Opinion by Preston Gralla

How the tech industry helped elect Donald Trump

To some extent, blue-collar workers gave back to Silicon Valley a bit of the disruption it has long given them

donald trump president elect
Carlo Allegri, Reuters

Opinion by Preston Gralla

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Nearly the entire tech industry, with the exception of PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, publicly lined up against Donald Trump and for Hillary Clinton in the recent presidential election. But words are one thing and actions another. And actions taken by the tech industry in the last decades helped seal Trump’s surprise victory.

Trump won, in large part, thanks to support by blue-collar voters without college degrees in the Rust Belt, particularly in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. The region has been hollowed out by a changing economy in which well-paying manufacturing jobs have been disappearing, replaced either by low-paying service jobs or by nothing at all.

Once upon a time, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, you could get a secure, high-paying job in the automotive and other manufacturing industries and live a solid middle-class life, with a safe retirement. No longer. People in the middle of the country watched while the economy turned on its head, their jobs vanished — and the tech industry flourished. The jobs disappeared, in large part, thanks to technology. The Australian Financial Review notes that U.S. manufacturing output has been growing, not shrinking, and hit record highs in 2016, even as 5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2000 — 30% of the manufacturing workforce.

The reason for the job losses isn’t the availability of cheap, overseas labor or foreign trade agreements, according to Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research. The Associated Press reports that the university found that 88% of the factory jobs “were taken by robots and other homegrown factors that reduce factories’ need for human labor.” General Motors, the Associated Press notes, “Now employs barely a third of the 600,000 workers it had in the 1970s. Yet it churns out more cars and trucks than ever.”

Thanks to robots, things will only get better for industry and worse for workers. The Boston Consulting Group says that by 2025, for example, a robot welder will have operating costs of under $2 per hour, far cheaper than the $25 an hour a human welder typically gets in the U.S. So there will be more jobs for well-educated people who design robots and their software and for the IT folks who will maintain them. More work for Silicon Valley; less work for Ohio.

The tech industry mantra is to “disrupt” existing industries, without caring about the effects that has on millions of people’s lives. So the industry throws about the term with swagger, while workers in blue-collar industries face the consequences. How would you feel if you were a cab driver and listened to Uber and others crow about how they were destroying the industry that fed your family for decades? Or if you were an autoworker, and tech workers prospered by designing robots that replaced your job?

President Obama touched on this issue when he was interviewed in Wired about artificial intelligence. Midway through the interview, he said, “One thing that we haven’t talked about too much, and I just want to go back to, is we really have to think through the economic implications. Because most people aren’t spending a lot of time right now worrying about singularity — they are worrying about ‘Well, is my job going to be replaced by a machine?’”

Obama’s observation gets at something else that drives blue-collar resentment: The sense that the culture has left them behind, and the elites that drive it look down on them and their lives. How many blue-collar workers do you think spend their time worrying about the singularity, an imagining of a theoretical time in which an artificial superintelligence overtakes human intelligence and, potentially, rules the world? How many have even heard of it? Yet the technical elite spend their time thinking about abstract issues like that, while not giving a moment’s thought to how their “disruptions” affect millions of people’s lives — or thinking how they can build technology that helps blue-collar lives, not destroys them.

Blue-collar workers in the Midwest and beyond know all about economic disruption, and for them it’s all been bad. So it’s no surprise that when it came time to vote, they voted for what they thought would be the ultimate political disruption to the economic status quo: Donald Trump. Who can blame them? Certainly not the tech industry, which has done everything it can to disrupt their lives, and very little to better them.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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