How Silicon Valley and Trump can work together
From super-fast broadband to education, there might be more common ground than you think
President-elect Donald Trump is spending most of his transition time meeting with lots and lots of people. He has schmoozed with Anna Wintour and hung out with Kanye West. And on Wednesday, he held a summit with a who's who of tech CEOs. The meeting was significant because Silicon Valley is one of the most anti-Trump sections in America, prompted by its mix of vaguely progressive ethos and belief in the sanctity of open immigration policies.
According to all reports, Trump lavished his guests with praise at the meeting and sought out their help in formulating policy. And according to all reports, the tech industry, or at least its top leaders, have considered it the wisest course to bury the hatchet and tentatively look at working with the incoming administration.
For example, Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos had quite the war of words during the campaign; Trump threatened Bezos' Amazon with antitrust action, and Bezos, who owns a rocket company, responded by offering to "send Donald to space." But after Wednesday's meeting, the Amazon CEO sent out an upbeat statement, saying among other things that "I found today's meeting with the president-elect, his transition team, and tech leaders to be very productive."
In this "productive" spirit, here are five suggestions for how the new administration and Silicon Valley can work together.
1. Super-fast broadband
One of Trump's major campaign planks was investment in infrastructure. Meanwhile, it's a shame that while the United States invented the internet and produced most of the world's greatest internet innovations, it is a mediocre player when it comes to internet access and quality. As I've written elsewhere, a major priority of any infrastructure investment plan should be giving the United States the highest quality broadband available.
Silicon Valley is actually a better potential partner in this task than the existing telecommunications companies, which have failed to bring gigabit-speed internet mainstream despite obvious demand. Meanwhile, Alphabet, Google's parent company, is building fiber networks that are a thousand times faster than average. Since putting the country's next-gen wiring in the hands of incumbents looks like a crony capitalist disaster in waiting, Trump should start a task force staffed by the people who started and run Google Fiber.
Yes, immigration. Beneath all the political bombast, Trump and Silicon Valley pretty much already see eye-to-eye on immigration. Trump has repeatedly voiced his support for high-skilled immigration, which is what matters to tech leaders.
Peter Thiel, Trump's best-known Silicon Valley supporter and generally considered an immigration restrictionist, has voiced his support for a Canadian- or Australian-style points-based immigration system, something that has support in both parties.
The reason why progressive business sectors like Silicon Valley and Republican immigration restrictionists seem at odds is because D.C.'s conventional wisdom has congealed around the idea that the only sort of immigration reform that could or should be passed should be "comprehensive," which is a code word for a blanket amnesty for mostly low-skilled workers who are in the U.S. illegally. This is something many conservatives oppose, both out of concern for the rule of law and out of concern for the social and economic impacts of unchecked, low-skilled immigration on the American working class. In a battle over "comprehensive" immigration reform, business groups and conservative restrictionists are going to be in opposite camps, even though they actually on most things.
It's time to get pragmatic. Post-Trump, "comprehensive" immigration reform is dead. Good or bad, that doesn't mean that the remaining, worthy aspects of immigration reform can't be passed.
The only CEO of a privately held company at the tech summit was Alex Karp, CEO of spy software company Palantir. (Thiel is a co-founder and chairman.) While Thiel is obviously a biased observer, I agree with his observation, with regard to the Snowden leaks, that they looked more like "the keystone cops" than Orwell. What transpires from the presentations unearthed by Snowden is that the NSA's approach to signals intelligence when it comes to anti-terrorism is to hoover as much data as possible mostly because it doesn't know what it's looking for, and then cross its fingers that it can unearth promising correlations.
Debates about privacy and civil liberties, while extremely important, have obscured something perhaps even more worrying about America's tech intelligence sector: incompetence. Just recall the hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, where foreign entities suspected to be linked to the Chinese government stole data pertaining to 18 million people, including security clearance information, personal data, and fingerprints. The hack, which made headlines for approximately five minutes and then seems to have been shrugged off, has exposed staggering incompetence.
U.S. intelligence companies routinely rely on contractors, who themselves rely on sub- and sub-sub-contractors, which is basically an invitation for insecurity — it's how Snowden was able to get his infamous files to begin with. While the number of people holding security clearances has dropped, it still stands at an incredible 4.5 million. To say this is absurd is an understatement.
Palantir's software works in the opposite way to the NSA approach. The software works by helping analysts make sense of data using human intelligence and intuition, instead of dumb algorithms. Its genius is in making all the data that is held in different silos easily searchable and accessible. Do I hear "Alex Karp for NSA director"?
During the meeting, Trump solicited help from tech companies in using data analysis and other tools to streamline the operations of government. The U.S. government is a hopeless tech backwater. Remember Healthcare.gov? To be fair, this is a problem that plagues every large organization, or almost. Systems with decentralized decision-making tend to produce better solutions to problems, as Friedrich Hayek or an evolutionary biologist could tell you. The federal government is the ultimate large organization.
Thankfully, a bevy of Silicon Valley companies have been formed on the promise of bringing "the Silicon Valley mindset" to large organizations. The problem is not just giving the government better software, although that would be essential; it is also a question of mindset and organization. The Silicon Valley ethos involves decentralized decision-making, rapid iteration, so-called "agile" management and, post-iPhone, a focus on human interaction design — all things that the U.S. government is terrible at.
Everyone in Silicon Valley looooooves talking about education, sometimes stupidly. But at least it's something they care about.
Now, I find most of what I see out of Silicon Valley on schools to be laughably naïve or narrow-minded. For example, the Silicon Valley startup AltSchool gets some hype for starting non-conventional schools, but its "recommended reading list" is full of conventional thinking, pop-science, and shoddy science. Its approach to data-gathering — essentially recording interactions and having teachers write down every interaction with a child — seems ignorant of basic epistemology and an example of the same sort of "dumb big data" approach that I slammed the NSA for. Meanwhile, for many in Silicon Valley, education begins and ends with STEM, when education is and must be so much broader, even if you only have narrow utilitarian goals in mind.
Where Silicon Valley can be revolutionary, with the right policy environment, is higher education. The astonishing rise in the costs of higher education has been widely noted. There are many reasons for this, but a major one has been the fact that higher education works like a cartel, with accreditation bestowed by representatives of the incumbent schools, always a recipe for protection from competition. Policies to revamp accreditation, such as those long-pushed by Marco Rubio, would be a great place to start.