Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming. But there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn't even exist ten or twenty years ago -- jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla. So no one knows for certain which industries will generate the jobs of the future.I'm no fan of America's ruinous and idiotic car culture -- which arose out of the postwar futurological cheerleading of "The Greatest Generation" -- but comparing the titans of Fordist manufacturing with SillyCon Valley's celebrity-CEOs and techbro VCs is patently ridiculous. It is notoriously the case that firms in the IT sector with market capitalization comparable to large retailers or manufacturing companies employ fractionally as many people than these traditional sectors do.
About those tech giants name-checked as exemplars on whom the President means to pin our jobs future? Well, Google employs between 37,000 and 52,000 people; eBay employs about 32,000 people; and Tesla motors employs about 6,000 people. That's far from the kind of stunning employment contribution these enterprises were made to symbolize in tonight's State of the Union.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the Construction and Manufacturing sectors employ over 12% while the Information Sector employs under 2% of US jobs. And this is despite the recent decline in manufacturing, which has resulted from race-to-the-bottom trade policies rather than some irresistible digital destiny in any case, and hence could be reversed should our policies come to reflect fairness and sustainability priorities as they should on Obama's own terms.
It seems a bit odd, I must say, the way the speech corralled Tesla with Google and eBay, really, since elsewhere Obama's speech (in the snippet quoted above, for example) takes pains to distinguish "new" IT from "old" manufacturing. I guess it makes a difference when the auto manufacturer is making marginal publicity-hogging boutique-green electro-Edsels. All that hype just has the zing of new now next! Indeed, what all these companies actually share most of all is the techno-transcendental coloration imbued by our own generation's futurological flim-flam operators, peddling digitality and AI and cartoon-tech like Musk's LEO amusement park rides and Hyperloop stunt.
Even Obama's much-anticipated and discussed proposal to make two years of community college much more widely available was freighted with futurological framing. While I am heartened by any commitment to a real public investment in our capacity for collective problem-solving, I was disheartened again to find this proposal unexpectedly framed in the speech as a way to "train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding... and robotics." As if coders and roboticists can overcome jobs lost to downsizing and outsourcing and financialization -- downsizing, outsourcing, and financialization indispensably enabled and abetted by, that's right, coders and automation!
And although I strongly favor the President's call for public investment in a faster and more open internet -- I must say that for one thing I am far from assured that the President's panoptic sorts comport with a sense of openness worthy of the name; and for another thing I am well aware that the reason Europe has an incomparably faster and cheaper and more reliable internet than Americans do right now has everything to do with regulations and nothing to do with "the digital innovators and entrepreneurs [who] keep reshaping our world" to whom Obama genuflected in his speech. I have a song in my heart for fact-gathering social workers and labor economists with clipboards like good Democrats are supposed to do, but the upward-failing skim-and-scam operators of the "new economy" Obama praised over and over again in the big speech tonight -- so many of whom slurp up government cash while crowing about their libertechbrotarian cyborg-individualism and hostility to Big Government -- just make me want to ralph.
Like the Clinton and Gore embrace of the irrational exuberance of the fin de siecle dot.bomb, Obama's embrace of digi- nano- AI- nonsense reveals the profound susceptibility of the partisan Democratic left to assimilating reactionary politics through uncritical "technology" discourses that rationalize corporate-military budgetary priorities and conduce to mass consumer-complacency and circumventions of democratic deliberation by self-appointed technocratic and designer elites. It is enormously important that the Democratic Party has embraced macroeconomic literacy, climate science, Darwinian evolution, public healthcare, safer sex eduction, medical research, renewable infrastructure spending, fact-based harm-reduction policy-making, and so on against the outrageous anti-intellectualism and science-denialism of today's GOP. But these Democratic commitments must be informed and not simply fetishistic.
I am a champion of real public space programs for discovery and research toward the public good -- which is why I refuse to celebrate the displacement of this vision by the Vegas dreams of for-profit space hucksters foisting low-earth orbit planes and orbital love motels on us while promising to colonize the solar system and mine the asteroids in an imperial gold-rush get-rich-quick future re-run of manifest destiny. I am a champion of real public investment in renewable, resilient energy, communication, and transportation infrastructure and of real investment in medical research and access -- which is why I refuse to celebrate the displacement of this vision by greenwashing geo-engineers or hucksters of enhancement and longevity moonshine for superannuated boy-band Boomers.
Democrats have to take care not to fall for pseudo-science nor for reactionary policies with a "tech" patina: like MOOCifying education "reformers," like budget hawks who pretend miracle medicine justifies raising the retirement age, like suave Big Data miners and masseurs treated more and more like wizards in electoral and marketing campaigns (which are becoming less and less distinguishable) at the risk of substance, like drone cheerleaders who want to make illegal war and assassinations on the cheap while we sleep, like venture-capitalist "disruptors" peddling the usual right-wing de-regulation, looting of common goods, and valentines to makers-vs-takers wealth-concentration.
Look, I enjoyed the President's attitude and ad libs as much as the next guy. There were edifying passages on fairness and sustainability and diplomacy (most of them contradicted at other points in the speech not to mention by reality). It wasn't a terrible speech, and it had the benefit of being pretty forgettable. As an opening move in the long campaign to put Hillary Clinton with an Elizabeth Warren inflection into the White House the speech wasn't half bad. But as somebody who takes progressive technoscience seriously, I must say the whole speech was stained by a futurology that has no future if we are to any. Hell, by the end I felt it was a mercy we weren't subjected to a paragraph on 3D-printing delivering post-scarcity and the Internet of Things!