I live in Techland, and have lived here most of my life. I am a modest citizen in the place, but to other Americans I’m doing quite well.
I have watched technology roll over the industrial economy, and now the suburban economy, like an invasive species. Technology destroys long-standing power relationships. It eliminates friction in the economy, and that’s a good thing, but in doing that it eliminates the jobs, and power, of the people who created the friction.
Those people who create that friction are the nobility in Trumpistan. A lot of analysts talk about Trumpistanis as being blue collar, poorly educated, and ignorant. Some are. But what has made Trump a political force is his support from golfers. Men (and they’re mostly men) who make deals on golf courses because they can, are at the heart of Trump’s support in the business community.
Techland doesn’t play golf. Techland rides bikes.
I have good memories of a picture from a decade ago, with the late Robin Williams, John Doerr, and other tech leaders posing after a tough ride through the northern California hills. Bicycling is a battle that happens inside yourself. We talk about bicyclists “turning themselves inside out” on a bike, and I’ve done it myself many times. At the end of the ride you are a different person than you were before, and so are the other people who were on the ride with you.
Bicycling, as an individual sport, is a way of forgetting, and re-setting. It’s a ctrl-alt-delete sport. Bicycling, in a group, turns individuals into a team. You go back to pace a rider who is having trouble, or you race for the front but don’t go too far ahead, lest the peloton swallow you up. It’s a good analogy for how code is written. It’s about a team pounding out a pace.
Moore’s Law has two sides to it.
One side is the freedom that technology gives to masses of individuals implied by Moore’s Law itself, which I have described as “better and better gets faster and faster.”
The other side, what I have described as “Moore’s Second Law,” demands concentration of power. With each generation of chips the cost of manufacturing the initial chip rises. We make it up on volume. Chip-making keeps consolidating as a result. There are only four remaining fabricators of mainline microprocessors – Samsung, Intel, Global Foundries (backed by Arabs) and Taiwan Semiconductor (backed by China). That number could turn into one through alliances in the next decade.
The same sort of thing has been happening in other areas of technology. It’s a concentration of power, described in the map I linked to last week comparing the economic power of counties against the geography of the country. What that picture does not show, unless you look closely, is how that even the concentrations have concentrations.
Yes, Atlanta dominates Georgia, and Denver dominates Colorado. But there are even deeper concentrations of economic power, denoted on the map by a brown, rust-like color. Boston, Manhattan Island, Arlington County in Virginia, San Francisco. There is a lighter, orange-like red, in the New York suburbs, in Chicago, in Orange County and some other Washington suburbs. Smaller centers like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Tampa, Minneapolis, Denver and Seattle are lighter still in color, trending toward yellow, but most of the map is a very dark, and very empty blue.
Cities are a lighter shade of blue than the countryside – Phoenix is light blue, and so is most of Florida. Las Vegas is blue, and so are Birmingham and Boise. But most of the countryside is a very dark, almost eerie blue. The main economic activity in these places is tourism. This is where Techland goes when they want to get away from it all. The main economic activity in these places is serving the strange, increasingly high-end needs and desires of Techland’s winners.
If you look closely, this is also a political map. Techland is Democratic, Trumpistan is Republican. The desperation that Trump represents is the blue on this map being completely subsumed under tech. You don’t need the local bank, you can go to Lending Club. You don’t need the local insurance agent. You can go to Progressive.com. You can find the real price of real estate on Zillow, avoid the local car dealer with Carmax.
The power of the gatekeepers, the golf buddies who once at least had power within their ordered suburbs, exurbs, and rural communities, has been broken by clouds and apps during this decade. The Republican Party, which represents what are now mainly economic losers, is looking for a winner, even a pretend winner, and Donald Trump fits the bill.
Trump is a profoundly ignorant man, whose only real success has come as a cartoon-like character on reality TV, which in turn dominates media only because it’s cheap to make. Trump says whatever comes into his head. He seems to think of nothing in depth, he merely reacts.
In the powerless world of Trumpistan, this kind of profoundly inchoate anger is very appealing, and we miss the point if we only call it ignorance, or racism, if we call it bigotry or “the stupid.” At the heart of it is fear. Not just social fear. Not just political fear. Mainly it’s an economic fear, a fear shared by people with white and blue collars alike, a fear of being absorbed into a technology world that looks like a black hole to them.
If capitalism is allowed to play itself out, it is. Just as political power and responsibility were pretty new to the oilmen of the 1970s, the manufacturers of the 1930s, the utility consolidators of the 1900s and the Wall Street speculators of the 1870s, it is new to Techland today. People like Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk see themselves as really good guys, who are inventing the future and giving America unquestioned economic leadership, which is what Americans say they want when they demand “winning.”
But winning means more. Winning doesn’t just mean some Americans win. It means we all win. And right now most of us are losing, because most of us don’t live in Techland.
A lot of this uncertainty can be seen in the issue of Apple and encryption. It’s a classic battle of East Coast Law vs. West Coast Law. As Tim Cook notes, you can’t regulate math. If you demand this type of encryption be broken, then new encryption will arise which you can’t break. It’s an arms race, and demands that Apple break into its own products only accelerates that arms race.
You can explain this rationally all you want. Or you can just pound your fist and demand that encryption be broken, because terrorism. Or because, child porn. Or because, drugs. Or because, crime. Or because, you’re scared.
Trumpistanis are scared of this new Techland, this 21st century world where magic is always just around the corner, ready to throw us out of jobs, careers, and power relationships they’ve worked a lifetime to create.
And so the issues of 2016 are joined.