We spent most of last year watching the tech industry organise with increasing desperation against Donald Trump, sinking millions into campaigns, building supportive technology, and throwing every conceivable resource behind the election of Secretary Hillary Clinton. When they gambled and lost, I knew the outcome would be capitulation, but I didn’t expect it to be so fast, with titan after titan rolling over and talking about how much they looked forward to working with the Trump Administration, how everyone was just going to have a grand old time. I can’t imagine what it felt like to be an employee at a company that had gone to huge lengths to prevent the very thing that it was suddenly celebrating.
The tech industry wasn’t the only industry that did this, of course, nor the only entity — Democrats quickly rallied around with talk of peaceful transfers of power and collaborating and working together as though the last year of viciousness and horror hadn’t happened. As though they weren’t talking about collaborating with a monster, but a regular kind of person. Not a man who’s registered his virulent hatred of everyone who doesn’t look, act, think, and believe like he does, but, you know, a reasonable politician and someone who will respect the need to represent the electorate at a whole.
It was incredibly disappointing from the tech industry, though. This is an industry that likes to make much out of how it can change the world and build a better society, about how it can afford to take principled stands because it needs to represent egalitarian values. That’s never been true, and this was painfully on display when companies casually announced that the man they’d been vigorously opposing for months was their new bestie, the business partner of their dreams.
The products of the tech industry have a profound impact on the way we live our lives, and, quite probably, influenced the outcome of the election itself. They determine how we seek and verify information, how we communicate, how we organise, how we convey ideas. I’m utilising multiple creations of the tech industry right now as I write — I use WordPress, a free platform, I’m writing on a laptop running a multitude of software, this is hosted on a server that has to be managed and maintained. If I want to quickly look something up, I’ll probably open up a tab and search for it, not walk across the room and pull a book off the shelf. My entire career is built around the tech industry and its total control of the media and the way we function. The lives of many of the people I know are similarly rooted in the industry — it’s not just a job, but a way of life, without which the world would look radically different. We are, in many ways, reliant on it.
I’ve always thought about the security implications of the tech I use. Who designed it and how, who pays for it and how, what kinds of vulnerabilities it creates and what kind of information I should be sharing on it. It’s an everpresent part of whatever I do, from tracking down sources on a story to watching silly cat videos. Now, this comes with an added tinge of concern, and an added threat. The companies telling me to trust them with my data are willing to shift directions with the wind so easily that it makes me uneasy to entrust them with important information — why should I assume that it will be kept secure, or feel assured that I know who, exactly, might view it and under what circumstances?
The industry’s indication that it was willing to ‘work with’ Trump brought back, for me, a slew of cases over 2016 with tech companies standing up against the government in the interest of protecting privacy and integrity. Apple, for example, refusing to cooperate with cracking a phone that the government had trouble unlocking, and articulating why. As users, we count on that, that tech companies will defend us against attempted intrusions on our rights, because this is theoretically part of the contract between us, except that there is no contract. There was no contract when Verizon merrily handed over data to the government without telling people, and there will be no contract when our data is served up on a platter because someone asks nicely.
And this is disturbing, because the best way to defend against that is to withdraw — if I’m not on it, there’s nothing of mine to see — but that is also incredibly isolating. In a climate where we count on technology to enable organising, support, and information, telling people to just stop using it because it’s unsafe is not really a great option. It’s one that will have the effect of entrenching privilege, as people with less to lose feel uncomfortable trusting the industry, while those with more enjoy buffers of comfort and security. Who cares if the industry hands over their files, there’s more where that came from.
The tech industry needs to grow up and face its responsibilities. This isn’t about a few wild and woolly companies doing radical and daring things now. This is the establishment. It is a required component of our lives, for many of us, and the industry needs to sit down and establish clear ethical guidelines for integrity, and commit to adhering to them, to auditing, to being transparent with the public. Twitter can’t even fix its abuse problem. Facebook can’t figure out how to get rid of fake news. And they’re asking me to trust them with my life?
Image: Keyboard, Timothy Vollmer, Flickr