles.) The difference, of course, is that one bubble wields a lot of money, privilege and power and the other, not so much. That creates a greater burden on the coastal elites to be more empathetic. But I hope the empathy can go both ways.