15 December 2016

Trump won’t fix America by talking to tech


Donald Trump met the leaders of some of America’s biggest tech companies on Wednesday and right from the outset, it was all about scale.

Around the big table in Trump’s big boardroom were gathered the big names of our technological past, present and future: Bezos, Musk, Nadella, Brin and Page. Even the lesser known names were proxy for the companies that underpin most of our lives.

Chuck Robbins represented Cisco, the company behind the hardware that runs the world’s computer networks. Ginni Rometty was there from IBM, who remain one of the industry’s lead innovators, building the supercomputers on which the world’s more complicated systems run.

Many companies had requested invites but they had been turned away. Here were the “monster companies” boasted Trump, no doubt hoping we’d assume that those present were the biggest.

Extravagances of scale have become part of the Trump zeitgeist. This world view has been shaped by his upbringing and, specifically, the father on whom he still quite obviously dotes.

Fred C. Trump had his own flair for scale; his son rose to fame off the back of his success in a post-war world where the economics of the nation were shaped by the big corporations. That was the world against which Trump was taught to measure himself.

Trump’s career would never be simply about erecting big buildings. It was about erecting a name that would become synonymous with the big, the bold, and the brash.

As President-Elect, Trump looks like he’s formulating his plans around this same sense of scale. He is already surrounding himself with big people and with big personalities that are only dwarfed by his own. Yet the world Trump inherits no longer views scale in the same way.

The meeting on New York’s 5th Avenue was interesting because it was the meeting of two quite different cultures. Trump, the businessman who would be America’s first chief executive, is nothing like the men and women gathered around his table. They are the leaders of the disruptive industries; more reclusive than exuberant, private rather than public.

Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Google, and the rest have impressive turnovers, but one wonders what a Trump administration could do to help make them even more successful. Where they lead, the nation follows. Trump would be wrong to think it’s the other way around.

The elephant in the room and a name missing from the list of tech giants was that of Foxconn. Foxconn is Taiwanese but, in a way, the most significant company in America’s tech industry.

It is the contract manufacturer which makes many of the products designed by those other companies. The key statistic alongside its revenue of $141 million dollars is the number of people it employs. That stood at 1.3 million people in 2015.

Contrast that with Apple, which employs about 66,000 employees directly in the USA and Microsoft, which employs about 115,000. That might sound a lot, but consider that Wal-Mart stores employ about 2.2 million people in the US alone. McDonalds and its franchises another 420,000. America’s biggest employer is, in fact, the federal government, employing 2.7 million people as of 2015.

On the Forbes list of America’s largest employers, Amazon comes in at 45, Microsoft at 55, and Apple way down at 80. Facebook, which had a seat at Trump’s top table, comes in at 242, employing a mere 9,199 people.

Above them in the list such relatively unknown companies as Silgan Holdings, American Family Insurance Group, and, slightly more famous, Nvidia, the maker of the graphic chips that power many computers, consoles, and tablets.

Wednesday’s meeting makes one wonder how Trump perceives the challenge of the next few years.

The event was partly organised by Peter Thiel, one of Facebook’s original investors, who has been variously described as a genius, an innovator, and more critically, by Andrew Keen, author of ‘The Internet is Not The Answer’, as “the supreme unwinder, a hard-hearted follower of Ayn Rand’s radical free market philosophy who unashamedly celebrates the texture of inequality now reshaping America”.

He is embodiment of the tech revolution in places like San Francisco, where the city has been radically altered by those living comfortable lives inside the silicon bubble, removing themselves from the world of those left stranded by the high-skill and low-opportunity economy.

San Francisco today might well be a model of the world tomorrow. This week, Amazon launched their first real world store, which promises a “frictionless shopping” experience.

What that means is no staff. Technology is deployed throughout the store to recognise which products you take from the shelves and which are then automatically debited from your credit card the moment your leave the store.

If this really is the future of shopping then Trump might like to consider what he’ll do for those 2.2 million employees of Walmart and the countless other millions working in retail across America.

Trump’s pick for Labour Secretary is Andy Puzder, the man behind the Carl’s Jr burger chain who has spoken in the past about replacing his workforce with robots. What seemed like naive futurism only a few years ago now seems like a looming reality.

Trump might also like to consider how he’ll find jobs for those 420,000 people employed by McDonalds, as well as the countless others in the fast food industry.

It gets worse for an American president hoping his legacy will be built on new jobs.

This week, Amazon also delivered their first delivery using drone technology. Uber, meanwhile, has had its self-driving cars taken from the roads in San Francisco after they were seen jumping red lights. It is surely only a temporary blip.

Elon Musk (in attendance at Trump Tower) is leading the charge to make travel in the future equally “frictionless” with his Tesla cars. Musk will surely achieve his dream of truly autonomous vehicles.

The trajectory of the technology would suggest that we’re not far from the entirely driverless experience. Volvo, Ford, GM, Nissan, and Volkswagen are all developing their own autonomous systems, as are Apple and Google (in partnership with Fiat).

So, add to our list of obsolescence all those drivers currently behind the wheel in delivery vans, taxis, and public transport. Airliners now largely land themselves and require very little input from the pilot.

It is only the resistance of the unions and a perception that the public would not trust driverless trains that stand in the way of London Underground becoming fully automatic. What Trump needs to learn is that the future will not big. It is small. Microprocessor small.

None of this is to say that Trump is wrong to speak to the industry, and it seems futile as well as self-defeating to deny the future. America might well benefit from a systemic retooling of its industries.

But there is nothing, so far, to indicate that Trump comprehends his challenge, which has less to do with hemorrhaging jobs to China as it has to an emerging tech culture within his own country and led by those people sitting around his table.

He needs to find an answer to the question: how will America maintain – or, if you’re Trump, renew – its greatness when it is about to face the most profoundly unsettling technological revolution of human history? If he does, he might actually achieve the greatness he’s laid claim to.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine