Ms. Feinstein sandwiched between two blokes

View from Washington: The state of engineering and technology in the US

Image credit: Getty Images

The numbers were good, but 2017 was still a worrying year for US engineering.

2017 started with US high technology burnishing its reputation as dynamic and open-minded. It ended with Silicon Valley having abandoned that dynamism and looking leaden-footed.

It feels strange to think back to the early days of President Trump’s administration and remember the plaudits Big Digital received as a champion of civil liberties in its opposition to various proposed travel bans. Since then, too many leading companies have stumbled badly.

The grudgingly slow feed of information about the extent of Russian political interference during the 2016 US election (and, increasingly, the Brexit referendum) has made companies such as Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter appear arrogant and careless over management of their platforms.

There have then been further revelations about their tax affairs, notably the criticism of Apple’s arrangements in the British crown dependencies of the Channel Islands that followed publication of the Paradise Papers.

There is credit-rating agency Equifax’s still-clumsy handling of a data breach that saw personal details of 143 million Americans and 700,000 Brits fall into the hands of hackers.

High tech is now increasingly drawn into the Weinstein scandal, with daily revelations of sexual harassment in the workplace.

On that last point, 2017 also saw the publication of the ‘Tech Leavers Study’ from the Kapor Centre for Social Impact. It found that significantly more women in technology jobs had experienced harassment than the all-industries average – 10 per cent versus 6 per cent – and highlighted broader systemic issues over treatment of ethnic minorities.

Despite all this, 2017 did have some good news. The semiconductor industry has enjoyed double-digit growth – likely to finish between 12 per cent and 16 per cent. Facebook’s travails have not stopped the company posting record results and strong growth in regular users, as did other online players. R&D has continued apace across markets such as the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles and the combination of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Yet there is a sense that the industry must enter a period of structural reflection and reform. That it is full of fantastic ideas and great engineering remains true. However, it has begun to feel lackadaisical with regards to evolution of its internal culture and broader social responsibilities.

This is not the issue on which Silicon Valley expected to close 2017 and enter 2018. That was meant to be the Trump administration.

Yet ironically – and despite the President’s unnecessarily provocative tweets and speeches – the Donald has proved less of a concern than anticipated. He has so far enacted little legislation with serious ramifications for the technology economy.

Trump has controversially repudiated the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and hobbled the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet even there, individual US states are preparing to step in and provide regulation and stimulus for the green economy.

Instead, the Valley’s political observers have noted more immediate threats coming from Congress, including members who have historically been pro-engineering.

For example, two Senators who have been particularly critical are Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia and Dianne Feinstein of California. Warner, considered one of the USA’s richest politicians, made his fortune as an early investor in mobile communications. Feinstein is a former Mayor of San Francisco.

She left the social media giants in no doubt where things might go during the most recent hearings on Russian hacks: “We are not going to go away, gentlemen.”

There are signs that the industry has got the message. It needs to sort things out, or get its wings clipped by Washington and see its standing tumble among the public. How it does that represents the key challenge for 2018.

New best practices. Better oversight of its public-facing operations. A thorough review of shortcomings in the workplace. All and more are needed. Companies need to get together and take back the initiative on these fronts before 2019 arrives. So must we as individuals. It really is about more than bits, bytes and billions.

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