Technology disTrumption: How 45 has impacted the tech sector
In the early hours of the morning 364 days ago, newscasters announced Donald J. Trump had won the electoral college, making him President of the United States of America.
As the political sphere churned over the last year, the tech industry continued to make advancements. It repeatedly hit headlines for a myriad of reasons, from the iPhone X release and self driving cars hitting the streets to the heavier topics of global cyberattacks and privacy violations.
But how has the Trump administration impacted business technology in the last year?
According to experts, it hasn't. The reality is, the technology sector carries on fairly independently of the White House. Trump may be interacting with the high-profile heads of powerful technology companies, but tech business operations have carried on much like they always have.
This is not to say, however, that the next three years will be the same. As artificial intelligence takes its hold in the enterprise and key political issues such as immigration, net neutrality and regulatory changes play out, the tech world may encounter new pressures emanating from Washington.
Average Joes of tech
Understanding how the public and private tech space have changed over the last year, requires an important distinction between the broader tech market and the tech giants.
The broader tech market is a conglomeration of tech products and service providers, those everyday companies that make up the enterprise's backbone and catch the eye of Warren Buffett.
The latter, which includes Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Amazon, tends to dominate headlines and conversations. Many of these titans have in fact become media companies, despite frequent attempts to deny such a role, said Andrew Bartels, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, in an interview with CIO Dive.
"AI is going to turn out to be the big battle, in part because its social and economic ramifications are so widespread. The reality behind Trump's election is a significantly large body of American workers who have been left behind in this economy."
VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester
As quasi-media tech companies, they are now exposed to "abuse" and political pressures that average tech companies do not have to deal with, and they are far from a litmus test for the broader industry.
Trump and Congress have engaged with these companies in rounds of high-profile meetings, from Trump's December summit with tech executives to Congress' recent hearings on election meddling through social media platforms. Many of these companies banded together in opposition to DACA and H-1B changes, but the enterprise generally doesn't come to the government's front step.
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Expert consensus has generally found that technology isn't an issue top of mind for Trump. For example, net neutrality has emerged as one of the most hotly contested tech issues in politics, but the appointment of Ajit Pai as chairman of the FCC was something handled by Trump's transition team, said Ali Breland, a technology reporter for The Hill, in an interview with CIO Dive.
"It seemed like something that wasn't even in Trump's purview, and so Pai's done what he wants to with that, which is go forth and really try to reel back the regulations," said Breland. This hands-off, leave-it-to-others approach is one that Trump has extended beyond contentious tech issues.
The federal IT space is currently experiencing what Bartels describes as "benign neglect" under Trump, who has yet to fill the many CIO vacancies in federal agencies and departments, including the top role of the federal CIO.
"In many cases, IT departments are running on automatic pilot because they're getting no direction," said Bartels. "I tend to say benign neglect because it hasn't been that bad, but arguably, it's still neglect in the sense that key decisions as to what should be done, where should the government be investing, are largely being left undecided."
"We have an administration whose basic philosophy has been 'business knows best, get government out of the way."
VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester
Nevertheless, public sector IT is where Trump would be able to have a larger impact on technology. Trump's budget increased spending for cybersecurity, and the White House is gearing up for the stage of modernization of government IT, which is sorely plagued with outdated technology and inefficiency.
However, the body leading modernization, the American Technology Council (ATC), is viewed by many experts as more of a PR stunt than an effective actor. While there may be things going on behind the scenes that the public does not know, a look at the membership, which includes department secretaries under Vice President Mike Pence, suggests a PR move, according to Bartels.
Trump is certainly not the first occupant of the Oval Office to call for better modernization and cybersecurity, but his desire for the latter may find a more receptive audience and constituency than his predecessors.
Cyberattack after data breach racked 2017, and the Equifax debacle, which exposed the sensitive information of over 145 million Americans and brought former CEO Richard Smith before Congress, has especially evoked calls from politicians, citizens and the enterprise for new standards and regulations.
"For a long time we've heard about all these vulnerabilities that would exist in cybersecurity and all the ways we were open to attacks, and things stayed the same," said Breland. "And we didn't become more vulnerable in 2017, it's just things finally came to that, and rapid proliferation of ransomware attacks and everything just came to a head and entered public conscious."
Make automation great again? Or knock it down a size
Trump's administration will certainly affect the economy, and the economy will in turn affect the enterprise. It is through these roundabout processes that the White House touches the enterprise, according to Bartels.
But in all fairness, the impact of the new administration on the enterprise may be so modest thus far because many proposed changes have not been realized.
If the administration changes immigration policies or deports Dreamers, the tech workforce may be hit at home, but impacts could also be more indirect, according to Breland. For example, if the administration ends NAFTA, tech supply chains may be disrupted, as a lot of assembly and production takes place in Mexico, said Breland.
"And we didn't become more vulnerable in 2017, it's just things finally came to that, and rapid proliferation of ransomware attacks and everything just came to a head and entered public conscious."
Tech Reporter for The Hill
New technologies, namely AI, may soon strain the relationship between the tech sphere and the executive. Like many of its predecessors, the Trump administration and 115th Congress are not being proactive and asking the bigger questions about coming technologies and how they will impact the country and economy. If they do not ask and address these questions over the next three years, the federal government could be left behind from where it needs to be, according to Bartels.
Automation will cause particularly poignant problems for the Trump administration.
"We have an administration whose basic philosophy has been 'business knows best, get government out of the way,' " said Bartels. "But we also have a situation where a lot of AI technologies have the potential for massive job losses, and this is an administration that came into power largely on the basis of trying to protect average workers from job loss."
The Trump administration has often turned the focus on immigration when discussing job losses, but automation has been shown to impact jobs more significantly, according to Bartels. As the percent of job functions, in the tech industry and others, that are automated increases, the administration and government bodies may be forced to answer to constituents.
But the issue will only get worse if neglected.
"AI is going to turn out to be the big battle, in part because its social and economic ramifications are so widespread," said Bartels. "The reality behind Trump's election is a significantly large body of American workers who have been left behind in this economy, and that situation is not improving."
"I tend to say benign neglect because it hasn't been that bad, but arguably, it's still neglect in the sense that key decisions as to what should be done, where should the government be investing, are largely being left undecided."
VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester
The growing prominence of technology in daily lives, at work and at home, means that tech issues are steadily becoming political issues. What part of the government these issues intersect with, however, is not always clear, and it may not be top-down from the executive office.
Many tech companies today are trying to "preemptively regulate themselves" to stave off stricter regulations from Congress and demonstrate that they are trying to fix the same problems as the government, according to Breland. But when an issue arises, where does it go?
A lack of public policy relating to technologies like AI makes questions of intellectual rights of machines and autonomous vehicle regulation difficult. The FTC's broad mandate has allowed it to take up the mantle of the enterprise watchdog, but as more problems arise so will questions about regulation.
Based on the last year, a hands-off approach to the technology sphere is likely to continue, but tech players who keep an eye on the horizon may see developments that change this dynamic.