(This piece was originally published in Alchemy magazine, the annual newsletter of my department, Science and Technology Studies at UCL)
July, 2016: In an aircraft museum in Denver, against a backdrop of Cold War cast-offs, Donald Trump arrived, late, to a lukewarm reception. I had no trouble getting an easy view of the man who was, at that time, a mere curiosity. His audience seemed unthreatening, unlike at some of the rallies I had seen on TV. A few people were clearly angry and hungry for change, but their exchanges with the Clinton supporters protesting outside were civilised.
During Trump’s speech, I heard only incoherent nonsense: crime; war; his TV ratings; China; a poem about a snake; The Wall. At one point, he asked the crowd, “Do you guys want to do the ‘Lock Her Up’ thing”. They did, but they lacked gusto. I went away thinking that we had little to fear from this circus. As would become clear when he won the election four months later, I wasn’t attuned to his dog whistles.
The Trump rally marked the start of my year in the US, based at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In the Presidential election, Colorado was supposed to be a swing state, blending Republican and Democrat sensibilities. Boulder, however, is one of the most reliably Democrat-leaning places in the country (one family from outside what Coloradans call the ‘Boulder Bubble’ told me that the town was ’20 square miles surrounded by reality’). It is a prosperous, liberal college town. And it was a fantastic standpoint from which to watch the great American experiment produce a true anomaly.
When Trump was elected, Boulder was, along with much of liberal America, in shock. More than 80% of the city voted for Clinton. As for many Americans, there was a sense among the population that they no longer knew their own country. For social scientists like me, it was a wake up call – another surprise to add to the Brexit vote earlier in 2016. For some academics, Trump’s success was a sure sign of ‘post-truth’ politics. I was more interested in whether it was an expression of those left behind by recent American progress.
My aim was not to study elections but to study technology. I wanted to observe American cultures of innovation. I was particularly interested in self-driving cars – a technology replete with world-changing promise, surrounded by questions about risk, ethics and regulation. Along with other digital technologies, the explosion of interest in self-driving cars seemed to mark a shift in American corporate power, away from the manufacturing heartlands of the mid-West towards Silicon Valley.
California, like Colorado, is a place built on promise. During the Gold Rush, people were propelled West by stories of untold riches and unfettered freedoms. Some struck lucky, but the people making the real money were those, like Levi Strauss and Leland Stanford (who went on to found Stanford university), who were selling clothes, equipment and transport to the wide-eyed miners. Since then, for rich Americans, the Wild West has become the Mild West – its hardships replaced by comforts, many of which are technological. If tech is the new gold rush, its promise is not just that some will get rich quick; supposedly we will all benefit.
America is a highly unequal place, at times cruelly so. Technology, left to its own devices, risks exacerbating such inequalities, because those with power and money are the people most able to take advantage of technology’s benefits. An August 2016 editorial in Nature by science policy scholar Dan Sarewitz drew a direct connection between the rise of Trump and the unevenness of technological progress – a nationwide expression of trouble that had already surfaced around San Francisco as tech companies priced out their poorer neighbours. Sarewitz took issue with the laissez-faire attitude of US policymakers towards science and innovation; the assumption is that trickle-down innovation will float everyone’s boats.
Twenty years ago, British sociologists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron identified what they called ‘Californian ideology’. This cocktail of hippy countercultural libertarianism seems to have only got stronger. When hippies were making computers in garages, this is inconsequential. When they became the new masters of the universe, their ideology started to matter. As with conventional conservatism, the risk with those who think government is bad is that they produce bad governments.
Much of Silicon Valley’s innovation has been in software. As Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google have become the world’s largest companies, we are starting to see that their influence has effects in the material world too. While in the US, I developed a particular interest in Tesla, another Silicon Valley company that is now leading the development of towards self-driving cars.
In a shopping mall in Denver, I turned up at a Tesla showroom hoping for a test-drive in a Tesla Model S. I particularly wanted to try out a feature – Autopilot – that promised to relieve drivers of some of their tedious responsibilities. A few months earlier, a man had died in a crash while his Tesla was in Autopilot. Evidence from videos posted to YouTube suggested that plenty of other drivers were similarly involved in a dangerous, chaotic experiment with autonomous driving. After the crash, Tesla were careful to tell people that they should keep their hands on the wheel, but my Tesla co-pilot told me that I would be fine going hands-free. An initially terrifying experience – allowing a machine to control a car travelling at 70mph – quickly became normal.
The American experiment with self-driving cars seemed to be prioritising freedom over public safety. (One could argue that the American experiment with the automobile in the 20th Century did the same. The US death rate per mile is more than three times worse than in the UK or Sweden). My question was whether there could be a more responsible alternative. Outside the big cities, US transport tends to privilege the privately-owned car. In Europe, where we think about transport differently, there are surely alternative versions of a self-driving future. Reimagining a self-driving future means being sceptical of Silicon Valley promises of technological enchantment. We often seem unwilling to do this. As leading sociologist of science Bruno Latour concluded in a Los Angeles Review of Books piece published in the wake of Trump’s victory, “what a pleasure it is to be misled”.