Digital revolution or photo opp? Trump meets tech at the American Technology Council

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 19, 2017
Summary:
The Trump American Technology Council has had its first photo opportunity gathering, with not entirely happy results for some...

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Technology went to Washington yesterday, with the first meeting of President Donald Trump’s American Technology Council - and the big questions were - who’s going, who’s not going and who gets front-and-center for the photo opportunity?

Actually the answer to the last of those was the one I was most looking forward to, remembering the stunned 'rabbit in the headlights' expression on the face of Apple CEO Tim Cook at the December tech gathering at the top of the Trump Tower in New York.

Poor old Cook. It wasn’t much better this time around, as he and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella flanked the beaming President, each wearing less-than-enthusiastic expressions.

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So, who showed and who didn’t? Well, alongside Cook and Nadella were Ajay Banga, CEO of MasterCard; Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon; Zachary Bookman, CEO of OpenGov; Safra Catz, Co-Chief Executive of Oracle; John Doerr, Chairman of Kleiner Perkins; Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware; Alex Karp, CEO of Palantir; Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel; Tom Leighton, CEO of Akamai; Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP; Steven Mollenkopf, CEO of Qualcomm; Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe; Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM; Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet; Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture; and Peter Thiel of the Founders Fund.

Notably absent was any senior representative from Facebook, due to scheduling conflicts on the part of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, according to the official party line. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, famously quit his participation in Trump committees last month after the US withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who attended an earlier White House meeting with Trump about developing US apprenticeships, did not attend yesterday’s event, although Salesforce President Keith Block did.

For his part, Trump’s prepared remarks set out the agenda for the day:

We’re embracing big change, bold thinking, and outsider perspectives to transform government and make it the way it should be, and at far less cost.   My administration has already taken very historic steps to modernize critical IT systems and make government more transparent.  As an example, you’re seeing what we’re doing with the airports, with all of the billions and billions of dollars that have been spent on planes flying all in the wrong directions -- we’re getting a change.  They’ve spent many billions of dollars, and we are getting that whole system fixed.  Money wasted over the last six or seven years -- billions.

Government needs to catch up with the technology revolution.  We’re going to change that with the help of great American businesses like the people assembled.  The businesses represented here today employ hundreds of thousands of American workers.  Your innovation has shaped the modern world and created millions of jobs.  America should be the global leader in government technology just as we are in every other aspect, and we are going to start our big edge again in technology -– such an important industry.  I view it from the standpoint of jobs and other things; you view it somewhat differently.  But we’re all in the same ballpark.  It’s so important.  So important.

And in a line-up of tech leaders that conspiciously omitted any Indian outsourcing firms, Trump alluded to his immigation reforms that have been resisted fiercely by the technology industry, taking a relatively conciliatory tone:

When it comes to what we’re here for today, American technology, we’re working very diligently with everybody, including Congress, on immigration so that you can get the people you want in your companies.  And it’s been a tremendous problem that you’ve had over the past long period of time.  So we’re working very hard on that and we’ll be able to solve that problem.

For their parts, the various CEOs made their own pitches. Cook called for making coding a mandatory part of the US education system, while Nadella opened up the conversation to the value of immigration. Meanwhile Bezos urged the government to use commercial technology to save money and develop artificial intelligence to improve government services.

The CEO photo opp was only part of a wider day of activities and workshops that brought together tech practitioners to debate and discuss various aspects of digital transformation of government.

My take

Pragmatism in action by the tech industry?

Commercial opportunism by the tech industry?

Rank hypocrisy by the tech industry?

I’ve seen all three descriptions of yesterday’s gathering across social media in the past 24 hours. It’s a hard one to judge. The tech industry - or much of it at any rate - stands in open opposition to the Trump administration on everything from immigration through climate change to gender and sexual equality rights.

So squaring the circle enough to be able to sit down and take part in a glorified photo opp takes some careful consideration. But if there’s a commitment to genuine digital transformation of government, can you afford not to be taking part in that debate? On the other hand, if it all turns out to be for show, then how much damage do you do by affiliating yourself and your brand to the cause?

No wonder Cook and Nadella looked uncomfortable, as picked up on mericilessly across Twitter.

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Among the attendees was Jennifer Pahlka, founder of the excellent Code For America and former US deputy Chief Technology Officer, where she helped found the US Digital Service. Pahlka articulated the dilemma that she faced in deciding to attend yesterday’s gathering in an excellent opinion article for the Washington Post:

I believe that, outside of the issues discussed at this meeting, much of the Trump administration’s agenda and behavior are deeply disturbing. Efforts such as banning people from predominantly Muslim nations from entering our country and pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change are completely inconsistent with my values and those of our movement, which was inspired by the idea that all Americans should be served equally with dignity.

But the topics the council will address matter. The council is tackling issues such as procurement reform, cloud computing and user-centered design — issues that are so far in the weeds and often so boring to most people that they rarely receive any attention, but that connect directly to the government’s ability to function in service of the American people. If this council succeeds, it could make a positive difference in the lives of tens of millions of citizens. But it can succeed only if the discussion of modernizing government puts the fundamental premise of our movement front and center: that government can work for the American people and by the American people — all the people. That’s why I’m going.

Pahlka added a rallying cry to the tech CEOs who did attend, for whatever motivation of their own:

I ask that you speak up for the people for whom government works least now. Join me in making the digital services agenda about serving all Americans equally with dignity.

I’ve seen Pahlka speak at events and I know with absoutely certainly that this is an impassioned and genuine plea. It’s also one that’s hard to argue with.

We must leave it to the individual consciences of the tech leaders who endorsed the Trump American Technology Council by their presence yesterday, to square their own circles and hope that a similar purity of intent is what drives their actions.

Image credit - YouTube/Twitter

Disclosure - At time of writing, Oracle, Salesforce and SAP are premier partners of diginomica.

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