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Silicon Valley 'Bubble' Reflects On Role In Trump Era

Silicon Valley has been soul searching since the election last month. Tech entrepreneur Ben Parr tells Scott Simon that collaboration with Washington is needed in an age of accelerating technology.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Silicon Valley has reportedly done some soul-searching after last month's presidential election. Many in high-tech supported Hillary Clinton and have criticized Facebook and Google for being vehicles to spread fake news stories, many of which vilified Clinton.

And some wonder if Silicon Valley entrepreneurs lack understanding and concern for those millions of Americans left behind by the technological innovation that's made high-tech innovators so rich. Ben Parr is co-founder of Octane AI, a company that specializes in artificial intelligence. He's also been an editor at Mashable and joins us now from Miami. Mr. Parr, thanks so much for being with us.

BEN PARR: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What kind of conversations do you hear and maybe even participate in?

PARR: Over the last couple of weeks the conversations have been more introspective, I would say, and a lot of discussion of what is Silicon Valley's role in the world? And how did Silicon Valley not see this wave that brought Donald Trump into office? And what role will Silicon Valley play in terms of creating jobs and destroying jobs through things like automation and self-driving cars? And there's been a lot of articles. And there's been a lot of stories, and a lot of discussion.

SIMON: What are some of the answers to that? I don't know if the people who, for example, invented the motor car worried very much about the horseshoers they were putting out of business.

PARR: There's three things to really think about. One, Silicon Valley technology is moving faster than maybe people had realized. And we're talking about, for example, millions of jobs - Uber drivers, truck drivers - being instantly destroyed by Silicon Valley technology. And so two, we're seeing now that people are upset all across the country, especially in rural areas where they voted for Trump, where they may have - used to had a manufacturing job that was part of their identity and now they don't have that anymore. And they're angry and they're upset. And does Silicon Valley technology only make them more angry and more upset?

And I think the last thing to think about is what's going to happen over the next 10-20 years? Is there a way to mitigate the fallout of how automation will take and change millions of jobs? Because unlike, I would say, the earlier industrial era, we're seeing technology now that it's not replacing jobs at the same rate. And if that's the case, then what do you do in a society where millions of people don't necessarily have to work in order for society to function because automation takes care of a lot of that? And I think for the first time we're really thinking about how do we change society for the better while promoting innovations like automation?

SIMON: You know, I've got no better questions for you, Mr. Parr, than to ask how do you guys do that?

PARR: So there have been some things we've seen in Silicon Valley to test this and to figure out a way. One prominent one is the seed firm Y Combinator, which is one of the top accelerators in Silicon Valley. They've been doing an experiment in Oakland with universal basic income and finding a way to, you know, give a certain amount of money to people so that they can then focus on things they might want to actually do, whether that's art or creative or something like that.

But the status quo is the big thing that won't work right now. But we're not there yet. We're at that early discussion. But some of those experiments and maybe more collaboration between Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., or Silicon Valley and, you know, the rest of the country because the election showed that Silicon Valley is in a bubble when it comes to politics.

SIMON: Ben Parr is the founder of Octane AI. Thanks for being with us.

PARR: Thank you.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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