A few years ago, when Barack Obama visited one Silicon Valley campus, an employee of the company told a colleague that he wasn’t going to take time from his work to go hear the President’s remarks, explaining, “I’m making more of a difference than anybody in government could possibly make.” In 2006, Google started its philanthropic arm, Google.org, but other tech giants did not follow its lead. At places like Facebook, it was felt that making the world a more open and connected place could do far more good than working on any charitable cause. Two of the key words in industry jargon are “impactful” and “scalable”—rapid growth and human progress are seen as virtually indistinguishable. One of the mottoes posted on the walls at Facebook is “Move fast and break things.” Government is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies.

Evgeny Morozov, one of my favorite writers on the topic of technology, described this type of thinking as technological “solutionism”: the idea that technology could solve the problems that politics, government, non-profits, and other entities were unable to solve. In a biting criticism in George Packer’s New Yorker article (excerpted above), he explains,

They [Silicon Valley] want to be ‘open,’ they want to be ‘disruptive,’ they want to ‘innovate.’ The open agenda is, in many ways, the opposite of equality and justice. They think anything that helps you to bypass institutions is, by default, empowering or liberating. You might not be able to pay for health care or your insurance, but if you have an app on your phone that alerts you to the fact that you need to exercise more, or you aren’t eating healthily enough, they think they are solving the problem.

Packer closes the article by noting that “Silicon Valley’s idea of itself as a force for irresistible progress is running up against the unlovely reality of current American politics.” He describes this realization as “growing up”, implying that Silicon Valley has matured by realizing that technology is ill-equipped to tackle many of the world’s important problems.

Well, maybe.

A recruiter on LinkedIn recently reached out to me with the pitch: “I’m recruiting for a well-funded tech startup that was just recently spun up with the focus of defeating Trump in 2020. We’d like to speak with you. Are you available today?” I was skeptical, but sufficiently intrigued to take his phone call. He launched into his spiel, talking about how this startup would arm Democrats with the technology to take down Trump, and how it was staffed with leadership from Silicon Valley’s most famous technology companies, like Facebook and Google. A CNBC article (which I read after the fact) mentioned that it hired the “co-chief information officer” at Goldman Sachs (Elie Wiesel’s son!), as well as a Facebook mid-level manager who built algorithms that “improved the quality of news on Facebook around the world” (lol). According to the article, “[Its] leadership ranks include longtime Facebook Chief Marketing Officer Gary Briggs and Jeff Glueck, former CEO of location-tracking firm Foursquare.”

It seems that Packer was somewhat mistaken. The lesson Silicon Valley seems to have learned is not one about technology’s limitations. It is instead that technology was being applied to the wrong arena: that instead of trying to use technology in a superficially apolitical manner, to drive concepts like “openness” and “innovation”, Silicon Valley should use technology in a directly political manner, to win elections and toss out the bad guys (particularly uncouth ones like Trump). After having successfully disrupted commerce, journalism, transportation, and social media, politics and government would be next.

The company, called Hawkfish, was, of course, a venture of Michael Bloomberg’s. I discovered this fact only after pressing the recruiter, who seemed somewhat sheepish to admit how it had come into being. At that point I told him, in no uncertain terms, that I despised Bloomberg and would never work for him. He mentioned that if the Bloomberg campaign floundered, the technology that Hawkfish had built would be repurposed for “electing Democrats”, which made me wonder why it didn’t just start with that mission. I suppose that, given a choice between helping to eradicate the cancer of the Republican party and running a vanity campaign that seems likely to flame out (if not in the primary, then in the general), the choice is obvious. We ended the call un-acrimoniously; I am undoubtedly not the only candidate who was unpersuaded by the bait and switch from “defeating Trump” to “building the Bloomberg campaign’s technology arm.”

I am not a complete technophobe. There are problems for which technology and data are well-suited, including ones in the political sphere. Techniques from statistics and social science can help identify which voters are persuadable, which doors should be knocked, where precious canvassing resources should be dedicated. Technology can build apps to help people organize, or software to help campaigns manage their digital spending. All major political campaigns have technology divisions for exactly this reason; I recently saw, for instance, that the Sanders campaign was hiring a full-stack engineer at a salary of $85-90k plus benefits, which is pretty good, all things considered.

What worries me deeply about ventures like Hawkfish, though, is that it has the overweening attitude that politics can be reduced to an application of technological skill. There are two possibilities. If the thesis is incorrect, then Hawkfish is an elaborate grift, along the same lines as “Acronym”, the “non-profit” that somehow raised 50 million dollars to build a shoddy app for the Iowa caucuses and an ersatz media company staffed with no real journalists, a company whose organizational structure can at best be described as “opaque”. In this version of events, the only people really harmed are the wealthy benefactors who are convinced to part with their millions to fund the salaries of people learning to code from an online tutorial. I subscribe to this theory in part. Technology is one, but only one, essential component of a modern political organization. It is no substitute for a political vision that taps into the hopes and fears of the populace, a committed base of partisans unwilling to be swayed by the daily hiccups in polling or media coverage, and a team of organizers who will brave miserable conditions to knock on doors and get out the vote.

But the darker possibility is that these other components don’t matter that much, or, perhaps, even if they do, they can be funded with the same money being used for Hawkfish. Bloomberg is buying up so many political organizers (at a rate of $6000/month) that “local and state campaigns are starving for help”. Furthermore, the evidence that having a strong political organization matters is dubious at best: witness, for instance, Elizabeth Warren, whose “operation has been the envy of all her rivals for months.” She finished third in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire. Amy Klobuchar, by contrast, “struggled to make a clear impression: she had no memorable policy proposals, few funds, scant staff”, but she peeled off Warren voters by attacking her rivals in the latest debate and presenting herself as the electable candidate who can beat Trump. Klobuchar has no real political vision (besides telling progressives that what they want is unattainable or unworkable); she has no rabid, diehard fan base, and she has no ground game. She might win the nomination, though.

This gets to the crux of the issue. If technology plus money do not equate to political success, it is only because ideas and ideology matter. Bloomberg’s riches can fund a massive, “shock and awe” TV campaign, can buy the best organizing talent from the Democratic base, can purchase endorsements from prominent politicians, and can unite the moneyed elite. But it cannot erase his record of misogyny, transphobia, racism, or elitist condescension. If there is nothing more to being a Democrat than calling yourself one, then Bloomberg’s brand of solutionist politics will win; if not in 2020, then ultimately. Because, at that point, winning power matters, and what you do with that power does not. Winning an election is an exercise in persuasion, like getting people to click on an ad. It should be unsurprising that Hawkfish is stocked with people from companies who made their billions in that world. I don’t doubt that the minds that convinced people to spend hours each day on a social network that is actively making them more miserable can also convince people to spend their votes on a candidate who will do the same.

I don’t want to end this essay on a bleak note. I believe there are enough people in the Democratic Party who care about making America a better place, or who at least care about not making it a worse one, to reject the overtures of a rich asshole who might as well be a Republican. But the speed at which Bloomberg is rising in the polls, and the glee with which centers of power (media, politicians, and businesspeople) are embracing him, reveals to me that much of Democratic party isn’t worth saving, and that, to save the rest, the influence of technology and money on our politics must be smashed. It also reveals how our barely rational obsession with electability, a byproduct of our paralyzing anxiety about losing in 2020, has left us in the pitiable situation of expecting the companies that ruined America and the mayor who ruined its greatest city, to now rescue it.


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