Ro Khanna Wants to Save Silicon Valley From Itself

It’s not often you come across a member of Congress eager to discuss German philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

But Representative Ro Khanna is not like most members of Congress. He represents one of the wealthiest districts in America – a part of Silicon Valley that is home to tech giants like Apple and Intel – but he served as co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. He’s a former intellectual property lawyer whose 2016 House bid was backed by venture capitalists and tech moguls, but he’s also a prominent critic of social media companies like Facebook.

So it’s only fitting that Khanna’s new book, “Dignity in a Digital Age,” embodies all of these complexities. With manifesto-like ambition, the California Democrat offers sweeping solutions to what he says plagues America: too much wealth concentrated in too few hands and too many digital jobs crammed into a handful of tech hubs. He wants to decentralize those opportunities so that places like Paintsville, Ky., or Jefferson, Iowa, can also thrive.

“People feel a lack of control over their own lives,” Khanna said in an interview. “They see all these billionaires being created in my district, billions of dollars of wealth being created.”

There is an unspoken political motivation here – a hope that by spreading digital wealth, Khanna’s ideas can reduce the toxic polarization embodied by Donald Trump. The former president has taken political advantage of concerns about the post-industrial economy in many of the very places Khanna wants to help. But the book isn’t a partisan screed, and it’s dense enough that when we told him we were in the middle, he quipped, “I guess you get paid to read and write.”

Khanna’s other audience is her friends in Silicon Valley. And that’s where Habermas comes in. Khanna studied the German philosopher, famous for his 1962 treatise on “the public sphere”, to understand how to create what Khanna calls “ideal speaking conditions”. What he found was that social media companies, while delivering on their promises to connect like-minded people everywhere, created platforms that were also plagued by “misinformation, misinformation and hatred”.

“I think Silicon Valley as a whole is an amazing place of innovation, entrepreneurship, and high achievement,” Khanna said. “But I don’t think he has yet lived up to his responsibilities in a democratic society.”

Khanna’s book comes at a time of extraordinary pressure on the Valley’s tech giants, and neither does Facebook.

In October, a trove of documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal by a whistleblower revealed internal Facebook debates over how to market its products to teens and children, sparking widespread public pushback. Whistleblower Frances Haugen also alleged that Facebook contributed to the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill by relaxing “civic integrity” controls after the 2020 election, resulting in a flood of posts calling for the political violence.

For Khanna, Facebook’s troubles illustrate how Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder and chief executive, has a “philosophical blind spot” about social media being anything but unambiguous good.

“This idea that you can just create spaces where people talk, and that will somehow lead to dialogue, understanding and truth, seems hopelessly naive,” Khanna said.

The genesis of Khanna’s book was an unusual journey he took just three months into his first term.

Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from southeast Kentucky, invited the freshman lawmaker to tour his impoverished neighborhood in Appalachia — the mirror across from Khanna’s land of Teslas and $3,000-a-month studios. The decline of the coal industry has devastated the Rogers District, which had a median household income of $35,636 in 2019.

There, Khanna met Alex Hughes, a former construction worker and printer installer who had stumbled upon an innovative training program run by a Louisville company called Interapt and found a new career as a software developer. Half-jokingly, Rogers had taken to calling his district’s embryonic tech sector “Silicon Holler.”

The visit fired Khanna’s imagination. “Suddenly I realized that this yearning for digital wealth and technology was not a biased imposition of a coastal mindset,” he recalls. “That it was actually something the communities themselves wanted deeply.”

Remote work has become the norm for millions of Americans during the pandemic, and once-skeptical companies have figured out how to find and nurture talent wherever they reside.

And that, says Khanna, offers an extraordinary opportunity to rekindle communities across the country — part of the solution to the “American carnage” that Donald Trump spoke of in his inaugural address. He predicts there will be more than 25 million digital jobs in the United States by 2025, more than manufacturing and construction combined.

Perhaps, Khanna thinks, seeding those jobs outside of the usual tech hubs like the Bay Area, Seattle and Austin could help reduce the polarization that plagues American politics. What if the government required, say, that software companies that want federal contracts employ at least 10% of their workers in rural areas?

“Could you actually have projects, teamwork and interaction in this digital sphere that at least reduces some of the tension and anxiety?” he said.

Silicon Valley is littered with well-meaning projects that amount to “techno-babbling or this techno-optimism that everyone is going to code one way or another,” Khanna acknowledged. He is painfully aware of how his proposals could be lumped together with much-derided ideas like teaching homeless people to become software engineers.

So Khanna is launching a series of initiatives that would put federal government resources to work for private sector agility — building “digital subsidized colleges” at the country’s 112 land-grant universities to teach applied technology skills. , subscribing to tech-learning companies, creating a “national digital corps” as a kind of Peace Corps for rural America.

“It has to be more fundamental,” he said.

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When the Affordable Care Act seemed doomed in 2010, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered a memorable line showing her determination to pass the health care bill.

“We’re going through the door,” she said. “If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole vault.

That’s worth bearing in mind after a little-noticed exchange with reporters last week when Pelosi dismissed President Biden’s idea of ​​breaking the Build Back Better Act into smaller “pieces.”

“‘Chunks’ is an interesting word,” Pelosi said, pausing for a polite but dismissive chuckle. “What the president calls ‘chunks,’ I hope would be a major piece of legislation.”

His former chief of staff, John Lawrence, who is working on a book about the early Pelosi era, notes in a blog post that his longtime boss “has a notoriously sour view of incrementalism as a philosophy of governance”.

But, he predicted, she will “in all likelihood” return to embrace “chunks,” if and when the Senate shows an ability to pass something that meets its goals.

“House progressives won’t be enthusiastic,” Lawrence wrote, “but Democrats need wins and that means poles and parachutes will almost certainly be needed.”

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