Technology and the Rise of Trumpism

There has been a great deal of handwringing, debate and speculation about the underlying reasons for Trump’s election. The question has been often asked: what was missed by those of us for whom it was obvious that Trump was — and remains — uniquely unqualified for the office of the Presidency?

Most of the theorizing has focused on two cores issues: the economy and immigration. In regards to the economy, the reasoning has been that many voters in rural and manufacturing regions felt left behind by the post-recession recovery, coupled with the loss of manufacturing jobs. Much of the blame for this was directed at globalist trade treaties and technology. The conversation about immigration, which obviously overlaps with economic concerns, has primarily focused on the changing composition of society and resentment of the perceived opportunities given to those who are not white. Clearly, Trump’s racist policies and statements have resonated with segments of American society.

While both of these are contributing factors in Trump’s appeal, I believe there’s a significant element that’s been overlooked. But first, a digression:

I was struck by the news in the spring of 2017 that it was the 10th anniversary of the iPhone release. What surprised me was how much life has changed in such a short span of time.

The past 10–20 years have seen a massive growth in the sophistication of computers, with dramatic advances in gaming systems, internet speed, and social media. It’s hard to overstate the social changes that this has precipitated, as many adults, adolescents and children now spend much of their waking life focused on screens of one kind or another.

The impacts have been multi-faceted and massive. Social media has changed the nature of social connections and, for some, virtual connections have largely replaced real, actual relationships. Studies have found that the impact of social media on children and adolescents is a factor in increased incidence of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Easy access to pornography and gambling has been a source of obsessive behavior for many. And the convenience of online shopping is a factor in the closing of retail stores, which has had a devastating impact on communities, both economically but also in the loss of connection provided by locally owned and operated stores.

Almost every day, photos, videos, and/or memes go viral — and the speed at which this occurs is unlike anything that existed beforehand. Along with amusing cat videos, conspiracy theories spread like wildfire and this has been a contributor to the post-truth world we now live in, where it is not always easy to separate real from fake-news (and some make little effort to do so).

Technology has impacted daily experience for virtually everyone with nearly constant diversions and distractions. Our devices call to us with binging texts or emails, robo-calls come into our homes, and mailboxes (both physical and virtual) overflow with messages — few of which are from people we actually know. Psychologists have yet to determine the impact this has on our brains but it seems possible that, as a society, we are becoming more unfocused, inattentive, and overwhelmed with the amount of information to be processed.

How many times a day do you look at your computer or smartphone? What did you do with that attention and time before?

The basic sense of safety, comfort and stability has also been disrupted by these changes. Scams from phone calls or emails try to trick us, and these are becoming harder to detect as such. Lives can be ruined by hacking of computers that can steal savings or one’s identity and the hacking of the nation’s utility grid, defense systems, and state secrets are now as much a national security threat as nuclear war was in the past.

There have certainly been enormous benefits from the growth of technology but my point here is not to weigh the relative pluses and minuses but to highlight the degree to which daily life has changed.

Technology has become so embedded into our daily lives that we are not aware of the impact it’s having. I know how lost I feel when I am without my phone or when my computer crashes; despite the fact that these tools did not exist for most of my adult life.

It’s like the joke where one fish asks another, “How’s the water?” and the other fish replies, “What the hell is water?”

I think these changes contributed to Trump’s election in two ways:

Firstly, the technology revolution is generally seen as embraced and created by left-leaning and urban dwellers –the elites. After all, Silicon Valley is in California, the bastion of liberal politics. But many Americans are not comfortable with these changes and, perhaps correctly, feel that these have been foisted upon them by those elites. Voters in rural parts of America were late to get access to high-speed internet and some still do not have it — so they were literally left behind as the world was changing — and changing in ways that were seen as moving in the wrong direction.

And, secondly, the overall impact of the technology revolution has been to increase anxiety, stress, and isolation. And these feelings are especially strong in those who feel that the changes have been forced upon them and not of their own choosing. It’s likely that the source of the discomfort was not identified as being about technology (think fish/water) but became fertile ground for the anger and fear stoked so successfully by Fox News (and other voices from the alt-right) and then weaponized by Trump. The hatred of liberals, immigrants, and elites was a means of focusing blame on an identifiable target, a useful process when uncomfortable feelings are amorphous and their source not clear. This is called scapegoating.

This analysis provides a possible avenue for finding common ground across the partisan divide. While I have embraced many elements of the technological revolution (I am, of course, writing this on my MacBook and not a typewriter), for the reasons outlined above, and more, I am concerned about where this is taking us. Even that technology maven, Elon Musk, has been issuing warnings about the risks of AI (e.g., Boeing airplanes) and there are reports of Silicon Valley parents raising their children to be tech-free. Talk about irony!

So perhaps the conservative, keep-it-simple, philosophy has some value that has been overlooked. Perhaps we owe a large mea culpa for letting a genie out of the bottle, as the genie is now controlling our lives with unanticipated costs. And while there is no way to put the genie back, it is possible to acknowledge the problems and risks that are now with us. Technological “advancements” move forward with the greatest speed possible because there’s a huge financial advantage in doing so. But perhaps it will take a united effort from right and left, red and blue, to step back, slow down, and understand and minimize those risks.

The first step is to see the water.

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