HONG: Technology: the hidden catalyst for today’s divisions?

How the relationship between technology and politics may influence the contemporary American moment.

Picture courtesy of Justine Hong

Picture courtesy of Justine Hong

Justine Hong

If the media is right, President Trump has exacerbated the divisions in our country and heightened disillusionment among Americans. Unfortunately, as college students, most of us don’t know what being an adult not in Trump’s America is like. Trump’s norms have infused our opinions about our country, at a moment when those opinions are only just being seriously formed. For me, because I don’t know what America was like before Trump, I don’t really know to what extent modern America has always been divided. While the media frequently suggests that American politics is on the verge of an existential crisis, I often don’t clearly understand what distinguishes this crisis from others in history. 

In this uncertain moment, I, like many Americans, turn to the presidential candidates for solutions. While my aim is not to endorse one candidate, Andrew Yang’s argument involving automation suggests that, in light of the current existential crisis, we should be less concerned with resolving today’s divisions at face value; we must also seriously consider the technological development that is a potential underlying cause of those divisions. 

Today’s divisions imply a question about what America really is, that is, the gap between American ideals and the reality of everyday life. As radical as Trump is, I can’t shake the feeling that he has given explicit voice to a hidden secret shared by a “silent majority” of Americans. Thus, rather than being a cause of modern divisions, Trump may be the result of them. But if this is true, then what does it say about America, which purports to be the “land of the free” and the country of immigrants? 

Perhaps because I, like other college students, have come of age with the Trump administration, this kind of disillusionment in American ideals has infused my perspective. Granted, disillusionment in American values is nothing new, as several historical examples illustrate. For instance, “The Great Gatsby,” published in the 1920s, portrays the disillusionment of a protagonist who fails to bridge the class divide and become the established rich. This quintessential American novel is relevant today; issues involving class divisions and the “top 1%” are still front and center. In addition, during the Cold War, Soviet propaganda abroad emphasized Jim Crow laws and the treatment of African Americans to argue that the United States was not as free or as democratic as it purported to be. These are only a few instances of American disillusionment and divisions. But despite these examples, I don’t doubt that America can provide incredible opportunities for self-growth. The problem is that the current moment seems rather bleak. 

Hence, we need to understand what distinguishes our crisis from other historical crises. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang provides a simple answer to this question: automation. Automation is the use of machines in manufacturing or other production processes.Trump got elected, Yang claims, not so much because of ideological divisions, but rather because of the loss of jobs due to automation, especially in the swing states. 

Thus, according to this claim, the way to lift America back up is to look past the cultural crises and the divisions, prominent as they are. Of course, I don’t mean to dismiss the gravity of divisive ideologies. However, I believe his idea is striking because while attitudes like racism and disillusionment are not new, the growth of automation is, and it thus distinguishes our present moment from other historical crises.

And if automation is indeed the hidden catalyst for today’s harmful ideologies, then addressing technological development and its implications should be the top priority. Perhaps we could use more dialogue between the tech executives and Capitol Hill. 

In short, technology may have heralded a new period of American disillusionment and divisions. If this idea is true, then perhaps, as students, we should spend less time preoccupied with such divisions, and more time considering the next industrial transformation. On campus, we could expand opportunities for political dialogue that includes people well-versed in technology. For instance, we could attend or host more events that combine politics with tech. 

A more critical consideration of technology’s role could help create the solution to resolving today’s economic divisions and thus re-aligning the U.S. with its values. This is the America I would like to help create and thrive in. We may have come of age in the Trump administration, but we can leave Trump behind as we write the next chapter of our country’s history.