Back into the comfy Silicon Valley bubble stat!
President-elect Donald Trump.
That reality landed Wednesday morning to the kind of welcome the tech community usually reserves for an unexpected cyber attack. In Lisbon, Portugal, where thousands of Silicon Valley and New York techies have convened for the annual Web Summit conference, many people woke up to texts and Slack notifications alerting them to the shocking news most Americans had swallowed before heading to bed Tuesday night.
Not everyone took that news well. On the conference’s main stage, 500 Startups founder Dave McClure went berserk over the results with an expletive-laden rant about Trump. “If you’re not fucking pissed right now, what is wrong with you?” he screamed at the audience. “I’m pissed off, I’m sad, I’m ashamed, I’m angry.”
— Adrian Weckler (@adrianweckler) November 9, 2016
Others, like Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover, were more subdued in their surprise. “I knew it could happen, of course. I mean it was obvious, there were millions of people that supported him,” he said from the conference’s speaker’s lounge. “I was just very surprised to see it actually play out considering the polls and projections were so far in Clinton’s court.”
Still others, like Greylock partner Josh Elman didn’t even know where to begin. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t drink and I still feel a little hungover.”
That hangover won’t be going away any time soon. If you watched the election unfold on tech Twitter Tuesday night, it was clear that very few outside of the still insufferable Peter Thiel saw this coming. (I certainly didn’t.)
But that also begs the question: How? How is it possible that an industry that prides itself on shaping and molding the future, that builds hundred-billion dollar businesses on algorithms and data and artificial intelligence, could be so wrong about something as important as the presidential election?
“We’re biased by the container we have created around ourselves,” said Sprinklr CEO Ragy Thomas, who officially learned of Trump’s victory when the airline pilot for his flight from New York City announced the news over the PA system. “We’ve created this world that obviously shielded us from really being intimate with what’s going on elsewhere. This exposes reality. This is eye-opening data for everyone.”
Data? Okay, data. But Thomas’s comments were echoed by almost everyone Recode spoke with on Wednesday. Many entrepreneurs in San Francisco are trying to solve “problems” that impact very few, things like on demand valet parking, or social networks to help you find someone to walk your dog. The realization shared by those we spoke with was that the tech industry, specifically Silicon Valley and New York, is simply out of touch with many in America.
“The biggest people in technology, media and finance were all trying to figure out how to stop Donald trump and he still won,” said Kik CEO Ted Livingston, who is Canadian and thus didn’t have a vote. “[Those people] have been saying to the public, ‘No, no! You don’t get it!’ Yesterday the public turned around and said to them, ‘No, you don’t get it.’ They underestimated how much a big chunk of the country is hurting.”
Liz Bacelar was the New York-based founder of a retail and tech events startup Decoded Fashion, which she sold Stylus Media back in 2014. Bacelar, a self proclaimed political junkie and former political reporter, was so invested in the election that she helped orchestrate an election night viewing party in Lisbon with the U.S. Ambassador to Portugal. One of the key reason Trump caught the tech world by surprise, she said, is that the tech elite never took his supporters seriously.
“I know we talk about singularity and good versus evil and machines — this is the revolution that we didn’t foresee,” Bacelar said. “We were so immersed in the machines fighting the humans, but what about all the humans fighting the humans building the machines? It’s very meta, but it’s very real.”
Accepting that disconnect isn’t easy. Foundation Capital partner Joanne Chen said she felt guilty for not making a more serious effort to keep Trump for capturing the White House.
“My family is in North Carolina, and I was thinking I should have done more,” Chen said about what went through her mind when she learned Trump had won. “I should have volunteered. I have a network there, I did not try to tap into that to try and effect change. So, I felt guilty.”
She added: “As much as we complained about [Trump], my perception is that very few of us in Silicon Valley have actually done anything about it.”
And perhaps there’s a reason for that — despite widespread sadness and anger from those we spoke to on Wednesday, virtually no one we spoke with believes a Trump presidency will dramatically impact the tech community.
They are wrong, because on a spate of issues from encryption to immigration to some of its most prominent players, Trump is openly hostile to tech.
“The largest problem we face is that San Francisco and New York, which hold the largest power of tech in the country, they are bubble communities,” Bacelar said. “So after I heal from this shitshow, I’m going to go back to my blue town surrounded by people who had Hillary votes. I have the country that I wanted, I have it in New York. And then I can just forget about all of this.”
Choosing not to forget may be the only way Trump’s presidency makes a serious dent.
“I hope when we look back, this is the moment where we really got serious about having the conversation,” said Livingston. “That as technology and software eats more and more of the world, as power and economics consolidate to a fewer and fewer number of people, that [this] was the moment we said we need to have a conversation about this. We need to figure this out for the rest of society.”