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08 June 2013

What undermines the tech revolution?

I finally had a chance to read George Packer's article for the New Yorker, entitled Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics. It's actually less politically focused than I expected. I think he gets most of it right. It's a good critique of the most well-known and self-congratulatory parts of Silicon Valley, the same people who have private transit fleets, "won" against PIPA and SOPA, elected Ed Lee, disrupted industry, etc.

Packer's thesis is this:

One question for technology boosters—maybe the crucial one—is why, during the decades of the personal computer and the Internet, the American economy has grown so slowly, average wages have stagnated, the middle class has been hollowed out, and inequality has surged. Why has a revolution that is supposed to be as historically important as the industrial revolution coincided with a period of broader economic decline?

While visiting the Valley, he asked everyone this question. The answers Packer got were embarrassing.

It was Steve Jobs, after all, who told President Obama that Apple's manufacturing jobs would not be coming back from China. Apple's position on issues like inequality was expressed last year by an executive who said, "We don't have an obligation to solve America's problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible."

My answer for Packer would be: The economy has declined because of outsourcing and globalization. The economy has grown because of technology. If we could return manufacturing jobs to the US wages would increase broadly, inequality would be reduced, democracy would improve.

I'm not surprised that the free-market-minded folks that he interviewed, in the upper echelons of the Valley, dismiss this idea or are blind to it. It's fundamentally incompatible with their worldview. But maybe they're coming around. The Apple executive quote is from January 2012. By December 2012, Apple had decided to move some manufacturing back to the US for political reasons.

There's still hope. I think the majority of us in the Valley don't buy into the bullshit.
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