Trump and tech - what Joe Six Pack really thinks about the tech industry

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 5, 2017
A new study on technology's role in the Age of Trump reveals that the general public is more interested in the old jobs of the legacy economy than on innovation. The only winner here is China.


In an earlier article, we looked at the contents of the recommendations from the Office of Science and Technology Policy to the incoming Trump administration. Will this parting memo shape Trump tech policies going forward? Some elements might; some almost certainly won’t.

One problem is that the document is big on praising the achievements of Obama and his tech strategies and advisors, something which may in itself already reduce the potential impact that its recommendations may have on the Trump policy team.

And don’t underestimate the opposition on the political Right to the activities of the OSTP and to Silicon Valley ‘liberals’ in general.

Prior to the December photo shoot in the Trump Tower, the Trump transition team was already coming under pressure from lobbyists to shut down the likes of OSTP, the US Digital Service and the 18f group.

In a letter to the Trump team, the right-wing National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) lobbyist group states bluntly:

We strongly encourage your Administration to disband wasteful Silicon Valley-led initiatives such as the General Services Administration’s 18F program and the White House US Digital Service, while either greatly reducing the size and influence of the Office of Science and Technology Policy or eliminating the office altogether.

National Legal and Policy Center also take serious issue with Silicon Valley’s contention that pursuing its recommendations would in any meaningful way help to fulfill your commitment to American infrastructure investment and job creation.

We believe this for two important reasons: 1) Silicon Valley’s contribution to US job creation continues to be disappointing; and 2) Silicon Valley’s love affair with robotics, automation and artificial intelligence, as well as its liberal use of H-1B visas to hire foreign workers. The second view reflects indifference to the American worker and total disregard for the health of the American economy.

The NLPC goes on to level accusations of corporate cronyism at the OSTP:

In reality, OSTP served as little more than a central access point for Silicon Valley lobbyists, and particularly Google, to press their pet policy issues at the highest levels of the federal government. In fact, no company better exemplified Silicon Valley’s toxic lobbying influence, ethical lapses, and corporate cronyism under the Obama Administration than Google…the evidence is abundantly clear: Silicon Valley lobbyists, led by Google, virtually took over OSTP from President Obama’s first days, turning the OSTP into the tech industry’s captive lobbying shop within the White House.

Beyond that December photo call in the Trump Tower, the reality is that there’s still precious little understanding of what the new administration will do in terms of tech.

Personally I predict that initiatives such as Cloud First will come under immense pressure and that many of the more forward-looking initiatives coming out of the likes of 18f will fall by the wayside.

Meanwhile the big outsourcing firms and the mega-corp tech vendors may find a renewed happy hunting ground. If Obamacare is struck down, for example, the opportunity for fresh business to deliver systems to support whatever alternative emerges will be great.

And in the name of national security, head-on conflict with the social media and cloud giants will be inevitable.

General thinking

What will the US public make of all this? I suspect that those who voted for Trump will find most of it entirely reasonable. This week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, The Age of Trump Technology Policy Study from Burson-Marsteller was released. It makes for interesting reading in terms of the general public’s perceptions of tech.

Based on the views of 500 ‘Tech Elites’ - people who work in technology - and 1000 ‘General Population’ respondents, the study found that 67% of the general public regarded the tech sector as important to the US economy, compared to 75% who said healthcare and 73% who said energy.

Nearly three-quarters of the general public respondents see traditional manufacturing and service jobs as more important than investing in innovation, with 59% believing that the country has been on the wrong economic track.

Most believe that an innovation-based economy leaves Middle America behind and favors Wall Street. Only 46% of the general public believes that tech industry innovation can Make America Great Again.

Some 37% of the general public sees technology as a job destroyer for the average American. The sector is accused of bringing in foreign workers to the US by 70% of the general public and of shipping jobs overseas by 60%. (To be fair, the tech elites go along with these two conclusions!) Over half of the general public (56%) believe that US citizens should be given preference for tech jobs.

When it comes to tech priorities for the next four years, the general public doesn’t have the same agenda as tech leaders. For example, only 8% of the general public cares about the Internet of Things and only 5% sees 5G development as a priority. STEM education is only a priority for 13%.

What they do care about is security and hacking, particularly of government data (43%) and consumer data (38%). So if Trump’s administration does come into conflict with the social media and cloud giants, he’s going in with the public’s backing.

There’s no majority belief among either the tech elites or the general public that Trump will make the tech industry more innovative than before (42% and 39% respectively). Among the general public, the largest percentage believes that no change is the most likely option (40%), while more tech elites than Joe Six Packs fear stagnation (28% v 21%).

Some 59% of the tech elites say they are confident that the new administration will help the technology industry. Meanwhile 58% of the general public believe Trump to be a better person to understand the needs of the technology industry than Obama.

The anti-establishment ‘Big Government is Bad’ mentality that took Trump to power is also in evidence. Only 28% of the general public respondents think that the Federal Government behaves responsibly and in the best interests of the American public.

The tech industry actually does very well here, coming out at 76% as more trusted than government and financial institutions. But maybe that’s not difficult…

My take

Donald Trump won the US election in part by tapping into the fears and pain of a Middle America that felt it has been ignored and overlooked in favor of an elite - including the technology liberals on the West Coast and the money men on Wall Street on the East. The Burson-Marsteller survey findings appear to back that up.

That said, I find the lack of interest in innovation depressing in the extreme - and self-defeating. At a time when China is being lined up by Trump as a target for trade war jibes on Twitter, it’s that country that’s set to be the biggest beneficiary of any shift away from an innovation-centric focus. That’s acknowledged by the general public respondents, but still the more important focus is deemed to be growing an ‘old jobs’ economy.

If the survey results are an accurate reflection, a Trump administration that, theoretically, chose not to big up the tech sector and fuel innovation would appear to have a mandate from the general public. To my mind, that's very bad news for the innovation economy in the US, but it should cheer Beijing up no end.

It's also something that needs to sink in in Silicon Valley and the implications processed. There will be conflicts ahead between certain tech firms and the new administration. A lot of the public's on Trump's side, for now at least.

A grey colored placeholder image