Monday, April 11, 2016

On Trump, Dilbert, and Who We Are

WARNING - This post contains politics

I've been absent from these pages far too long. Later this week we'll resurrect regular flash fiction - it's something I miss writing and that I hope some of you enjoy reading. First, as we head towards the New York State presidential primaries, a word on politics. Enter at your own risk.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this on Twitter after someone shared a baffling blog post by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams regarding Donald Trump:

Adams had made the bizarre case that comparisons of Trump to a Nazi were racist attacks on his German-American heritage. While this is quite honestly so stupid and ill-informed an opinion that I can only believe Adams to be trolling, he does have a string of oddly respectful posts in which he regards Trump as a "master persuader". It was this pattern which lead me to speak as I did; to make it clear that, as technologists, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to distance ourselves from those who are divisive, racist, and bullying. On reflection (and after discussion with Twitter's appropriately-named AV Grump who said - perhaps accurately - that tech industries are not a monolith) I realized why this is an issue for the tech industry in particular as well as for the country as a whole. I also realized that the arrogance and bigotry of someone like Trump fits into the oeuvre of someone like Scott Adams.

Adams is an ex-phone company employee who has made an entire career out of a single joke: that the brilliant engineer is tormented by the unintelligent and technologically clueless imbeciles in management. In addition to being repetative and a bit dull, it sends a message to technogically-inclined readers: that we're better than the rest of you, that those above us with more money and status (from our boss all the way up to the CEO)  got there for reasons beyond our understanding and are, in any ways that matter, our clear inferiors. It's easy to take this a step farther and see any less tech-savvy people as our inferiors. It's the same thing that Trump does: define an "us" and a "them" and convince "us" that our problems are all caused by those who aren't as smart, aren't as savvy, who don't belong.

It's something which I sadly see all the time in the technology world. In my last piece on rAVePubs I spoke of a client who referred to a hardware-based videoconference Codec as a "Kodak". I know too many in the industry who would mock them for this, but that's playing right into the  "us vs them" philosophy from which we need to extricate ourselves. Why did the client get the name of the device wrong? Because they were trying to learn, because someone who is a professional used the word without bothering to explain it or define it, and they learned it wrong. Meanwhile, the client in question is a professional with their own set of skills which I certainly don't share. I'll never learn if I decide that another human being is stupid because they're not familiar with the narrow technical knowledge base which I have curated over the years.

This, perhaps, is why seeing a professed technologist like Adams speaking well of Trump strikes a chord with me; in Trump I see reflected the worst in all of us, and that includes the technology sector. Dilbert is, sadly, who many of us are. I have, perchance, fallen into that trap myself. We need to all remember that yes, we do have specialized knowledge and that knowledge has value. We've studied, we've learned, and we can teach. I'll talk later (after some flash fiction! I promise!)  about the role of tech in public policy advocacy and when (and how) we should raise our voices - and when the rest of the population should consider our opinion. Overall, however, most of what we know is what I refer to as "stuff" - how to size a video display, formats for audio transport, how to read the spec sheet on a loudspeaker. It's useful. It's even valuable. But knowing it does not make us any better than anyone else.

Nobody gets anywhere from segmentation into "us" and "them", from a lack of respect for those not like us. It might feel good in the short term, but it's bad for society. So, as we reject the actual Trump, let us all reject our inner Trumps, in our industry and in ourselves.


  1. Nobody gets anywhere from segmentation into "us" and "them."

    This is coming from the guy who said just one paragraph earlier: "as technologists, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to distance ourselves from those who are divisive, racist, and bullying."

    1. Yes, exactly!

      It's a false equivalence to say that those opposed to divisiveness should not distance themselves from those who sow such dissension.

      This is similar to the rhetorical trick of claiming that "tolerance" implies acceptance of bigotry or other forms of intolerance; it's an attempt to coopt the language of inclusiveness for the defense of its opposite.

    2. Just guessing, but I think Ghost Computer was referring to "as technologists" as the segmentation point, not tolerance for intolerance.

    3. Yes, I read his comment that way as well. I was making an analogy about what I see as false equivalences.

  2. What are the "us" and "them" you see Trump defining?

    USA vs. World? Nonpoliticians vs. Politicians?

    I like the cat on your shoulder, btw!

    1. Immigrants vs natives is the worst one; one of the scariest things about Trump is his level of nationalism/nativism.

      My beloved shoulder-cat is, sadly, no longer with us.