New Populism and Silicon Valley on a Collision Course

New Populism and Silicon Valley on a Collision Course

Trump’s focus on jobs, globalization and immigration tapped anxiety about technological change

By CHRISTOPHER MIMS Updated Nov. 10, 2016 7:39 p.m. ET

Tuesday’s election was an expression of voter angst that heralded a new type of populism. For Silicon Valley, it also marked the ascension of a vision starkly at odds with its own.

The world is changing faster than ever, and Donald Trump’s campaign tapped into concern about where that change is taking the country. Many of the campaign’s central issues—jobs, globalization and immigration—had in common that they were rooted, in large part, in technological change.

The populist wave Mr. Trump rode appears to be on a collision course with the fruits of technology and the people who build it.

Uber Technologies Inc. and others are testing self-driving trucks. That augurs trouble for the 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., who hold some of the best-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence are beginning to consume white-collar jobs in fields such as medicine and finance, shifting the debate over the impact of technology.

Navdy, a head-up display for cars, projects messages, maps and apps from a smartphone into the driver’s line of sight. Does it cure distracted driving—or make it worse?

The tech industry champions immigration. Many of its executives are foreign born. It embraces trade. Overseas markets accounted for 58% of its revenue last year, the second-highest share for any U.S. industry after energy, according to CFRA Research. And overseas workers build most of the electronic gadgets that U.S. tech companies sell.

The setting for Mr. Trump’s critiques of American capitalism was often a closed or soon-to-be-closed factory.

But, thanks to advances in automation, there’s little evidence that bringing factories back to the U.S. would lead to significantly more jobs. The dollar value of what Americans make goes up every year, but the share of Americans who make those goods continues to decline. It was 8.7% of working Americans last year, down from a postwar high of nearly one in three in the 1950s.

The overseas factories to which many U.S. companies shifted production are themselves rapidly automating. There simply aren’t enough pockets of ultracheap labor left.

“The era of using offshore low-cost labor will come to an end because the standard of living is rising around the world,” says Jon Sobel, chief executive and co-founder of Sight Machine Inc., which helps companies manage the data pouring off their automated assembly lines. He can’t name his clients, but they range from a Big Three auto maker to a famous apparel company, all of which seek his company’s help in automating factories overseas.

The end results of this trend, in America and elsewhere, are what are known as ”lights out” factories, where processes are so automated that there’s no need to illuminate the production line except when it breaks down.

To many in Silicon Valley, this is just part of inexorable progress. Electing Mr. Trump won’t shield his supporters from the reality that they are now competing with every other worker on Earth, says Balaji Srinivasan, a board partner at venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and CEO of bitcoin startup 21 Inc.

Mr. Srinivasan views the collision between tech culture and Mr. Trump’s populist movement as inevitable, and potentially so divisive that tech’s global elites should effectively secede from their respective countries, an idea he calls “the ultimate exit.”

Already, he says, elites in Silicon Valley are more connected to one another and to their counterparts around the globe than to non-techies in their midst or nearby. “My Stanford network connects to Harvard and Beijing more than [California’s] Central Valley,” says Mr. Srinivasan. Eventually, he argues, “there will be a recognition that if we don’t have control of the nation state, we should reduce the nation state’s power over us.”

Such concepts are far-fetched, but the underlying cultural and ideological divisions are real.

“It’s crazy to me that people in Silicon Valley have no idea how half the country lives and is voting,” said Ben Ling, an investment partner at venture firm Khosla Ventures. Many “coastal elites” attribute the results “to just sexism or racism, without even trying to figure out why [people] wanted to vote for Trump.”

Ultimately, the clashes may not prove so dramatic. Technology may fall short of visionaries’ lofty promises. And Mr. Trump may pursue policies that are more symbolic than detrimental to the tech industry, says Anshu Sharma, a venture capitalist at Storm Ventures and founder of artificial-intelligence startup Learning Motors.

“We’ll eventually find out whether he decides he does want to bring back an Apple factory from China,” says Mr. Sharma. “I think he’s going to pick on one or two companies and make an example, to show his base that he’s fixing America.”

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an industry group, says, “There was a bromance between Obama and the tech industry. That is not going to be the case with a Trump presidency.”


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