Trump and technology: One year in, how much has America’s science and tech scene changed?
Thirteen months ago, president-elect Donald Trump was meeting with three trillion dollars’ worth of tech royalty in Trump Tower. “This is a truly amazing group of people,” he began, before promising to be there for them to call at any time.
Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, and CEO, described the meeting as “very productive,” but in the intervening year, his and Trump’s relationship has returned to type. In fact, a number of tech giants who Trump attempted to woo early on have tacitly or openly criticised the president’s policies, including Tim Cook, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg.
The travel ban from predominantly Muslim countries and the response to the far-right rally in Charlottesville angered much of Silicon Valley, which owes a significant amount to immigration. Indeed, Sergey Brin, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai and Elon Musk aren’t united simply by tech success – not one of them was born in the United States. Both Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos’ fathers emigrated to the US before they were born, too.
But those differences – though important in terms of relationships and the mood music – are mainly philosophical. What about policy? In terms of tech and science, how much have things changed over the past 12 months? In some areas, the dial has barely moved, while in others we’re seeing the beginning of potentially seismic change. Here is a rundown of the bigger shakeups.
Technology: Net neutrality and privacy issues leave Silicon Valley uneasy
By far the biggest change the Trump administration has ushered in in technological terms – other than using Twitter as a policy platform – is overseeing the repeal of net neutrality. The move has angered many, meaning that ISPs can slow or block content from specific sources, hurting the ideals that the internet is built on: that all internet traffic is equal. The move has not gone down well, with Reddit users hosting a day of action, and even Mark Hamill getting into a Twitter fight with Ted Cruz over it.
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But while tech’s big dogs may be reasonably relaxed about changes to internet laws that they can afford to cope with, something more problematic is brewing under the surface. In November, Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, heard a case that could change the way the US thinks about data and privacy. At its core is the question of whether the fourth amendment right to privacy should extend to mobile phone data. The court will announce its decision before June 2018, but it brings back echoes of Trump’s stand-off with Apple over encryption – a battle he hasn’t seemed super keen to return to since being sworn in.
There’s also the chance that Trump’s occasional spikey rhetoric about taxation – chiefly aimed at Amazon, in tandem with attacks on the Bezos-owned Washington Post – will become policy at some point. But given Trump’s struggles with getting legislation through the house at the best of times, it’s hard to believe the lobbying machine of Amazon would let policies that hurt its tax-efficient business model through without a fight.
Science: Space, climate change, and an empty science department
Is no news good news? The science community was widely despondent when Trump won the 2016 election, given his love of conspiracy theories, prolific climate-change denial, and occasional anti-vax beliefs. Nine months into Trump’s new-look America, and the science office was completely devoid of staff – even now, the post of science advisor remains empty.
While that may have halted scientific progress as a whole, there was one thing that Trump just couldn’t avoid. Climate change – or rather the denial that it exists – is one of the few things that Trump and his party agree on. So after packing his cabinet and the Environmental Protection Agency with climate-change deniers, it was time for a big spectacle: pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
People have talked about a possible U-turn, but bluntly I think those people are deluded. But while this could have serious repercussions in the long run – obviously – the mechanisms for leaving the agreement mean that, in the short term, things will rumble along as normal. No withdrawal is possible until November 2020: the month that America will pick its next president.
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Elsewhere, Trump has been in favour of policies that benefit the oil and gas industries: none more controversial than signing the orders to go ahead with construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, to the dismay of environmentalists.
Still, there are other planets that aren’t quite so environmentally compromised.
Before the election, Trump vowed to refocus NASA missions on “space exploration”. To a rally in Florida he said: “Under a Trump Administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars.”
Right now, that exploration seems to be a return visit to the moon – a journey humans haven’t made since 1972. Why return to the moon when NASA was all geared up for a trip to Mars? Well, that’s part of the long-term plan. Trump says that the moon jaunt will “establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps, someday, to many worlds beyond”. With NASA budgets nowhere near where they were 45 years ago, the understanding is the private sector will do much of the heavy-lifting this time around.
Some see the moon mission as a distraction from the work on Mars, but others like Stephen Hawking see it as a vital stepping stone – it could possibly host a moon camp or a refueling station to help bring down the cost of getting to Mars.
All in, climate change aside, the science community may be quietly relieved that more changes haven’t passed. A reality TV-style White House bouncing from crisis to crisis seems to sees science and technology as a secondary concern – and ultimately, that may be as good a result as could be hoped for. With midterms coming in ten months potentially weakening Trump’s power, it’s possible even less will happen in the remaining three years, but with this administration, nothing should be taken for granted.
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