Om Malik’s piece in the New Yorker this past week has received loads of criticism for linking Trump with what he calls an “empathy problem” in Silicon Valley.
To start, I loathe to ascribe any macro shift to Trump’s rise. He won three key states – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – by around 80,000 votes combined. That’s the margin we’re talking about here. All of this while Clinton’s vote count continues to rise (she’s 2.6M votes ahead nationally at this point in time).
In other words, elections are binary outcomes, but the country did not change overnight the day Trump was elected. It was close. If 80,000 votes had tipped the other direction, we’d probably be talking about how “demographics are destiny” and the deep Democratic bench and the power of the Hispanic vote. Point is…we’re not great at analyzing ourselves in real time.
That being said, Malik makes a few useful points. Overall, his argument boils down to the fact that technology leaders ought to take more responsibility for the world they are creating. This can be interpreted on two levels.
First, Malik points to the fake news problem on Facebook and how Zuckerberg can, and should, do more. In my opinion, this is inarguable. I certainly do not want Zuckerberg to become some all-powerful editor-in-chief and arbiter of the truth, but I’m confident there are clever ways to combat what is most obviously false. It’s hard. But given what happened in DC yesterday, it’s worth it.
Second, Malik suggests that technology, and in particular automation, is destroying more jobs than it’s creating. I think it’s orth analyzing this point. Technology has long been stealing our jobs. In 1900, 41 percent of Americans worked in agriculture. In 2000, that number had dropped to 2 percent. In the past, this shift didn’t lead to an overall drop in employment. But there is reason to believe this time it may be different. Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at MIT who is also quoted in Malik’s article, argues that we’re in the midst what he calls the “great decoupling” between job growth and productivity growth. Usually as productivity increases, so does overall employment. This has been true since WWII, but the lines started diverging in 2000. Productivity has continued to rise, but employment has not followed suit.
So, maybe this time it’s different.
But is Silicon Valley responsible? And if so, what does that even mean? Should Otto have notbuilt a self-driving truck? Should Airbnb shutter its doors? Clearly not.
So, what should we do? Om, if you’re out there, this is the article I’d love to see you write next.
-David Peterson, Editor