Alexander Görlach Speaking with one of the “fathers of the internet”, Vint Cerf gives insights on what he believes will be the repercussions on the Silicon Valley after the election of Donald Trump.
SLD: Vint, are you worried about the election results in the US and if so/or not: why?
Vint Cerf: Yes, I am, but perhaps not for the reasons you might imagine. It is clear that we have a massive divide in the US – setting aside the effects of the electoral college vote counting rules, the popular vote was clearly split nearly 50-50. What this means to me is that the two sides have very different perspectives on the the state of the union. For many, the status quo has not been beneficial. The great recession coincided with the start of the current administration and all the efforts to reverse its effects over the past 8 years have not had a uniformly positive effect. It can be argued that the problem was so severe that we were lucky to have agreed on a bipartisan basis to pass the ARRA bill and to inject a great deal of money into the economy but it is equally clear that not everyone has experienced positive benefit. There are other influences that have inhibited a prosperous experience for all citizens. Technological change has led to loss of some jobs and creation of others, but those without work may not be positioned to take on the newly created work. Manufacturing, once a major part of our economy and the source of financial well-being for many levels of socio-economic sectors has shifted towards off-shore and automation, removing many jobs and creating new but different ones. The consequences of these and other trends have created an economic divide that has driven many to look for causes and people to blame. Recovering from the great recession was and still is a hard problem but the recovery has been strikingly uneven and those left behind are understandably angry and looking for new policies that they hope will make a difference. The mutual vilification of the members of both parties cannot lead to constructive results. I am leaving out the third and fourth political parties simply because their impact seems less notable that the two primary ones. In a remarkable TED talk, Jonathan Haidt explains some of the dynamics we face (link). If we want to reboot the American dream, we will have to overcome what looks like tribal animosity in favor of serious and constructive problem solving.
It seems that the internet could have only emerged in a world that is open to free trade and the free movement of goods. Why do you think so many people are frightened rather than inspired by the possibilities that arise from the digital?
First, the digital revolution has introduced dramatic change in the nature of work, the rise of automation and robotics, the kinds of work available and the training, education and expertise needed to perform it. The Internet and the applications arising from it, especially those built on the World Wide Web have created the potential for a kind of echo chamber effect in which users look for confirmation of their views and avoid exposure to anything that might contradict their conclusions. This is not new – we read the magazines we find compatible with our opinions, similarly for television, radio, movies, books, web sites, mailing lists, social (media) groups, etc. It takes work and a certain amount of willingness to suspend judgment to hear the sides of arguments we don’t necessarily agree with. It’s easier to demonize the other side(s). In addition to all the benefits the Internet confers, especially access to knowledge, it also has become a hazardous place (denial of service attacks, loss of privacy, malware and identify theft, exposure of personal information) and the loss of safety, real and imagined, makes it potentially a scary place. There is a great deal of work to be done, technically and in education of users, to understand how to use the Internet safely.
In post-Brexit England the new prime ministers restricts academia in the way that she does not want to have (any) foreign students in the UK anymore. How do you see the possible backlash to universities but to the nature of knowledge, as a collective and shared entity?
As a foreign member of the British Royal Society, I heard first-hand reactions to BREXIT highlighting concerns about the potential loss of rich collaboration and ease of movement between the UK and the continent for researchers. Generally, loss of diversity and the loss of highly qualified but foreign students will be harmful to the quality of academic research and innovation. This is as true in the US as it is in the UK and elsewhere. Universities have benefited from the presence of foreign students and faculty and reducing the sources of talent seems like a recipe for diminishing quality.
What do you think how the silicon valley will position itself for the next years? I reckon Mr. Trump is not very familiar with the digital industries. Since he is not in favor of open boarders, economies, trade and cultures he may find the valley an easy target. He may be willing to argue that the internet has taken away the jobs (and not just only China)?.
I think it is probably too early to make any predictions about President-elect Trump’s policies. Despite the campaign rhetoric, the reality of the US Government structure with its three branches and checks and balances, as well as the pragmatics of the office of the President, may produce a different mindset. In any case, Silicon Valley continues to be an engine for new jobs, new products and service and GDP growth. Stunting the Silicon Valley part of our economy will not solve the problem of employment in other parts of the country. Major infrastructure investment, for example, could have a very broad and beneficial effect across the geography of the country.
Young people, as seen in the UK and the US, do not vote. Other demographics as well. So basically in all Western democracies half the population doesn’t vote any more. How to tackle that? how to implement new methods of registering as a voter and so forth?
This is a persistent problem and it may have played a role in the most recent US election. Two trends may help at least in the US. The first is the opportunity to vote early, so as to spread out the time available to exercise the franchise. The second is to encourage multiple paths to voter registration, for example the registration to vote at the same time one is registering to drive. The hard part seems to be convincing people that voting is important and worth while. Failure to vote puts the decision into the hands of others and that is not responsible citizenship. The inaccurate assertions of “rigged elections” in this campaign period were harmful and may have influenced (young) voters to choose not to bother voting. Making it easier to register and to vote is part of the solution.
Some argue the current populist movements in the West not only disguise but also in consequence revoke the achievements of enlightenment. Is that exaggerated and what is for you modernity?
I think the populist movements are in large measure about economic inequality and a sense that there is no path for improvement. The modern solution is to create new work to promote human dignity and economic well-being. Of course, the people who want and must do the work have to be prepared to do it and that says that we must do a much better job of preparing people for work and to increasing their ability to learn new skills as work changes, partly in consequence of technological change.
Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. He contributes to global policy development and continued spread of the Internet. Widely known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet,” Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet. He has served in executive positions at MCI, the Corporation for National Research Initiatives and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and on the faculty of Stanford University. (Source: Google http://research.google.com/pubs/author32412.html)