“This is where tech meets everything else,” Techonomy CEO Josh Kampel said, opening day two of the weeklong Techonomy Virtual: Reset + Restore. But the heart of Tuesday’s conference program was the intersection of politics and technology. The stellar lineup included a discussion about our current global mess between Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, and controversial commentator Andrew Keen; a deep dive into the destructive nature of internet giants with Harvard Kennedy School’s Dipayan Ghosh; a stirring conversation with Silicon Harlem CEO and co-founder Clayton Banks about the struggle for Black tech in New York; and finally, an interview with Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff by Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick. That one’s theme was understanding (or at least trying to understand) President Donald Trump. Here’s what I took away from the jam-packed afternoon.
Bremmer says there’s a real possibility that the U.S. will face a constitutional crisis if the 2020 election results are close. The political scientist and host of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer made it clear that if the presidential election does not result in a major landslide with a clear winner, “it will be contested in ways that are unprecedented.” He compared what might happen to the 1876 “election” of Rutherford B. Hayes, which was facilitated by a backroom deal negotiated by a committee of senators, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices. “The problem is that [the 2020 election] will be happening during a time of crisis—when we need the government to be governing.”
However, despite his grim outlook for the election, Bremmer believes the biggest loser of the coronavirus pandemic is Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Xi Jinping is having a horrible year; a worse year than President Trump,” Bremmer says. His evidence: the Trump administration’s tech cold war with China which is hurting its ability to innovate; the Chinese government’s cover-up of the coronavirus for a month which led to unprecedented economic disaster and political pushback at home; and Covid-affected companies bringing jobs back to American soil. “I don’t like China’s position coming out of this—not at all,” Bremmer concludes.
From one weighty topic to the next, Kirkpatrick jumps straight into the deep end with Ghosh, author of Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley is Destructive by Design. It’s about the broken business model, driven by uninhibited data collection, that Silicon Valley uses to addict us, profile us, curate our content and strong arm rivals. Ghosh—who worked at the White House under the Obama administration and then at Facebook, where he led U.S. efforts on privacy —brings a unique perspective to these issues.
“Seeing the way the broader industry uses data and tries to bring people on the platform in the name of profit was very alarming to me and most alarming to me was the election in 2016,” Ghosh explains. He says three elements of the business model of consumer internet companies need to be regulated—how they collect and maintain data about people, the opaque algorithms that determine how their systems work, and their ability to grow by suppressing competition. In the early 2000s, he says “people in the industry almost happened upon a business model that was tremendously lucrative.” But he doesn’t solely blame the entrepreneurs: ”It’s not any of these personalities, it’s that our regulatory system has not evolved, not caught up to the technological circumstances of our society today.”
With the 2020 election looming, Ghosh is more concerned than ever about Silicon Valley’s role in society. “We’re in as much danger at the hands of disinformation as we were in 2016…if not more.”
Clayton Banks, CEO of Silicon Harlem, co-founded the company in 2013 with a few goals: to bring the internet to Upper Manhattan and stop digital “redlining,” and in several ways to “bring a sense of exposure and access to the community.” Silicon Harlem started with a Meetup, hoping for 25 people. But “the very first Meetup, we had 500 people come…in Harlem, right on 116th Street. That’s when we realized, maybe we’re not the only geeks uptown.”
By combining technology and advocacy with affordable connectivity Silicon Harlem is working to enable a sustainable economic engine that is a model for disadvantaged communities across the United States. A heavy lift, no doubt. The three key things it does is focus on connectivity, teach digital literacy and provide infrastructure. But Banks has also built relationships with the political establishment, educational institutions, and the private sector, even as he brought digital neighborhood innovation to education, healthcare, and community outreach.
Even still, the statistics are staggering for how much more needs to be done. In New York City alone, 600,000 people live in public housing (more than the population of Atlanta), and about 40 percent of those homes don’t have an internet connection. “We want to bridge, if not close, that gap…We’re going to need the expertise to help and the financing from all of the people listening on this call right now…There’s somebody in public housing probably who can cure cancer right now, but they don’t have the access and exposure.”
The final session was about one man who definitely seems to have too much access and exposure—yes, I’m talking about President Donald Trump. In one of the most compelling panels of the day, Kirkpatrick and Wolff spoke at length about the challenges of understanding Trump. Wolff asked listeners to throw out their preconceived ways of understanding politicians. “None of the traditional measures we’d apply to politicians apply here,” Wolff says. “I very specifically asked him this question once…’OK, why are you doing this?’ And he said, ‘To be the most famous man in the world.’”
Not only must we eschew traditional means of thinking about politicians to understand Trump, according to Wolff, we also must stop looking for cause and effect in his actions. “With Donald Trump, nothing links to anything else, everything exists in the moment and reality changes from moment-to-moment…Only in the moment does he exist.”
Despite Bremmer’s earlier pessimism, Wolff does not see a second term in Trump’s future. And it’s not just because of his policies or his failed response to COVID-19, but rather his inability to run a campaign. “It’s an incredibly in-the-weeds process, data-driven, involves all of the detail-oriented work…all of the reasons that his presidency has been a failure,” explains Wolff. He added that Trump also can’t stand to be around people who he perceives are smarter than him.
“I’m expecting that Donald Trump will lose overwhelmingly,” Wolff says. “In a relatively short period of time, you’ll never find anyone who’ll admit to voting for him; he’ll pass out of our lives as quickly as he entered it.” Well, at least as an elected official. Wolff says that post-presidency, Trump will be the same man, and a life in the national spotlight (“saying weird things, having rallies, etc.”) is a very plausible scenario.
As the day wrapped up, Techonomy chairman Jim McCann (founder of 1-800-FLOWERS) joined Kirkpatrick and Kampel for a closing discussion. “That was a little sobering there,” McCann says, effectively summing up a thought-provoking day of panels.