Last Wednesday, Donald Trump took a break from tweeting to meet with top executives from Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and others. Of course, Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Jr joined him at the table. Vampire-curious venture capitalist Peter Thiel organized the summit to help build a bridge between the Trump administration and Silicon Valley, which almost unanimously supported Hillary Clinton.
This meeting was intended as an ice-breaker, the first step toward what both sides are surely hoping will be a mutually beneficial partnership. At the summit, they could feel each other out, share their interests, and explore compatibility. After all, every relationship is a negotiation: How can tax codes be reformed? What trade deals are desired? Who will conduct mass surveillance?
Many of the CEOs who attended had skirmishes with Trump during the campaign. Elon Musk (Tesla) said Trump doesn’t “have the sort of character that reflects well on the United States,” while Travis Kalanick (Uber) threatened “to move to China if [Trump] wins.” But proximity to power has a funny way of changing a person’s mind. Hours before the meeting, they both agreed to advise Trump as part of his Strategic and Policy Forum, a group that also includes Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan) and Stephen Schwarzman (Blackstone).
Before the meeting, the tech press largely focused on shaming these executives for entering the Tower of Evil. Pictures of the summit seemed to evoke sympathy for these idealistic innovators, as if Trump had somehow lured them into a trap. The poor souls could only count the seconds until the boardroom doors unlocked, freeing them from the rantings of a madman.
Of course, the reality is much more banal and consequential: billionaires met to express their interests and discuss policy. The meeting was a genial gathering, not a battle between the flaxen-haired fascist and libertarian elite. As Wilbur Ross, billionaire investor and pick for commerce secretary, said afterward, “Both the tech guys and the administration got to know each other a lot better.” Indeed, the summit might meet as often as quarterly, according to the Trump transition team.
The executives didn’t have to set aside their politics to talk business — their politics align with the new administration. People like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos might present themselves as bold visionaries, but they have more in common with Trump than their hagiographers would ever admit. Silicon Valley is populated by cutthroat capitalists working to remake society in their own image — what could be more Trump?
Consider IBM, a company with a sordid history of helping governments oppress. During World War II, it played both sides, providing data management for Jewish concentration camps in Germany and Japanese internment camps in America. IBM still helps states track, categorize, and analyze data about entire populations. Earlier this year, it worked with European countries to create an analytic engine that could separate the refugees from the terrorists.
IBM CEO Ginni Rometty — who became Trump’s adviser after writing an open letter offering him support and ideas — adamantly believes that we should “embrace predictive analytics” and other data-driven technologies for two reasons: “First, we can,” and, second, “because we must.”
Rometty conflates the normative (we must) with the descriptive (we can), expressing a distressingly common position held by technocrats and authoritarians. Under this logic, all actions become self-justifying. As soon as something becomes possible, it also becomes necessary.
IBM says it wants to create a “Smarter Planet.” Smarter for whom? For what reason? Do we really want the ghouls from the tech summit to make those choices?
It’s not entirely fair to single out IBM; every corporation that sent a representative to the summit participates in surveillance capitalism. At the time of publication, of the nine tech giants asked if they would help build a Muslim registry, only Twitter said it would not. The rest gave no comment.* Maybe this explains why the CEO of Trump’s favorite megaphone wasn’t invited to the meeting.
In large part, working with Trump will continue business as usual. IBM may have a historical leg up, but it’s not hard to imagine other tech companies — willfully or inadvertently — building a database of Muslims, immigrants, or whoever else Trump rails against. Not out of malevolence, but because they were built to make money, not make the world a better place.
In the days after the summit, some attendees finally put out statements saying they will not help build a registry, but this is little comfort when the registry question has already been answered in practice: Facebook and Google already create, organize, and mine personal profiles. Data-brokers already collect and sell access to microdemographic information. Startups, like the unironically named Ethnic Technologies, already claim to accurately divine “individuals’ ethnic origins based on their full names, addresses and ZIP codes.” In general, Silicon Valley provides an arsenal of products that assist in targeted surveillance, social control, and violence against marginalized and vulnerable groups. These databases exist already; tech companies are now simply making them more efficient and effective.
We can laud the good intentions of individual engineers who pledge to never work on a Muslim registry. But how do their intentions relate to the interests of the powerful corporations they work for? Moreover, the pledge’s value means little when those engineers spend their days creating the exact technologies needed for such a database. The primary use may not be wicked, but the devil is in the secondary use.
In a 2013 keynote, Rometty said, “The smarter enterprise . . . will force economic growth and it will force societal progress.” As Trump surrounds himself with executives and generals — merging corporate and government power — he’s reconfiguring the state as an enterprise. The CEOs who are joining the administration have made billions by rebranding exploitation and oppression as growth and progress, and now they have a partner in Washington who agrees with them.
Update: Since publication, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Google have all stated on the record that they would not help the Trump administration build a national Muslim registry.