Democracy Disrupted: Silicon Valley’s Unprecedented Opportunity to Innovate in the First 100 Days of Trump

By Margo Boenig-Liptsin

Silicon Valley, the model and symbol of technological innovation, is at a cross-roads. While the state of California mobilizes to defend its vision of the future against the Trump administration, Silicon Valley is confronting its own attitudes towards democracy in its self-proclaimed mission to implement “disruptive” innovations in society.

At stake in the conflict between Silicon Valley and Trump are two different ideas of what makes for a good — or “great,” to use President Trump’s own words — future. In Silicon Valley, the best is still ahead of us and the future holds limitless potential that can be unlocked through technological disruption. Although this future delegates tremendous power to technology, it nevertheless respects diversity, equality, and environment. By contrast, Trump’s vision of a great future is a return to a mythical American past. Trump’s ideal future is frightening because it goes against civil rights, openness of human movement, and finding ways of living together on one planet.

Traditionally Silicon Valley has self-praised and even flaunted its ability to “disrupt” as a tool for effecting change and bringing about futures. This technological disruption is not limited to industrial change, but rather is a broader vision of the way in which technology ought to be harnessed to radically transform ways of life seen as inefficient or problematic, be it homelessness or ageing [1]. When regulations or governance practices get in the way of achieving the envisioned future, disruptors do not seek to find loopholes as much as they aim to deploy technologies to reveal governance practices to be embarrassingly inefficient or outdated in light of the new technological reality. Disruption has the effect of rendering superfluous and obsolete political institutions, be they regulatory agencies, the patent system, or incremental reform.

While disruption is a deeply normative pursuit of a particular vision of the future, Silicon Valley’s model and practice of disruption is based upon the idea that it is, ostensibly, beyond politics. In their effort to leapfrog complicated political realities and histories with technological innovation, many Silicon Valley innovators effectively attempt to renew the political system from outside the system and thus avoid overt political leadership and responsibility that comes with it. With every new app, every new personal digital device, every new iteration of the sharing economy, Silicon Valley innovators claim to bring us closer to a more perfect democracy. This form of leading through technology, as opposed to leading through traditional political institutions, has become so well accepted that the Obama administration actively fostered a relationship to Silicon Valley, not merely for economic policy but for guidance on building the future.

But after Trump’s election, we see Silicon Valley in an awkward situation. Silicon Valley, synonymous with the “globalized and digitized economy” that right-wing movements in the United States and Europe blame for society’s ills, stands for the very problem that Trump’s “make America great again” policies promise to counteract. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has been said to have inadvertently helped to “create” Trump by putting people in more traditional industries out of work with automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. And Valley social network companies like Twitter and Facebook are perceived to have taken over the public sphere with echo-chamber media environments where ideologies thrive and through which Trump and his supporters found such powerful voices.

Furthermore, Silicon Valley’s self-proclaimed modus operandi of disruption is being attributed to the very person it opposes, and by one of its own model disruptors Peter Thiel. As a vocal proponent of disruption and “contrarian” critic of Silicon Valley’s slow place of envisioning and developing truly disruptive technologies, Thiel has departed from mainstream Silicon Valley leaders to support Trump and attribute to him fulfillment of the aspirational disruptive force he writes about in his book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. It seems that Thiel believes that Trump’s administration can more effectively lead change from “zero to one,” or to create something singularly new, without the allegedly lost time and resources of traversing incremental change. Trump’s hegemonic and bombastic style and his flagrant disregard for political establishment has earned him the title of “disrupter-in-chief.” In Trump’s hands disruption is revealed to be what it always was but what remained unrecognized when it was in the hands of Silicon Valley: a deeply hegemonic, violent, and fundamentally undemocratic form of leading change.

Now the question for Silicon Valley is: can it redefine its own identification with disruption? Can Silicon Valley find a way to innovate through democratic institutions as opposed to sidestepping them, and will it do so as a means to oppose the future that Trump’s disruption promises to bring about? To defend the ability to realize a future they believe in, technology leaders and ordinary citizens in Silicon Valley need to sit down to think creatively about how to support liberal values through technology [2]. The answer will not take the form of another app, but by acting through and with the messy democratic institutions that the present political situation reveals to be more than ever an indispensable bulwark for our collective wellbeing.

Margo Boenig-Liptsin is a Research Associate at the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She works to understand the role of technology in the contemporary human condition to inform individual and collective action.

[1] Boenig-Liptsin, Margarita and J. Benjamin Hurlbut. 2016. “Technologies of Transcendence and the Singularity University,” Perfecting Human Futures: Innovation, Secularization and Eschatology, ed. J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. Dordrecht: Springer.

[2] For an in-depth examination of what is at stake in our delegation of power to technology and how to claim this power back, see Jasanoff, Sheila. 2016. The Ethics of Invention: Technology and the Human Future. First edition. Norton Global Ethics Series. New York: WWNorton & Company.