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November 14, 2016

Time for Tech Introspection

For the better part of the last decade, we have seen how government has had a difficult time keeping pace with the technological disruption that was altering the landscape of entrenched industries.

Well, on November 8th, the tides turned.

Disruption came to DC on Tuesday, and it came in a big way. It came in the form of a candidate like never before. A celebrity brand with zero governing or legislative record. A person who scares the establishment of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

And President-elect Donald Trump is someone who brings uneasiness to the tech industry. He was outspoken about boycotting Apple products during the encryption debate earlier in the year. Further, his focus on revamping trade deals and thwarting the TPP will have direct impacts on tech. In addition, Trump has hinted at eliminating tax breaks for carried interest on venture capital investing, limiting H1B visas and moving away from government stimulus for renewable energy.

The election of Donald Trump should be a wakeup call for those who live in the tech bubbles where jobs are plentiful and salaries are sky high. Tech and specifically Silicon Valley’s America is different than anywhere else.

It is very easy to label and rationalize away the concerns of those who support Donald Trump when you are living in New York, California or Seattle. However, the concerns of millions of citizens who feel left out and do not see a path to a prosperous future is real. And it can’t be swept away by a Calexit or a pithy Twitter or Facebook post.

It requires a look in the mirror.

While a future of driverless vehicles and decisions powered by artificial intelligence whets the appetites of venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs, it strikes fear into the hearts of those who see their jobs going away and their communities forever altered.

Farhad Manjoo wrote in a recent NY Times article: “It’s not clear that most Americans see technological progress as the unalloyed good that it is considered in Silicon Valley. Technology has pushed so deeply into people’s lives, changing how they work and go to school and raise their children, that it could well raise more fears than hopes. A new smartphone is nice, but perhaps not if it means that your trucking job will be replaced by a big rig that drives itself.”

Tech has come to a crossroads. No longer is tech the industry of the future. The future is here and it is far from perfect, and those who are focused on using technology to fundamentally change every aspect of our life need to better understand the ramifications.

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s election does not appear to have spurred inward thinking — at least not from Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of the world’s largest technology company Alphabet. Schmidt opined: “I think the math is the American economy is doing well, and the unemployment situation is [going] well, and if you’re confused on that, visit Europe…..Manufacturing jobs are infinitely safer today because robots do the dangerous work. We take that for granted,” Schmidt said. “Computers in manufacturing eliminated … the [tasks] that humans don’t want to do. The jobs that are routine are going to be replaced by technology. … Those same tools make an average person smarter.”

Yes, but those same tools also take away jobs that people have relied upon for decades. Those same tools strike fear in the hearts of those who want a better life for their children but see no path. The unbelievable promise and enthusiasm that technology represents in Silicon Valley is counter-balanced by the fear and uncertainty that it exudes in those whose lives are forever disrupted.

So what can be done?

Creative Investment – Programs such as Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest initiative is enabling entrepreneurs at high-growth companies to scale and receive investments, no matter where they are located. Case has invested more than $2.5 million in startups across 25 cities such as Omaha, St. Louis, Des Moines and Cincinnati.

Skills Training – Technological progress is going to change employment. There is no doubt about that. The same reason why there aren’t horse and buggy drivers is why truck drivers may disappear from the landscape. But, that doesn’t mean tech companies that displace workers can’t provide skills training at the local levels to help those who lose 20th century jobs adapt to a 21st century economy.

Diversity – Diversity of gender, age, race and religion yields diversity of thought and opinion that leads to new ways of thinking. The lack of diversity among tech elites has been a hot-button topic for some time. More diversity is needed not just because it is the right thing to do but because it is critical to the success of technology and our country.

For too long, the tech industry and its home bases have been immune to the struggles that many Americans are facing. But, it reached the front door this week. Some may look at this as unsolvable challenge. I see an opportunity that gives tech the ability to get back to the basics and truly fulfill the promise that many thought it could always achieve.

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