Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang is famous for his plan to implement a universal basic income to help Americans who lose their jobs to robots. And that isn’t the only place tech innovation takes center stage in his platform. He also advocates that your online data be treated as personal property that you can choose (or not) to sell to companies like Facebook. In a Yang presidency, election results would be verified through blockchain (an encryption system best known for shoring up cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin), quantum computing research would be better funded, and a Legion of Builders and Destroyers would have the power to overrule local zoning and land-use decisions for the greater infrastructure good. He is definitely the only presidential candidate talking seriously about fighting climate change with giant space mirrors.
But while the Yang platform can occasionally appear to drift toward a bid for a Hugo Award, experts who study the history and sociology of tech say his enthusiasm for and belief in the promise of technology is actually in step with the way most Americans (and the Democratic party, in particular) approach innovation. To the extent that Yang, a political novice whose credentials are largely built on his history as a successful tech entrepreneur, is polling above people like Kirsten Gillibrand and Bill de Blasio, it could be because he’s done such a good job of speaking to a defining aspect of the American psyche: one that both loves and fears tech. If anything, despite the sci-fi trappings of his policies, some experts said Yang might be a little behind the curve — playing to a vision of the future already looks a little retro in its belief that Silicon Valley hype will match reality.
The American relationship with technology is a complicated one. Research suggests that a majority of Americans — 59 percent in a 2014 Pew Research Center poll — have faith that technological advancements will make our lives better in the future. In 2016, the same organization found that 52 percent of us think technology has already had a largely positive effect on society. Those beliefs have long-standing precedent, said Lee Vinsel, a professor of science, technology and society at Virginia Tech, stretching back to the cults of personality built up around 19th century inventors like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. “There’s an emphasis on technology and how it grows the economy as an unvarnished good,” Vinsel said.
But those top-line numbers can mask some underlying discomfort with the technological tools we allow into our lives. The same polls that show a majority of Americans looking forward to a tech-enabled future also show a distinct lack of enthusiasm for technologies closer to our fingertips. We may expect unspecified “technology” to make our lives better down the road, but 63 percent of us think opening U.S. airspace to drones will make life worse; 65 percent of us don’t like the idea of robots caring for the sick and elderly; and 78 percent of us would not eat meat grown in a lab if someone set it on our plates.
That’s because cycles of techno-hype and disillusionment are a major part of American culture and public policy, said Taylor Dotson, a professor of social sciences at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Usually, politicians and the public see a social problem and decide technology will solve it; then, they discover that the solution comes with a whole new set of issues — which they often expect future technology to solve. It’s like the old Simpsons joke describing alcohol as the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. “Oh, yeah. We see technology in a similar way to that,” Dotson said.
And experts said Yang’s platform taps right into the current American zeitgeist — for example, in the way he is simultaneously grappling with the risks artificial intelligence poses to some job markets, while proposing it as a replacement for other human jobs in other areas. But they also said he’s hardly the first political candidate to look to technology for the answers to societal ills. In fact, the Democratic Party has long considered itself the standard-bearer of scientific expertise, adopting an almost utopian vision of technological innovation since at least the Kennedy years, Vinsel said.
Practically, this means that Democrats have made technology a bigger part of their image over the years. In the 1980s, for instance, “Atari Democrats” wore fancy watches and promoted Silicon Valley boosterism as an alternative to courting labor unions, said Marc Aidinoff, a history doctoral candidate at MIT who has also worked as a junior policy advisor to Joe Biden. That trend continued under Barack Obama, said Mary Ebeling, a professor of sociology at Drexel University. Obama’s technology advisors were heavily recruited from Silicon Valley and many returned there after serving in his administration. And now, it’s not just the Democratic Party pushing tech-based solutions, Vinsel said. At this point, the ideas of technological innovation and economic growth are so linked in the American mind that neither party can step away from tech as a common good without seeming like they are anti-growth.
But Democrats’ tendency to seek solutions in technology for social problems has not always served them well. Ebeling is currently working on a project that explores how adopting electronic health records as part of the Affordable Care Act affected both patients and workers in the medical industry. The electronic records were pushed as a solution to deep-seated problems that weren’t really about technology — boosters promised they’d make healthcare cheaper and solve problems with patient access to consistent medical care. Instead, Ebeling is finding that we spent billions effectively favoring an industry that could never produce the returns it promised. “And lo and behold, by 2019, you have Kaiser Health News reporting on how much harm electronic health records have caused. Literally the death of patients because of medical errors,” she said.
When our faith and enthusiasm in the power of technology hits a wall, the collision happens with all the force of a coyote riding a jetpack. Aidinoff, the former political consultant, thinks we’re in a cultural moment when our belief in the promises of technology are meeting a crushing reality. Since the Cold War, Americans have been assured that the internet and communication networks would serve as liberalizing forces, or as tools to draw repressed countries toward democracy. But since the early 2000s, there have been a string of prominent situations where that ideal wasn’t realized. In the wake of the 2016 election, social media networks have been seen as tools of misinformation and political manipulation. But that wasn’t the first time tech failed us. For instance, dozens of internet cafes were opened in Iraq after the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein, and the internet was seen as being instrumental in the democratization of the country. But, Aidinoff said, that same internet access later ended up being a recruitment tool for extremist groups such as ISIS. Hilary Clinton once spoke about the potential of the internet as akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. “But freedom didn’t happen the way it was supposed to,” Aidinoff said.
That’s a problem for a candidate like Yang — and a problem for any party that wants to view technology as a solution to social ills. Someone framing a campaign around technology as a problem solver and powerful force for good is, in some ways, a few years out of date — as anachronistic as Mark Zuckerberg floating a presidential run. In the end, what’s odd about Yang’s platform might be less that it’s calling for cloud seeding or AI social workers — and more that it’s calling for those things at a time when the relationship between Americans and tech could best be described as “it’s complicated.”
Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight. @maggiekb1