Image: White House YouTube
President Obama just spent the vast majority of his final State of the Union talking about technology. Of course he did, because the future of America—the future of the world—hinges on what technology is doing to the economy and our jobs, what it’s done to our environment (and how it can maybe bail us out of the climate quagmire we’ve found ourselves in), what it’s doing to international relations, what it’s doing to us.
Some of his references to tech were overt and lengthy, others were blink-and-you’ll-miss-them lines that nonetheless underscore the idea that Obama, more than any president we’ve ever had, understands that the internet, automation, clean energy, and—yes—coding are not only the things that make the world go round today but will be the things that determine how tomorrow shakes out.
He gave lip service to net neutrality victories (“we’ve protected an open internet”), shouted out Silicon Valley, and announced a “moonshot program” to cure cancer that’s going to be spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden. But in many ways, this State of the Union hinged around what the hell we’re going to do with all the people out there whose livelihoods revolve around obsolete tech.
The rich and their robots are automating large numbers of Americans right out of their jobs
Obama spoke most substantially about climate and clean energy, suggesting that regardless of your feelings on a warming world, clean energy is the future, and oil needs to be rapidly phased out. These are notes he’s hit before, but Obama’s most important point is that the fossil fuel industry in America is huge. Most objections to climate change aren’t ideological, they’re rooted in self-preservation. Oil companies know their product is horrible for the environment, but it’s hard to care too much while you’re printing money. And so we’ve got to do something with the coal miners in West Virginia, the oil rig workers in Texas.
“We’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future—especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels,” he said. “I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.”
What this will look like in practice is anyone’s guess—perhaps incentives to reeducate coal miners to become wind farmers or somesuch. Obama has yet to propose any New Deal-type programs to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure, but the idea of retraining workers who rely on a fossil fuel-dominant economy to work in a field that actually has a future seems as good a solution as any. (What he means about 21st century transportation system, I don’t know—but government subsidized hyperloops and maglev trains would be nice.)
The fastest growing sector of the economy is the one where you are likely to be doing the automating rather than being the one automated
It’s not just the oil and gas workers. The rich and their robots are automating large numbers of Americans right out of their jobs, and how America and the world responds to this already occurring and increasingly unstoppable phenomena will likely shape the future of the world’s labor force, its resources, and ultimately its conflicts. The promise of automation is increased efficiency, the elimination of dangerous and monotonous jobs, and—from a classic utopian view—the rise of leisure time for all.
What we’re seeing instead, Obama noted, is an increasing disparity between the rich and the poor.
“Technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated,” he said. “As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.”
Political filter bubbles and digital siloing are a result of social media that have given rise to politicians who campaign on fear
What this means for the average American, well, nobody knows yet. Obama seems to think the path forward is teaching kids how to code and providing two years of free community college for free to “every responsible student” is a good start. Undoubtedly the plan here is to train those community college students in quasi-vocational science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, which are, at the moment, the fastest growing sector of the economy and are likely to be jobs where you’re doing the automating rather than being the one automated.
Toward the end of his speech, Obama talked tough on terrorism and made lofty statements about trying to make politics work again. These, too, are problems that have deep roots in technology. The United States isn’t entirely to blame for a group like the Islamic State, but America’s drones, surveillance programs, mission creep, and forever war haven’t done us any favors around the world. Meanwhile, Obama isn’t wrong when he says that ISIS has used the “internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country,” by dominating media hype cycles and recruiting through social media.
America’s ongoing and unwinnable war with terrorism has inspired bad legislation that vastly increases the powers of the National Security Agency and has restarted a long-tired debate about law-enforcement access to encrypted communications that will shape the future of the internet. Obama didn’t specifically mention encryption, but the undercurrent was there: Everpresent technological “change” that “promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away.”
Meanwhile, political filter bubbles and digital siloing that are a result of social media platforms have given rise to politicians who campaign on fear, xenophobia, and, well, outright lies. It’s resulted in a political climate where two sides yell at each other and no one listens, a theme Obama hit on, saying, "it's one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."
The throughlines of all of this are connected, of course. Income inequality, terrorism, climate change and its deniers, clean energy, the internet, the polarization of politics do not exist in their very own separate and neat bubbles. Technology got us here. For better or worse, technology has to get us out of the messes we’ve made, or else we’ll all go down with it.