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First Click: Trump’s tech summit exposed the rotten heart of Silicon Valley

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December 20th, 2016

Trump tech summit
Trump’s tech summit on December 14th
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

It’s been almost a week since it happened, but Donald Trump’s meeting with Silicon Valley’s most influential leaders continues to gnaw at me.

I follow and write about technology as a matter of passion. It’s easy for an idealist like me to get sucked in by the effects of new technology and to start attributing some ethical agency on the part of its creators. New tech is inherently democratizing and equalizing; it destroys privilege by turning it into a mass-market commodity; and it generally builds toward a brighter, more optimistic future. With some gentle nudging from the tech industry’s leaders, I’ve fallen into the trap of believing that tech companies are our friends, and that they’re here to help us live better lives. But that meeting with Trump reminds me, and should remind us all, that tech companies are no different from the hated oil or pharmaceutical giants we so readily distrust: duty-bound to pursue profit above all else.

I shouldn’t feel betrayed, but I do. For years, Google has led the fight to protect net neutrality, ostensibly to secure a better internet for all of us. Earlier this year, Apple earned my appreciation when it fought doggedly against an FBI demand that wanted it to break user privacy by allowing access to an encrypted iPhone. In both cases, a big US corporation was acting to protect its users’ best interests, and neither company has been shy about accepting credit for its seemingly altruistic work. But, of course, there’s no altruism on Wall Street, and there’s no altruism among companies traded on the stock market. Google wants net neutrality because that protects its web services from being shut out by internet service providers, while Apple considers the privacy of its devices a strong selling point and therefore works hard to preserve it.

Where the so-called Trump tech summit enters into this story is by exposing the raw and unvarnished hypocrisy of every tech company in attendance. Donald Trump is not just another president, he doesn’t have a clean slate to work with, and anyone who collaborates with him as if he is or does is essentially erasing history. Trump is a self-documented misogynist, a bigot, a thinly veiled racist, and a climate science denier.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is well known for her work in promoting gender parity in the tech industry — and she reportedly brought the matter up during the meeting with Trump — but she sat only one seat away from Trump in a carefully orchestrated seating arrangement last Wednesday. She, Google co-founder Larry Page, and Amazon chief Jeff Bezos all sat at a Trump table, drinking Trump Natural Spring Water, listening intently and smiling politely at America’s new president-elect. On Trump’s other side, there was Apple CEO Tim Cook, who’s openly gay and supports LGBTQ causes whenever and however he can, and Tesla’s idiosyncratic chief Elon Musk. Both of those men have major, irreconcilable disagreements with Trump, yet both made nice with the future monster-in-chief.

Cook’s defense for partaking in the meeting, posted to Apple’s internal messaging board, is to say that "the way that you influence these issues is to be in the arena. We engage when we agree and we engage when we disagree." But that simple explanation nullifies the extraordinary nature of Trump and his incoming presidency; it treats him as human, regular, normal — just someone you might have disagreements with — instead of as an intemperate and unqualified imposter that poses one of the 10 biggest risks to the global economy, as determined by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

A number of the tech executives that attended the group meeting are also reported to have had one-on-one briefings with president-elect Trump. If they’d limited themselves to those words behind closed doors, I could see some validity to Cook’s reasoning — but they didn’t. They all took part in the contrived parade of paying fealty to Trump’s new power.

None peeped even a word of protest against him when asked about their discussions once they were over. Somehow, the greatest titans of the tech industry have shrunk to the size of mute mice in the shadow of the incoming president. Jeff Bezos, who’s been arguably Trump’s most active opponent in Silicon Valley during the election, exemplified the horrific hypocrisy by describing the meeting as "very productive." This coming after Trump publicly rebuked Bezos and threatened to "open up" US libel laws specifically to go after the Bezos-owned Washington Post.

The only person that meeting proved productive for was Trump. He sought a legitimizing photo opp with the leaders of some of the world’s most valuable and highly respected companies, and he got it. Cook looked like he’d swallowed a lemon, Bezos had a thousand-yard stare going on, but they were all there, photographed in their tacit, meek collaboration with an incoming president that most Americans view unfavorably.

And this, truly, is my problem and heartache today: the failure to set aside financial interests, even briefly, for the sake of speaking candidly and openly. Every tech company has a lot of monetary interests tied up in keeping the US president happy. They all want visa reforms to allow them to recruit from abroad more easily, they’re tempted by the prospect of sweetheart tax deals for the repatriation of billions of dollars of overseas profit, and in specific cases like Musk’s, they don’t want to be deprived of billions in government subsidies. It’s all very prosaic, but when the numbers grow large enough, it seems, the courage and personalities shrink.

For shame.