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How Silicon Valley’s Love of Disruption Fostered Donald Trump’s Presidency

November 9, 2016, 8:46 PM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

It’s not every day that the theme of national politics permeates throughout a technology conference, especially one focused on the specific field of cloud computing.

But Wednesday morning at Structure in San Francisco, opening speaker Bryan Cantrill, the chief technology officer of cloud computing company Joyent, couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room. Donald Trump won the national election and will become President of the United States in 2017—despite the fact that many media pundits, analysts, and Silicon Valley titans believed his aggressive and controversial campaign to be a bust.

“Let’s talk the state of the cloud as if nothing actually happened last night,” Cantrill said in jest to the audience of techies. Cantrill is a long-time Silicon Valley technologist who has worked at big tech companies like Sun Microsystems and Oracle (ORCL). In June, consumer electronic giant Samsung said it would buy Joyent for an undisclosed amount.

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Cantrill admitted he altered his intended speech on the current state of cloud computing to focus on what he believes led to the intense divide in the country between urban-class American citizens—specifically those in wealthy Silicon Valley—and those in rural areas who seemed to overwhelmingly support Trump.

Technologists and Silicon Valley’s urban elite “fetishize disruption,” according to Cantrill, and the notion that new technologies can quickly upend established companies slow to react to change.

“This is the lifeblood of our industry,” Cantrill said. “We don’t merely thrive on it; we actively seek it out.”

For Cantrill, the rise of cloud computing is the perfect example of a new technology disrupting the establishment. Companies like Amazon (AMZN) and Microsoft (MSFT) can sell computing resources on-demand to customers, freeing them from having to buy and maintain expensive data center hardware. As a result, traditional hardware companies like Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and EMC have seen their businesses decline.

Cloud computing also has made it easier for companies to create powerful software that has given rise to a host of revolutionary technologies and services like self-driving cars and new businesses such as online home-sharing startup Airbnb. This rise of powerful software has led to the mantra of “software eating the world,” as exemplified in venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s 2011 Wall Street Journal column, Cantrill cited.

But while software has gotten more powerful and is disrupting traditional business models like the taxi and hospitality industry, its unintended or often-ignored consequences mean many workers in these industries will lose jobs. Silicon Valley’s “pace of disruption is now in the broader economy,” he said. “We cannot put the genie back in the bottle.”

Over the next ten years, Cantrill believes that many more industries “will be devoured by software,” and this realization has created an existential fear inside the working-class that believes their jobs will be the casualties of technologies they don’t understand. Cantrill said many times that he doesn’t want to simplify the plight of the working class nor why Trump won the election. “But Andreessen’s prophecy is being realized,” he argued, and rural workers feel threatened by what they perceive to be the unknown.

“Last night, we got a very important wake-up call,” Cantrill said. “There are people in this country that feel devoured.”

For Silicon Valley and the urban elite, new cutting-edge technology can conjure images of economic prosperity and limitless opportunities. But for people in places like Michigan, where the decline of the auto industry has given way to job losses, the same tech means something very different and grim. These people believe they are heading to “an economically dislocated future in which one does not know one’s place,” Cantrill said. “Disruptive innovation is coming to industries that employ many millions of people.”

Cantrill suggested how the rise of self-driving trucks will “put millions of people out of work” in the business of truck deliveries. Still, the economic benefits of self-driving technology is undeniable for businesses, and Cantrill admitted that he “would like to be next to software” driving at night instead of a truck driver who has been up for 18 hours making a delivery.

“We are not going to prevent this from happening,” said Cantrill. “We need to figure how to collectively come to grip with it.”


Now, the challenge is for Silicon Valley and the urban elite and rural workers to come together. He offered no solution to the dilemma, but said that “this is the beginning of a long conversation” that needs to occur between the two entities.

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Workers who felt ignored by the urban elite must learn to “cope with the pace of the change” that the technology industry is inflicting on them, Cantrill argued. Likewise, he added, the technologists that are ushering this rapid change must empathize with those that feel threatened instead of ignoring them.

“We should not underestimate the ingenuity of both Americas,” Cantrill said in regards to how people can come together in difficult times.