Will the titans of tech allow themselves to be Trump’s pawns?

15 Dec 2016

Donald Trump on the election trail. Image: Joseph Stohm/Shutterstock

US president-elect Donald Trump summoned Silicon Valley’s elite for a show of force. Was it really about innovation and job creation or will decency and diversity pay a price?

US president-elect Donald Trump likes to put on a show. But did he really succeed in trying to show the so-called giants of Silicon Valley who is boss, and will the tech elite simply stand for it?

At the table yesterday (14 December 2016) sat the most powerful figures of Silicon Valley, and like supplicants to a ruler, they meekly introduced themselves by name, title and company to Donald Trump.

They included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Palantir CEO Alex Karp, Google chair Eric Schmidt, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and Alphabet CEO Larry Page.

Also at the table sat Trump’s children Eric, Donald J Trump Jr and Ivanka, as well as vice-president elect Mike Pence.

It’s hard to know whether it was just a show of force by the new president-elect to make clear who is in charge, or a genuine realisation that tech is one of the key bastions of the US economy, and must be taken seriously.

It is equally hard to fathom the thoughts of the shrewd, intelligent and capable leaders of companies like Apple, Facebook and Microsoft who got where they are in life on grit and talent, and why they even answered Trump’s call.

Noticeably absent from the meeting was Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The previous evening, Dorsey hosted a live video call between Twitter’s HQ in San Francisco and surveillance whistle-blower Edward Snowden somewhere in Russia.

This is the real backstory: Twitter was not invited because out of all of the tech companies, it has stood up to Trump’s insiders on a number of fronts. According to Politico, it refused to allow an emoji version of the hashtag #CrookedHillary during the presidential election campaign.

More critically, Twitter has said on the record that if asked, it would refuse to help the Trump administration to create a national Muslim registry. According to The Intercept, Facebook and Twitter are so far the only two out of eight tech firms that have said they would refuse to contribute to such a registry.

In the throne room of a new king

Like vassals to their new baron, the elite of Silicon Valley – who at any other time would rarely be in the same room – trooped meekly into a conference room on the 25th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan.

“This is a truly amazing group of people,” Trump said to flatter the assembled tech leaders.

Echoing the shtick he employed in his election campaign, he intoned: “There’s nobody like you in the world. In the world! There’s nobody like the people in this room.”

Trump said that anything that the government “can do to help this go along, we’re going to be there for you”.

The meeting was organised by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and it also included Trump supporter Peter Thiel, another of Silicon Valley’s elite; billionaire Wilbur Ross, Trump’s new commerce secretary appointee; and Goldman Sachs’s Gary Cohn, Trump’s incoming director of the National Economic Council.

“They’re going to do fair trade deals,” Trump said.“They’re going to make it easier for you to trade across borders, because there are a lot of restrictions, a lot of problems. If you have any ideas on that, that would be great.”

Boosting Thiel’s stature at the meeting, Trump continued: “I won’t tell you the hundreds of calls we’ve had asking to come here to this meeting,” Trump said. “And I will say Peter [Thiel] was saying, ‘No, that company’s too small’, and these are monster companies. But I want to start by thanking Peter, because he saw something very early, maybe before we saw it. And of course, he’s known for that … he’s ahead of the curve.”

Trump also alluded to the rallying of stocks since his election. “I’m very honoured by the bounce, everybody’s talking about the bounce, so everybody in this room has to like me at least a little bit,” Trump said. “We’re going to try to have that bounce continue.”

At the meeting, issues from jobs to innovation and national security were discussed.

But it is questionable how much common ground Trump has with the tech industry.

Real points of contention will be diversity, surveillance, encryption and immigration, which were not discussed.

Another question is how realistic does Trump consider the tech sector’s ability to help him deliver on his election promises to boost blue-collar America and restore its industrial fortunes?

Cook famously brushed with outgoing US president Barack Obama when it was suggested that Apple bring back jobs from China and elsewhere to the States. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” Cook replied tartly.

The curious thing is that Trump appeals to the profiteering mindset that allowed jobs to seep away from Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan in the 1980s to other countries in the first place, while at the same time, he tries to appease the ordinary US citizen who just wants the dignity of a job.

It will be a tough balancing act.

The next four years are going to be interesting for the US and the rest of the world.

But for the titans of tech at Trump Tower yesterday, navigating these new straits, and at the same time adhering to principles of decency and diversity in the new order of things, will not be easy.

Trump’s leadership selections (for example, that of climate-change denier Scott Pruitt to the head of EPA in the US), must surely grate with companies like Google or Apple that have lofty 100pc renewables goals.

And of course, the key issues are diversity and inclusion.

Microsoft and Google are respectively headed by emigrants from India, Nadella and Sundar Pichai, Catz is from Israel, Cook came out proudly as a gay man in 2014 and Sandberg is the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a book about the empowerment of women in the workplace.

Will Trump’s America lend itself to supporting diversity and inclusion?

I suspect that was the real question going through the minds of Catz, Nadella, Cook and Sandberg at the table on the 25th floor of Trump Tower.

And we will have to wait for the real answer.

Donald Trump on the election trail. Image: Joseph Stohm/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years