If you want to understand how Donald Trump became president of the United States and why his fellow populists and nationalists are on the march across wide swaths of Europe, you could do worse than to glance at the smartphone you interact with about 500 times a day.
No, the incredibly powerful computer nearly all of us carry around in our pockets and purses didn't give us Trump. But this ubiquitous piece of technology is as much an avatar of our historical moment as the factory or sweat shop was for the age of the industrial revolution. That was the last time in our history when destabilizing technological change led to the rise of radical political movements of the anti-liberal right and left. Those who supported those movements did so in reaction to the sense that their lives were spinning out of control, with technological innovations and resulting economic trends seeming to master us rather than the other way around.
That brings us to the fate of Elaine Herzberg, the 49-year-old woman who was struck and killed on Sunday evening by a self-driving car while walking her bicycle on the street in Tempe, Arizona. Tens of thousands of people die in automotive-related accidents every year in the United States, so a single death from a malfunctioning piece of cutting-edge technology that could eventually save a lot of those lives doesn't mean that the innovation should be opposed.
Yet for many people, even raising the possibility of imposing restrictions on the development of driverless technology can seem outrageous. And that tells us something important, and potentially ominous, about our world and our times.
When it comes to technological changes, most of us simply accept that they should proceed of their own logic. Suggest that the world doesn't need driverless cars, that we get along perfectly fine without them, and you'll inspire a mixture of outrage and stupefaction, as if the very hint that one might object to a pending innovation and seek to limit its development is self-evidently illegitimate. The protestations flow forth in a torrent: "What if they'd said this about the first automobiles? Or airplanes? Or computers? Just think of all the human benefits that followed from these and so many other examples of technological progress!"
That's one type of objection to technology — assuming that all innovation is either benign or a blessing ("progress"), and hence that favoring the placement of any limits on it is as absurd as proposing to turn down a great and wondrous gift from a generous benefactor.
Then there's the objection of the market absolutists, who prefer to sidestep altogether the question of whether innovation is good to focus instead on the inexorability of technological developments within the capitalist marketplace. Because such developments supposedly happen of their own accord, as the byproduct of profit-seeking on the part of free individuals, there is no way to constrain innovation short of imposing tyrannical restrictions on commerce. Like members of a species struggling to survive in a Darwinian natural world, people living under capitalism need to continually adapt to inevitable technological changes or else face certain extinction — if not the literal death suffered by Elaine Herzberg then the economic death confronting those working in industries on the verge of being snuffed out by the latest innovations.
The problem with both accounts of technological change is that they each counsel resignation and surrender, even when the outcome clearly makes people's lives worse. If driverless cars ultimately prevent thousands of fatalities a year, that will obviously be a benefit for the people who would otherwise have died. But what about the millions of long-haul truck drivers, taxi and limo drivers, and FedEx and UPS drivers who will end up unemployed by the innovation?
How many communities will be decimated by the loss of these jobs? How many individuals and families will be impoverished as a result? How many of those who find themselves without a job will be added to the ranks of the permanently unemployed, forced to contend with acute, long-term economic and psychological distress? How many of these will join the millions who have already sought relief in fatal addiction to painkillers as they struggle to cope with the decline of America's manufacturing sector?
And how many of these economically and spiritually immiserated millions will find themselves drawn to the cathartic anger of populist politics and its false promises of simple solutions to complicated problems?
Technological innovation benefits us in innumerable ways, but its downsides receive too little attention. Twitter facilitates the communication of information, but it also provided Trump with a megaphone to help build political support for his presidential campaign, just as it powerfully amplifies the voices of extremists of all political stripes. Facebook allows us to easily share personal and political news, but it also sells information about our habits and opinions to the highest bidder, spreads populist poison around the globe, and may have played a significant role in helping the Trump campaign across the finish line in 2016.
In a subtler but no less significant way, the advent of advanced automation (including driverless cars) may benefit many of us while also destabilizing the lives of millions and contributing to the further radicalization of our politics.
The proper response to this threat is not to dismiss the danger or deny anything can be done about it. It's to recognize the hazard and act to minimize it.
Technology isn't our master. We're the ones in charge. If democracy means anything, it must mean that.