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Stop Pretending There's a Line Dividing Politics and Tech

Illustration for article titled Stop Pretending Theres a Line Dividing Politics and Tech

"Silicon Valley is a place where seemingly impossible problems are solved every day," Ezra Klein writes in a new post for The Verge. "...while Washington is a place where solvable problems prove impossible to do anything about." Klein presents a huge chasm dividing the worlds of technology and politics. This idea is misguided at best, and dangerous at worst.


"The future looks good when I read The Verge," Klein writes, obviously having never read The Verge, a site that very competently covers our more dystopian futures as aggressively as the latest smartwatch. "The watches are smarter, the televisions are curvier, and the buckets of ice are icier. But honestly, the future looks less good from where I sit in Washington."

If you can sit wherever you are in Washington and earnestly believe that "technology" is just smartwatches and TVs, you better find a seat closer to the window. Because whether it's the LRAD sound cannons currently being deployed against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, or the communications tech companies who are complicit in siphoning off all our data for the NSA, tech and politics can't help but feed off of each other.


Just as all politics is local, all technology is political. Whether it's the fight over smart guns that can only be fired by their owners, so-called ride-sharing apps like Uber or Lyft, same-day delivery by Amazon or Google, faux-hotels like Airbnb, privatized space travel by companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, or even just the latest smartphone by Apple, technology and politics really couldn't be more intertwined here in the early 21st century if we tried.

Klein's vision of tech-futurism in the 21st century is fantastically retro. It's like the universe of The Jetsons, where social and political change are completely absent and divorced from any version of tomorrow. Flying cars and 3D television? Check and check. How flying cars might be regulated by the FAA or 3D screens might benefit from government research with an explicit dual-use mission? Completely ignored.

Instead, Klein presents a vision of tomorrow where the American political parties are becoming increasingly polarized and dysfunctional (arguably true), while companies on the Left Coast deliver a seamless utopian future (decidedly untrue).

It's particularly startling to see Klein's compartmentalization of politics just a day after it was announced that Uber has hired David Plouffe as its new head of policy and strategy. That is to say, a former member of the Obama team who was instrumental in getting the president elected in 2008 is now the top lobbyist at a rapidly growing, lawsuit-addled tech company.


The New York Times explained Plouffe's future strategy as wanting to, "run Uber's communication efforts much like a political race, pushing to woo consumers and regulators alike in the company's fast-paced expansion across the world."

In an interview with Kara Swisher back in May, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick put it more bluntly: "We're in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi." It's no wonder Kalanick is hiring Washington insiders who can perhaps package that war with a prettier bow. Lobbyists are opening up shop in Silicon Valley, while tech companies like Google and Facebook are flooding K Street with cash. To ignore this relationship would seem ludicrous to even the most oblivious policy wonk ten years hence.


It even shows up in our fiction, despite being beyond parody. One episode of this past season's Veep on HBO featured the fictional vice president visiting Silicon Valley. She meets with a techno-utopian CEO who explains what he needs from Washington. His remarks about seeing his company as "post-tax" sound an awful lot like the rhetoric of men like Kalanick, who until recently had the cover of Ayn Rand's book The Fountainhead as his Twitter avatar.

I mean, Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for fuck's sake. If there ever was a sign that tech and politics are engaged in an orgy that most Americans only get to watch through a keyhole, it's the founder of Amazon buying our political newspaper of record.


In many ways it's always been like this. Silicon Valley has been a fertile region for private enterprise and entrepreneurship; there's no disputing that history. But what so many people seem to conveniently forget is that much of the money that built Silicon Valley came from the government.

To take just one example, look at the $5 billion that Silicon Valley was bringing in annually from defense contracts during the Reagan administration. As Thomas Heinrich explains in his 2002 paper "Cold War Armory: Military Contracting in Silicon Valley":

[During the Cold War] Santa Clara County (which was first dubbed Silicon Valley in 1971) produced all of the United States Navy's intercontinental ballistic missiles, the bulk of its reconnaissance satellites and tracking systems, and a wide range of microelectronics that became integral components of high-tech weapons and weapons systems. Aircraft like the F-16 tactical fighter could not fly, much less engage in combat, without transistors, integrated circuits, and microprocessors that collected and processed flight data, linked the plane to external command, control and communication systems, and guided "smart" bombs and missiles to their targets.


Or just look at some of the richest men in America, whose backstories are remembered as simply the greatest hits of American style capitalism. How did Larry Ellison make his billions? Oracle was founded and even takes its name from a CIA project. Every single year, Oracle has made billions working for governments at every level, with one recently infamous example being the gigantic clusterfuck that was Oregon's health insurance exchange website.

Elon Musk is doing great work with SpaceX, and space nerds are all rooting for him to make our space program more efficient. But SpaceX is, at this point, a government contractor, not some libertarian fantasy of private enterprise. The company's shuttling goods into space, and doing a great job at it. But there would be no reason to do it (nor would SpaceX have half its engineers) without the existence of NASA.


No private person is paying Musk to shuttle humans to Mars just yet. And that's fine! But we need to acknowledge that it's a business model built on government funding.

Even the internet itself is borne of politics. The government agency ARPA (before it got the "D" in front) sent the first host-to-host message in 1969, thrusting us however slowly into the internet revolution. The goal was simple resource sharing, but of course, it became something much bigger as the ARPANET grew.


Al Gore gets a lot of shit for supposed claims that he "invented" the internet, but he was actually instrumental in helping transition it from a government-only entity to a privatized space for innovation. Just ask some of the people who helped build the internet in the 1970s. The role of government in developing and regulating technology, for better or worse, needs to be acknowledged. Just as the tech sector's role in shaping our lives (again, for better and for worse) is debated nearly every day.

Much smarter people than I, who have spent their entire academic careers exploring the politics of technology, could no doubt explain it better. But you don't need a PhD in the history of technology to understand that there is no line dividing our potential technological futures from our political futures. As for the future being "awesome," I guess we're still waiting to see on that.


Image: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plays a song by Neil Young on his iPhone through a microphone at a press conference in 2013 via Getty

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In many ways it's always been like this. Silicon Valley has been a fertile region for private enterprise and entrepreneurship; there's no disputing that history. But what so many people seem to conveniently forget is that much of the money that built Silicon Valley came from the government.

The punk compilation from 1986, "San Jose is Ground Zero" was all about the fact that so much government tech took place in SJ that it was first on the Ruskies target list during the cold war. Also, punk bands could afford to live in Silicon Valley in the 80's!