“I honestly don’t understand how they make money.”
The grin on my face melted away in the scorching summer heat as I heard this. It was the summer after my freshman year, and I was back in my home state of Colorado, interning for a member of Congress. We had just left a meeting with three startups when the representative made this first comment.
Beyond Silicon Valley, new tech hubs have taken root since the 2008 financial crisis in places such as Seattle, Austin and Boston. Colorado has seen such communities arrive too, with cities like Denver and Boulder experiencing incredible economic and population booms due to the advent of startup companies. North of downtown Denver, these companies can be found in sleek co-working spaces like the one I was visiting as a part of National Startup Week. As the upcoming 2018 midterm elections brought technology policy to the forefront of political conversations, my office thought it apt to do some outreach to technology companies in the district.
During our hour-long meeting, the office saw a representative spread of the startup space: an aerospace company, a data services startup and a consulting strategy firm. The most common refrain from all was that American regulations of their spaces were arcane in comparison to other industrialized countries and that they hoped congressional leadership could make such processes smoother. As was routine, our office verbally committed to helping these constituents. We snapped a picture before heading out to the parking lot. I had expected my office to launch into a conversation of these companies’ futures and where their technologies were headed, but it became clear just how lagging their understanding — like the rest of Congress’ — was of technology.
Like other Stanford students with an interest in public service, I intended my time here to solidify my civic passion. But in a post-2016 world, the idealism and belief I had in our government changed by the time I entered my freshman year. The U.S. presidential election brought forth a range of charged issues: immigration, the effects of globalism and questions about the dramatic economic and cultural change American society had been undergoing. There was a new topic whose prominence only fully materialized after President Trump’s surprising victory: the role of big tech in our democracy and world. For most of their existence, companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon were regarded as heroes and darling creations of the American capitalist system. As politicians and media figures remarked, it was only in the United States that technology nerds of middle-class backgrounds could create incredible companies from their ability to see the world differently. Following the 2008 financial crisis, with the major banks of Wall Street stripped of the moral authority they held in the eyes of Main Street, big tech companies were branded as “clean” as they claimed their mission was not driven by making money but by building a better world. The unregulated freedom afforded to these companies would eventually give rise to unforeseen consequences, consequences that we as a society are just beginning to grapple with.
By 2016, the aforementioned tech companies (and others) were no longer scrawny startups but multi-billion dollar global corporations. Of the 10 largest companies by market capitalization in 2016, five were technology companies that had not been around just 40 years prior. Other than Microsoft and Apple, three of them (Amazon, Google, Facebook) had been founded within the last 20 years. While each possessed more money than they knew what to do with, these companies possessed another resource that was equally if not more valuable: personal data. From contact information to pictures to a person’s social preferences, these companies possessed powerful information on peoples’ lives and interests in remarkable detail. And while these technologies have brought about incredible benefits to our lives, the consequences of their misuse have become too great for the public, government officials and the media to ignore. The use of Facebook and Twitter by foreign governments to disperse propaganda and target dissidents, Google technology being tapped for surveillance technology, Amazon’s slow monopoly-possession of all kinds of products (with more and more being of shoddy quality).
These developments mark a new turning-point and reality for our world. And while a range of questions arise from these developments, the one I find most pertinent is the question of who will be in charge of dealing with these issues. Looking at the current makeup of our elected officials and big tech leaders, most seem inadequately prepared and even unwilling to see these issues from their counterpart’s perspective.
Take the challenge of understanding how big technology companies operate. In 2018, a slew of congressional hearings revealed either the ignorance or indifference many elected officials had toward these companies’ technologies and business practices. That year saw Google’s Sundar Pinchai, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerburg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and other leaders of the industry attempt to address the public’s most pressing concerns about their companies. Instead of witnessing their most important elected officials carefully parsing through and understanding these companies, many spectators cringed as congressional leaders fumbled through questions about how ads and location services worked, questioned these companies’ national allegiance and conducted other poorly-informed probes that ultimately did not resolve the public’s anxiousness. These hearings constituted just one of many instances where our nation’s elected officials, responsible for creating legislation that impacts these companies, have demonstrated a lack of understanding on both the importance of modern technology companies and technology as a whole to our world.
Should we be surprised? To be blunt, the technical literacy of our government and elected officials is lacking, especially when matched against rival countries such as China. Why this discrepancy exists is unclear. But there are some telltale signs. For one, our society does not value the importance of math, science and related knowledge like we used to. For almost two decades, our K-12 students’ math and science scores have been consistently below our industrialized peers. Compounding the problem, for the technical students who do exist, there is an unwritten cultural norm that their skills are not appropriate for public service and that the most acceptable background for those running for public office is a liberal arts education. Of the 535 former job titles represented in the 115th Congress, only eight members were engineers (or about 1.5% of Congress). And of the congressional leaders who have put forth legislation related to big technology companies, almost all have more experience being former lawyers or legislators than working in the industry they are trying to regulate. We should question if a legislator who has never written a line of code has the expertise to radically shape and even break-up these companies.
The people best suited to address these problems and concerns are the very engineers, entrepreneurs and Stanford students who plan to work for these companies in the first place. What I am suggesting is not that we toss out all elected officials in favor of a technocracy run by engineers and machines. Rather, I would encourage those with knowledge of these topics and who are disconcerted with our government’s current understanding of their related issues to run for office themselves. It has been disheartening to see that my engineering peers at Stanford do not believe they have the “right personality” to work in government and represent people. Many believe that there is an invisible barrier that exists between being an engineer and wanting to make a difference in people’s lives through civic institutions and that those roles should be ceded to students “better prepared” in an area like the social sciences. But if our current elected officials have demonstrated anything, it is that we need precisely those individuals who bring a problem-solving mindset and affinity for science to Washington.
Maybe you run after an incredible career in Silicon Valley or after you make that exit on your company. Or, with so many of our academic and career plans being shifted by the current global health crisis, you could consider making that career shift now. Regardless, an increasing fraction of our elected officials will and should be people with this set of skills and understanding. You may surprise yourself by the impact you have.
After the meeting, I realized that despite this troublesome reality, the nature of our government and society is that they are susceptible to change. Our leaders can evolve, and the next generation will be there to step in. If they want to.
Contact Kasha Akrami at kakrami ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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