Confronting The Challenge Of A New Technological Era Is An American Tradition

Hacker using laptop. Lots of digits on the computer screen.
Hacker using laptop. Lots of digits on the computer screen.

The 2016 election has been described as a "change election." It's an apt description, but not for the reasons ascribed by political commentators. "Make America Great Again" became a surrogate for "Make me secure again amidst all this change." Great swaths of the electorate sought stability in a world where everything seemed to be changing.

Leading the way to that destabilization has been technological innovation. The digital world has gnawed away at the underpinnings of social and economic stability. From attacking traditional jobs, to ever-increasing prices for once-free television, to teenagers withdrawing into online worlds, technology has driven change that upset the security of tradition.

Fifty-two percent of the Fortune 500 companies at the turn of the 21st century don't exist anymore. The largest taxi company owns no vehicles. The largest accommodations company owns no hotels. Workers are being replaced by microchips. Other nations are hacking our electoral process. Truth has become a casualty of technology. No wonder there is a quest for the stability of the good old days! New technologies -- especially the technologies that govern how we connect -- have eliminated our sense of balance.

We are in the early stages of a technology-driven network revolution unrivaled since the mid-19th century. Back then, the first high-speed network, the railroad and the first electronic network, the telegraph, delivered a one-two punch that redrew the economic map, fired an industrial revolution and even aided and abetted a civil war. Back then, coming to grips with such change was a decades-long struggle. We should expect nothing less this time around.

The good old days were far from the gauzy images of honored memory. We tend to understand history by its results rather than by recalling the dislocation, disruption and despair through which society passed to reach that result. Yet, how we dealt with those tumultuous passages established who we are -- yes, the greatness of America. It is not something to be "made again," but rather something we are continually constructing.

As we confront our era of change, we would do well to remind ourselves of the last time technology and new networks overwhelmed stability and security and how Americans showed perseverance and creativity to confront what technology had imposed. Just to refresh our memories about those times:

  • Railroads enriched themselves by abusing and exploiting their customers. In response, many simply retreated into a longing for the time before the rails. Others, however, met the problem head-on, organized groups such as the Grange and countered economic power with collective action. The result was ultimately the first federal regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission.
  • Industrialization tore apart the family unit. Youth left the farm to become cogs in a giant, soulless, exploitative industrial machine that worked them 10 hours a day, six days a week. Yet those workers found their voice, rose up and organized to oppose the oppression. The resulting labor agreements and governmental action improved the lot of workers.
  • And, lest we forget, that past golden age was also a period when anti-immigrant sentiment abounded, anarchists engaged in acts of terror and political demagogues proposed themselves as saviors. Yet most Americans refused to succumb; instead, they pulled together, faced the challenges head-on and created the pathway to today.

The story of how Americans responded when faced with previous transformational change is the true measure of American greatness. It is the story of fighting back when change is harmful, yet not allowing the frustration with change to turn into a rejection of its benefits. Most importantly, it is the story of new ideas attacking new problems.

Like today, the technology revolution of the 19th century produced a longing for stability. But instead of retreating, Americans pushed forward to build a new security around new concepts. Universal education, employee rights, governmental offsets to abusive market power and other initiatives targeted the new problems. The result was the good old days many now long for.

Confronting the challenge of a new technological era is an American tradition. Whether we are as successful at handling our revolution as those who preceded us will be the test of our generation. Dealing with change is not a retreat to what America was but the full-throated embrace of the opportunities created for new ideas directed at the new realities.