Tech’s New Political Charge

In an analysis of the “long, awkward relationship between Silicon Valley and American politics,” Ben Smith sees tech industry on the brink of a new era:

The relationship between tech and politics is “radically changing,” said Ace Smith, a San Francisco political consultant whose clients have included the biggest names in both Democratic politics and technology. The startups jangling transportation, housing, and an array of other consumer areas have “opened the tech world’s eyes to needing a broader perspective, and it’s opened every one else’s eyes – it’s really brought them much more into the world of politics and government and communications.” Indeed, 2014 feels like the end of one era and the beginning of another.

A generation ago in Silicon Valley, “you didn’t even think about government until you were a public company – and even then it was a culture of avoidance,” said Matt Mahan, who has worked for a decade at the intersection of politics and tech and now runs Brigade, a startup aimed at reforming U.S. politics. … Now Uber, in particular, is winning more fights than it’s losing in an endless series of tussles with local regulators. The same is true for Airbnb, whose spokesman, Nick Pappas, had previously been selling Obamacare from the West Wing press office. (Two other former top Democratic staffers also work there.) These companies carry the confidence (at times, arrogance) and sense of destiny that has driven Silicon Valley’s burst of innovation; they also are being shaped by urgent battles with regulators of the sort that Microsoft, for instance, didn’t quite see coming (on a far larger scale) until the Department of Justice came calling. They are showing a new willingness to compromise the purism that sometimes made tech companies leery of dirtying themselves up in Washington.

Relatedly, Daniel Ben-Ami praises urbanist Joel Kotkin’s recent book The New Class Conflict, which tracks the ascent of tech power elite, as “an innovative attempt to rethink the main contours of US society”:

[Kotkin] sees the American elite as split between two mutually antagonistic oligarchies. On one side is a new elite based largely on information technology, although with substantial support from Wall Street. On the other is the old plutocracy centered on sectors such as agribusiness, construction, energy and manufacturing. The new oligarchy differs from the old in important ways. Its technology wing is concentrated in and around San Francisco, with a secondary cluster in Seattle, and it employs far fewer people than traditional industries. Kotkin estimates that in 2013 the leading social media companies together directly employed fewer than 60,000 people in the US. By contrast, GM employed 200,000, Ford 164,000 and Exxon more than 100,000. The different nature of technology firms, with far less dependence on cheap energy, helps explain why they are predisposed to green thinking. They also tend to be both geographically and emotionally distant from middle America.