Will Populism Kill Your Jetpack?
What Trump and Brexit mean for self-driving cars, renewable energy, and future breakthroughs
What a difference a month makes. Like Brexit before it, the shock victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election has not only upended the political order in the short term, but it has also re-routed the types of technological futures that America might now get.
On the road up to Nov. 8, technology companies sold visions of an advanced economy powered by technological step-changes—self-driving cars, smart infrastructure and sustainable power. Those dreams may fade as the United States scrambles to satisfy a populism that cares far less for imagining shiny, high-tech futures and much more about reviving industrial pasts. At best, we see the technology sector entering an uncertain climate for breakthrough developments. At worst, its forthcoming innovations may be steered toward applications that more risk-averse—or less democratic.
Nations have long shaped the directions in which technology and innovation travel. State-sponsored science conducted during the Cold War became soaked in the ideological goals and technical requirements of its political masters. In the United States, Cold War politics became embedded into the development of radical computer technology which controlled air defense, strategic early warnings, and nuclear response. S
oviet computing also developed so as to favor military applications over civilian use. While technology policy can’t create a tabula rasa to sketch on, it does offer up nudges, incentives, and steerage points across the messy landscape of relationships between industry, government and universities that sit inside a nation-state.
The hard turn toward futures past in Western politics signaled by the U.K. referendum and the U.S. election is already forcing a reprioritization of those visions. Preachings from the pulpit of populism promise to summon up a world that existed from the end of World War II until the tech boom of the 1980s: Here come dumb roads, steel bridges and smoking factories, perhaps punctuated with a high-profile moonshot for national glory.
But there isn’t much beyond that.
At least from the outside, the Trump administration’s plan for technology is a blank page. As a recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation indicates, technology and innovation policy didn’t form a core part of the Trump campaign, bar sniping at the tech industry itself. The early days of transition planning have escalated concerns that the new government may see Silicon Valley only as a target for Boeing-style shaming, regulation, investigations and immigration cutbacks. (See, for instance, Trump’s threat to scrutinize Amazon for antitrust violations). Add to this a potentially anti-net neutrality FCC chairman, an anti-science EPA and an anti-climate NASA administration, and one can already see a sea change in the federal government’s relationships with tech and science taking shape.
Given the weird public pageant of politicians and business people streaming to Trump Tower, even the so-called Tech Summit this week—with the industry’s biggest names coming to see what will be asked of them under the new management—seemed less than reassuring. Photo ops aside, there are clear and strong feelings among many in the tech industry that the game has changed. Many in the Valley may not want to play.
Populism could most alter innovation when it comes to the executive and administrative state—which, in the United States, it just came to control. Stretching back to the Clinton years, there has been a carefully choreographed interplay between pro-Silicon Valley administrations, emerging tech behemoths and new billionaires.
That relationship has now been disrupted. The attention, budget and expertise directed at a light-touch management of innovation—creating conditions for the market itself to make “the new”—will now likely be tied up in re-paving the old.
The change of strategy now fall into the hands of an array of a coterie of hastily assembled and disparate staffers—strategists, advisers and chiefs of staff, a good few of whom are walking up the gangplank with little or no experience in government. The “tech and innovation” mantle is currently being placed on the shoulders of Peter Thiel, who may yet bring in equally inexperienced colleagues from his own companies and networks for support.
So far, there hasn’t been a rush from the Valley to D.C. The movement between these two centers of power that marked the Obama years looks like a trickle for the moment, further signalling a change in posture toward “the future.”
For example, SpaceX wants to launch thousands of new satellites for internet access, but it probably won’t have a stable Federal Communications Commission with which to discuss those plans for months. And even then, the agency may not be friendly to its aspirations.
What does this mean?
For one, the purpose of Silicon Valley-led universal superfutures like flying cars, casual private spaceflight and smart cities may change. While the Obama administration took a hands-off-but-hopeful approach to innovation (encryption notwithstanding), the Trump administration may be more dirigiste. It could directly influence investment, tactfully deploying mega-projects such as his signature wall. Innovation could become another word for handing deals to friendly contractors for explicit benefits. As federal funding and support for smarter infrastructure potentially shifts to private hands, priorities will surely change.
Green-tech futures may be another sector to watch. The Obama administration, and White Houses before it, tried to encourage there development with loans and tax credits. Wind and solar companies, such as Elon Musk’s SolarCity, have relied on these tax breaks. Trump seems to sees environmental policies as a bleeding-heart burden, dragging down economic growth. With oilmen in the running to direct energy policy, subsidies for solar and wind power may be kicked out in favor of drilling, fracking and natural gas. Meanwhile, power utilities—spooked by customers who take their rooftop solar panels off the grid—may continue to try to squash solar’s spread state by state.
Or there may yet be uneven resistance. Utility companies might wage war at the state or local level to prevent the spread of rooftop solar power, but they could also be hindered by policymaking or organizing within supportive states, counties, or neighborhoods .
Similarly, electric car manufacturing is already a near all-American dream. Elon Musk’s Teslas are manufactured nearly entirely in Nevada and California. A rival (and Chinese-backed) vehicle company, Faraday Futures, is also eyeballing production space up in Vallejo, California, on the site of the decommissioned Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
And Silicon Valley moonshot narratives, generally, have tended to focus on the chrome gloss of vehicles. But they they need hard, vast infrastructures to contain them. Self-driving cars require smart surfaces packed with beacons, cameras and open lines of sight between sensors and existing road signals. Without charging stations spaced evenly along the highway, electric cars are bricks. Getting flying cars off the ground will likely involve a battle royale with the Federal Aviation Administration. The $1 trillion for civic infrastructure spending Trump has proposed for the coming decade—mostly in the form of tax breaks—steadfastly refuses to meet the gaze of these challenges or these new systems.
But now focus will shift away from Silicon Valley and toward defense, cybersecurity and old-fashioned heavy industry. If early rhetoric—and staffing choices— are any indicator, the new administration will seek to reshape the directions these innovations take and to what end they are developed. Users might ask themselves: Is a new sensor system designed to manage traffic, or surveil it? Does this new drone looking for drought-stricken forests, or is it an eye in the sky for the Homeland Security Department?
Speaking at a rally in Florida in late October, Trump declaimed how he would free NASA from its “restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low-Earth orbit activities—big deal!” The proposed defunding of the agency’s climate science program has already angered the scientific community.
But in Trump’s narrative, once it’s unshackled from the collective global goals of climate science, NASA will be free to “Make America First Again” in space exploration.
Bob Walker, a senior Trump adviser, has staked the claim that new administration would have a “stretch goal” of exploring the entire solar system by the end of the century. These claims clumsily grab at the language of crowdfunding campaigns while mimicking the moonshot one-upmanship exemplified by Jeff Bezos promising commercial spaceflight by 2018, or Elon Musk proffering manned missions to Mars by 2022. Right now, this new space program seems less like innovation policy and more like spectacle and hustle, making nice with swing-state Florida while riding a red-baseball-hatted rocket to infinity and beyond.
Where does that leave us?
The outcome of this redirection may be a near-future for the West that essentially re-entrenches crony capitalism, where big construction projects replace big data as an engine for exacerbating inequality. Will Musk let SpaceX’s serve as a military enabler in low-Earth orbit in order to keep Tesla going? Do Amazon, Google and Apple join Thiel’s Palantir in providing explicit products for DHS? Or do the tech oligarchs gang together to provide their own counterinfrastructure? If so, whom do they serve?
Last month, an op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal dismissed the Obama administration’s green regulations as destructive. Its author compared the president’s allegedly willful decision to ignore fracking to opting out of the internet revolution. Expect the reverse of that in the years to come: Early signals suggest Trump’s economic strategy will seek to revive past glories and put relatively “dumb” technologies like fracking ahead of energy, or mobile-internet, innovations.
This could forestall or block the development of a domestic clean-energy or electric-vehicle economy, choosing a different future for the U.S. than has been sold for the past decade. The vision of that future made the country a laboratory and test-bed for the new—America as a broad-based, technologically advanced bellwether.
But that dream is now being guided into an unexpected parking space, keys left on the dash. What replaces it is a loud, red vintage muscle car, with an uncertain destination.
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