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How to Make Tech Work for All of Us
Table of Contents
About The Book
Congressman Ro Khanna offers a revolutionary, “progressive” (James J. Heckman, Nobel Prize winner and professor of economics at the University of Chicago) roadmap to facing America’s digital divide, offering greater economic prosperity to all. In Khanna’s vision, “just as people can move to technology, technology can move to people” (from the foreword by Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics) where “Khanna envisions redistributing opportunities from coastal cities to rural middle-America…An exciting vision, brilliantly rendered.” (Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land).
Unequal access to technology and the revenue it creates is one of the most pressing issues in the United States. An economic gulf exists between those who have struck gold in the tech industry and those left behind by the digital revolution; a geographic divide between those in the coastal tech industry and those in the heartland whose jobs have been automated; and existing inequalities in the technological access—students without computers, rural workers with spotty WiFi, and many workers without the luxury to work remotely.
Congressman Ro Khanna’s Progressive Capitalism tackles these challenges head-on and imagines how the digital economy can create opportunities for people across the country without uprooting them. Anchored by an approach Khanna calls “progressive capitalism,” he shows how democratizing access to tech can strengthen every sector of economy and culture. By expanding technological jobs nationwide through public and private partnerships, we can close the wealth gap in America and begin to repair the fractured, distrusting relationships that have plagued our country for fall too long.
Inspired by his own story born into an immigrant family, Khanna understands how economic opportunity can change the course of a person’s life. Moving deftly between storytelling, policy, and some of the country’s greatest thinkers in political philosophy and economics, Khanna presents a vision we can’t afford to ignore. Progressive Capitalism is a “practical and aspirational” (Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University) roadmap to how we can seek dignity for every American in an era in which technology shapes every aspect of our lives.
After the coal industry took a hit in Eastern Kentucky, Alex Hughes’s business went under. Alex found himself unemployed for nearly six months in what was the lowest period of his life. Nearly two decades earlier, Alex was stabbed in the face by a drunk stranger, and the scar still stretches across his jaw and cheek. If given the choice, Alex told me, he would prefer being stabbed again to losing the business he owned for fifteen years and going without work.
When you’re unemployed, Alex explained, “No one sees you’re injured.” But a lack of income can be a lot more stressful than physical trauma when your family depends on you. He lost his house and car, and he worried constantly about his wife and family. Some of his unemployed friends began drinking, while others saw marriages dissolve. Unemployment leaves scars of its own. To this day, even when times are good, Alex still fears he could lose everything at any moment.
Alex never gave up searching for work, however. He comes from a proud family tradition with an I can fix that attitude. Alex told me, “I am certainly not the type of person that is going to sit around. There has to be something to do. Letting someone take care of me is not the thing that comes to mind.” Whenever he felt dejected, he tried to think about his newborn son. “When he grows up, what’s he going to think if I lay down and quit?”
Alex, now in his mid-forties, has a heavy build and a dreamcatcher tattoo on his forearm. After high school, he attended Big Sandy Community and Technical College, but stopped to provide for his daughter. At the time, he worked construction jobs, then opened a tattoo shop to make ends meet. After saving money and teaching himself about electronic equipment, he started his now defunct business installing large-format printers at offices that oversaw coal mining. Like so many small businesses in the region, it had depended on the coal economy to survive.
In 2017, while unemployed, Alex saw a television ad for the Interapt technology services program, which paid $400 a week for six months of intensive training in Apple’s iOS software. Interapt was founded by Ankur Gopal, an Indian American who was born and raised in rural Kentucky and sought to bring quality tech jobs to the region. Hughes applied to the program and was accepted. He now describes it as “on the miracle level.” It led to a full-time job that allows him to “have a pretty good life” and provide for his family. After finishing his training, Alex earned $42,000 per year as a basic coder, and now makes $77,000 as a lead software developer. He is responsible for managing a team which has members in Chicago and Atlanta that implements software solutions for General Electric Appliances, headquartered in Louisville, to build smart appliances including refrigerators, coffee makers, ovens, and laundry machines. Alex can schedule his own hours and feels lucky to have worked remotely every day during the pandemic.
Stories like those of Alex were on Representative Hal Rogers’s mind when he invited me to visit Paintsville, Kentucky, or “Silicon Holler” as he calls it. Rogers is an eighty-three-year-old Republican who has served in Congress for forty years in the heart of Trump country. His referring to the region as Silicon Holler indicates how much Appalachian Kentucky aspires to build a tech-savvy workforce to support their broader economic ecosystem. They reject the emptiness and elitism of the mantra that all laid-off middle-aged workers or liberal arts students should now become coders. Instead, they recognize that digital wealth can sustain a wide diversity of jobs. My trip to Paintsville captured the imagination of many. Headlines followed dubbing me the “Ambassador of Silicon Valley.” I suspect the interest in this story was about more than just tech jobs. It was noteworthy that people from different parts of the country like Alex Hughes and I were even talking to each other.
Alex shared with me that although he comes from some of the “whitest” parts of Kentucky, he never saw “a whole lot of divisiveness” when “people from foreign countries ended up being doctors and business owners that we all rely on.” Now, a man by the name of Ankur Gopal, the son of immigrants, gave him the best opportunity of his life. He compares being a software professional to being a member of a club with its own identity, common language, and shared way of thinking. These days he receives frequent recruitment inquiries on LinkedIn. Our nation gains when people like Alex are working on distributed teams tackling common projects online.
This book imagines how the digital economy can create opportunities for people where they live instead of uprooting them. It offers a vision for decentralizing digital innovation and wealth generation to build economically vibrant and inclusive communities that are connected to each other. We need a development strategy that fosters a nucleus of tech jobs with myriad applications for different industries and local entrepreneurs in thousands of rural and underrepresented communities across our nation. The digital revolution is reshaping our economy and society, but it continues to sideline, exclude, upend, and manipulate too many in the process. My aim is to advance our democratic values by empowering all of us to direct and steer these digital forces.
Placing democratic values at the center of the twenty-first-century tech revolution is about more than unleashing untapped talent like Alex, facilitating his rise, and allowing him to support the cultural life of his hometown. It demands that we uplift service workers who face economic precarity. It requires the regulation and redesign of digital platforms to prioritize online rights and quality discourse over profits. We must make the high-tech revolution work for everyone, not just for certain Silicon Valley leaders who commodified our data while amassing fortunes and now have a disproportionate influence on our national culture and debate. This concentration of digital prosperity makes the already difficult task of becoming a functioning, pluralistic democracy harder. A key pillar of building a multiracial, multireligious democracy is providing every person in every place with the prospect of a dignified life, including the potential to contribute in and shape the digital age.
MY FAMILY’S JOURNEY
My story, as you may have guessed, is quite different from Alex Hughes’s. My earliest memories are of Amarnath Vidyalankar, my maternal grandfather. I remember playing chess with him and listening to his tales about the Mahabharata, a sacred Hindu epic, and the Indian Independence movement. He was and remains a legend in our family.
My grandmother talked about the time he was in jail for four years starting in 1942 as part of Gandhi’s Quit India movement that demanded an end to British rule of the subcontinent. During this period, she never spoke to him and did not know whether he was alive. Every six months or so she would send Dev, her oldest son who was barely twelve, on a train from Amritsar, where they lived, to the prison in Lahore. Dev took new clothes and my grandfather’s favorite Indian sweets like halvah. The guards took the sweets and clothes, promising to give them to my grandfather. They told Dev he was doing fine, but my grandmother never knew what to believe.
Although he never did receive those sweets and clothes from the guards, my grandfather was one of the fortunate ones who made it out in good health and spirits. After India attained independence, he served as an MP in India’s first Parliament in 1952. He was proud to serve as part of India’s founding generation, which outlined the nation’s principles for liberal democracy. My grandfather would never have conceived of the possibility that his grandson would one day serve in Congress.
The cliché rings true for me: only in America is a story like mine possible. My mother came to the United States because she fell in love with my father, who was studying chemical engineering at the University of Michigan. Their parents arranged for them to meet. My father, born a year before India’s independence, traveled back to India to meet her and won her over after three dates. She and my father started their life in Bensalem, Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, where my father took a job with a manufacturer of specialty chemicals. My father stayed with that same company for almost thirty years, while my mother worked as a substitute schoolteacher for special needs kids. Both benefited from the civil rights movement that opened emigration from non-European countries and America’s policy of recruiting engineers and scientists to compete with the Soviets.
I was born in Philadelphia in 1976, our bicentenary. While growing up, I attended public schools and took out large loans to finish my education at some of the most elite institutions in the world. My most formative years, however, were in Bucks County. I lived in a community in Holland, Pennsylvania, that was economically mixed. We were comfortable and never lacked for anything meaningful, but we were not rich. We were careful with what we spent on clothes, eating out, cars, and tickets to games. On our street were midlevel professionals like my father and also an electrician, a nurse, a teacher, an HVAC technician, and a couple of senior executives at corporations. Our neighbors and a few families in the township became our extended family. We played Little League and touch football and watched the Rocky movies. We went to each other’s homes for meals, had sleepovers, and celebrated holidays together.
Forty years after beginning my life in Philadelphia, I was elected to Congress to represent Silicon Valley, arguably the most economically powerful place in the world. The lure of building the future with limitless opportunity drew me to the Valley much like it drew my parents to America. When I told my family that I accepted a job offer from a tech law firm in Palo Alto, my grandmother told my mother she would now understand what it feels like to have a child move far away. Today, I represent a district that is home to Apple, Google, Intel, Yahoo, eBay, LinkedIn, and Tesla. As exciting as it is to live in a district that has hundreds of high-growth companies, I still love going back to Bucks County to visit my parents, especially with my wife and kids.
When President Donald Trump presided over a rally where the crowd chanted “send her back!” about Representative Ilhan Omar, a Muslim American woman, my office was inundated with media inquiries. The press wanted to know if I had ever been told to go back to where my parents came from, especially growing up in a county that was more than 95 percent white in the 1980s. At first, I avoided the interviews, not wanting to be tokenized just because I was a son of immigrants and a person of color. Upon further reflection, I relented. I told inquiring journalists there were occasions during a heated basketball game when some kid would shout “go back to India!”
But that is not what stands out. What I remember more is teachers like Mrs. Raab and Mr. Longo who believed in my potential more than I did. I remember Little League coaches who encouraged me to keep practicing, even though I was not a strong player. I remember local editors of the Bucks County Courier Times who published almost every one of my letters to the editor. And I remember neighbors like Patty Sexton who were overly proud of my amateur writing and pushed me to have a voice at local school board meetings. The people in Bucks County led me to believe that dreams are worth pursuing in America, regardless of one’s name or heritage.
I also remember what America gave me. I had an extraordinary education at Council Rock High School. My father had a job that came with health care, so I did not have to worry about the cost of seeing a doctor, allergist, or dentist. I lived in a safe neighborhood and never worried about a nutritious meal. My parents had time to help me with my homework and attend most of my games, even when I sat on the bench. I had the chance to pursue as much higher education as I wanted, even if it meant taking out loans to do so.
If our nation could give the son of an immigrant such a chance at life, it has the capability to do so for every American. When you have a story like mine, you can’t help but be hopeful about the American experiment.
This book is grounded on the belief that the core of my family’s story should be commonplace, not exceptional. It’s a very simple story, about having worthwhile job opportunities, high-quality education and health care, and better prospects for one’s kids. This country has everything it needs to foster these opportunities for every American. In this new century, we can cultivate unimagined possibilities for people across our nation, if not the world.
From the dawn of the digital revolution, leaders have celebrated the promise of technology and globalization. They have hailed our dramatic growth in GDP and plummeting prices for consumer products. People have undoubtedly benefited from easily accessible information, better health treatments, online learning options, convenient and affordable shopping even in remote areas, and the simplification of managing bills and everyday chores. Extreme global poverty, moreover, has been cut in half, which is the fastest drop in recorded history.
Despite this remarkable progress, leaders often have suffered from the same blind spot—that place matters. Even as GDP and production gains soared, too many American towns hollowed out and local factories closed with manufacturing supply chains moving to China. Thousands of stores shuttered downtown, suffering a “retail apocalypse” as they were unable to compete with online giants. The businesses that were booming, particularly the tech industry, tended to be siloed in far-off cities. According to a 2019 Brookings report, just five U.S. cities account for 90 percent of the innovation job growth in recent decades. Other Brookings reports document our nation’s economic divergence. Nearly 50 percent of digital service jobs, they find, are in ten major metro centers. In contrast, nearly 63 of 100 largest metro regions saw their share of tech jobs decline this past decade. Most towns and midsize cities are disconnected from the wealth generation of the digital economy, despite having their industries and residents’ lives transformed by it. In fact, those living in communities with a population of under fifty thousand, like Alex Hughes, have had stagnant job and wage growth since the Great Recession. As they struggle to gain footing in the modern era, they read every morning about the soaring revenue of tech, with Silicon Valley companies alone exceeding $10 trillion in market cap—a staggering figure of value creation in the sweep of economic history. This extreme disparity is distancing us from each other and deepening fissures in our nation.
Leading economists argue that our nation is witnessing a march toward urbanization, where select cities will be the hubs for new high-paying jobs. They point to the industrial revolution as a parallel, observing that it created similarly large disruptions yet made us better off in the long run. Let’s encourage people to move to where the new opportunities will be, so the argument runs. But perhaps our politics would not be in such turmoil if we listened to more humanists for balance. Historians, journalists, sociologists, and ethnographers would have insisted we ask: What does this disruption mean for people’s livelihood and identity? What does it mean for families living in the places left behind?
National policymakers, to our peril, have ignored the destabilization of local communities. For that matter, we have overlooked the extent to which Americans’ sense of fulfillment is tied to where we live. In an unfamiliar age, home represents the familiar. Choosing to stay where you grow up might mean a life where extended family members meet for weekend meals, instead of one where grandchildren only see their grandparents on FaceTime. It might mean choosing love and responsibility over one’s career ambitions, putting the needs of an aging parent or a special needs sibling first. Place matters to the vast majority of us—as much for certain techies in San Francisco who cannot envision leaving as for parents in rural communities who do not want to lose their children to faraway places. What about the unemployed? Is it fair or reasonable to expect people like Alex Hughes to leave their hometown and move across the country? If they want to, they should absolutely be able to. But there is a difference between leaving because of an ambition to become prosperous and leaving because your hometown is sinking into decline. A central thesis of this book is that no person should be forced to leave their hometown to find a decent job. That is foundational to the American promise.
This is why we need place-based policymaking that extends twenty-first-century jobs beyond the current superstar cities to overlooked communities. This book sees as flawed any economic arrangement where tech titans satisfy their consciences by depositing monthly checks indefinitely to fellow citizens living in the rest of the country. A national agenda must not simply favor the redistribution of wealth but should focus on the democratization of the value creation process itself. People do not simply want to be taken care of; they want to be agents of their own lives and productive members of society. The research expertise, new technology, collaborative platforms, digital training, and creative financing that are driving a huge chunk of prosperity in our modern economy must be broadly accessible, not confined to the coasts.
We need to seed digital jobs, which are expected to grow to 25 million by 2025 and have a median salary of more than $80,000, in geographically diverse communities customized for diverse sectors. What we learned during the pandemic is that this is entirely possible. The Covid-19 crisis shattered the status quo thinking about tech concentration. We saw that digital technology can allow millions of jobs to be done anywhere in the nation with high-speed broadband. According to a Harris poll, nearly 40 percent of respondents said that post-Covid-19 they are considering leaving city life for the suburbs or rural towns. This presents an opening for economic policies that promote decentralization to succeed. Although wealth is still likely to be concentrated in places like Silicon Valley that will remain magnets for tech enthusiasts and profit from increased digitization, we can cultivate sparkling nodes of new economic activity across our nation.
As we saw with Alex, decentralizing tech can allow more Americans to stay rooted in their communities. They can attend their hometown church or synagogue, share meals with family and friends, read the local paper even if it’s online, join a service club, play in sports leagues, and support traditional industries and workers. At the same time, they can build more resilient and dynamic local economies by accessing cutting-edge digital tools, advanced training, and high-paying remote jobs. They can take risks and embrace bold opportunities without necessarily having to move. Communities can thus balance engaging with the wider world, exposing residents to new and different perspectives and activities, and providing outlets from parochial prejudices through digital platforms, while supporting institutions and events that build civic bonds, loyalty, and pride. The aspiration is to foster a meaningful digital identity that adds to participation in a shared local culture. The promise is of new jobs without sudden cultural displacement—it is a vision of restoring the economic health of a community while promising them some control over developing their way of life. If we respect that place matters while facilitating connection to broader economic ventures and social affairs, we can foster a rich plurality of American communities while softening our cultural fault lines.
BUILDING COMMON PURPOSE
The United States in 2021 has one of the deepest partisan divides in its history. It also sees a marked split between those who are college educated and those who are not, those in urban centers and rural towns, those who are white and nonwhite, and those who trace their heritage back to America’s founding and those who are first-generation Americans.
The central aspiration of this book is to lessen some of the bitterness within our nation. It is my belief that increasing connectivity and digital opportunities for left-behind Americans can reduce the divisiveness and dysfunction of our contemporary democracy. This is not a cure-all by any means, but it is one of the more consequential initiatives we can undertake. Consider that 38 percent of rural white Americans and 45 percent of urban nonwhite Americans say jobs are a big problem in their community compared to only about 20 percent of whites living in urban or suburban communities. For all the punditry about rural communities caring more about cultural issues, American Enterprise Institute’s Samuel Abrams analyzed survey data from 2006 to 2016 and concluded that economic concerns are consistently ranked by rural residents as among the most important to address. A jobs agenda must, of course, be broader than championing investment in technology and should not become what Dan Breznitz, author of Innovation in Real Places, appropriately calls “techno-fetishism,” where communities are futilely chasing Silicon Valley unicorns that are solving extremely complex software problems. As Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee pointedly told me, innovation in a community can also mean a new shopping center, tourism office, or business cooperative. But the multiplier effect of tech jobs, which include production, means that when they arrive tailored for the needs and talents of a local community, they bring a wide range of supporting careers, incoming revenue, and changes in organizations and processes driven by digitization that can spark new growth. It’s not just about the economic data. These jobs are powerful symbols for families that have borne the brunt of stagnation, giving them hope that their kids and grandkids might have new opportunity.
Perhaps that explains why Pinckney, a small town in Michigan, decided to create the nation’s first K–12 institute for cybersecurity, or Claflin University in South Carolina launched a strategic partnership with Zoom. Moreover, in an astounding Roanoke Times poll, 90 percent of southwest Virginia—one of the most rural areas of the state—supported Amazon opening a second headquarters in Arlington, a city on the other side of the state. That was even higher than the 72 percent of the Arlington-area urban residents who supported this initiative, which created many software jobs, and not just data or fulfillment centers.
Some Americans are understandably wary of the change that digital jobs may bring. They worry that a significant tech footprint could lead to more gadgets and sensors running their life and more isolation. Neighbors might be glued to their phones and laptops instead of engaged in community picnics and parades. Then there are concerns about the character of a community. Longtime residents fear that any outsiders who come in may be transient, indifferent to local traditions and the music and art scene. They associate outsiders with rising housing costs, increased traffic, overcrowded schools, and gentrification. A vocal minority has even pushed back against bringing the “liberal ideology” identified with tech to their communities. There is resistance to Californians, for example, who account today for “nearly 60 percent of Idaho’s net migration.” But concerns that Californians will bring different values and norms often dissipate when locals realize that they are “tolerant and positive” and “respect local culture.” Conspiracy peddlers, nonetheless, speculate that techies settling in the heartland is all part of an insidious plot to turn red counties blue.
Most Americans understand, however, that the wealth generated from building digital capability can be spent on building community. Smaller cities and towns want to keep local hospitals and schools open, and their congregations and communities intact. It’s that basic. Their main issue is vacant storefronts and declining property values that impede local investment. There is so much land in rural Ohio or Iowa that the image of the rust belt or corn belt being overrun by tech flies in the face of maps and math. The alternative to competing for these high-paying jobs is to see them go elsewhere, including migrating north to places like Toronto and Ottawa. Local leaders do not want the growing and extensive digital systems underlying their own economy to be built and owned out of state, extracting wealth.
What people recognize is that many jobs in the twenty-first century will require digital competency. Health care now involves telemedicine, just as education involves online learning; finance is inseparable from online trading, just as retail today means e-commerce and digitized warehouses; entertainment in the digital age means Netflix and YouTube; even construction now involves digital design; manufacturing integrates robotics and digital inventories, and agriculture has moved toward precision farming. The new technology revolution is not simply the playground for app developers in San Francisco, but impacts nearly every region, occupation, and industry as they compete for customers and business.
The practical question, then, is not whether we want more or less tech, but whether we can insist that democratic values guide its development, accessibility, commitment to fairness, and boundaries. We cannot leave its evolution to an invisible hand that may foster creative brilliance and overnight billionaires but also leaves many behind, creating stark inequality both geographically and within communities with a strong tech presence. Our goal should be to help communities find an appropriate balance when it comes to tech, so they are not engulfed by it or left diminished in its wake. Our digital economy needs more equity and a better national equilibrium, which will drive greater economic prosperity for all.
I offer policy proposals to spread out the innovation economy and make it more just. At the same time, anyone who has seen Congress’s performance in questioning tech CEOs is probably skeptical of lawmakers’ tech competence. So we also need leadership from tech companies. This book calls for mutual responsibility, and it outlines how we can achieve it. It recognizes the trust deficit that Silicon Valley faces and offers suggestions for recentering human values in a culture that prizes the pursuit of technological progress and market valuations.
There are obvious limits to how much reimagining the digital economy can address polarization, resentment, and social alienation in our body politic. Cultural anxiety is a response not only to economic anxiety or to the fear for losing what is familiar, but also to racism that demagogues are stoking in light of the changing face of leadership and power. As Isabel Wilkerson has described in Caste, the United States’ history contains numerous examples of white Americans inflicting cruelty on Black Americans to maintain a racial hierarchy. Arlie Hochschild highlighted a modern-day manifestation of this in Strangers in Their Own Land, which recounts the frustrations of white Americans who feel that they are “waiting in a long line stretching up a hill” that is “not moving, or moving more slowly.” In the recent decades, they blame Black people and immigrants as well as “women, refugees, public sector workers” for “cutting ahead of them.”
Good jobs cannot wash away this racism. But what jobs can do is give more Americans pride in restoring their communities with many important customs intact and respect as breadwinners in their families, making it harder for narratives of resentment to take hold. The idea also is to create interconnection between communities that are currently siloed off, fostering not just communication between distant Americans but interdependent economic growth. Remote work can expand the kind of diverse interactions and joint projects that currently take place in certain health care facilities, educational institutions, and the hospitality industry throughout our nation. We must be wary of any economic reductionist argument that does not acknowledge the need for an ongoing national reckoning with racism and sexism. But we can hope that when a person’s pride and respect are linked to America’s diverse demographics through online work platforms, as in Alex Hughes’s case, it may lessen opposition to the increasingly multiracial nation we are becoming. On the flip side, cosmopolitan techies may become less disconnected, learning to appreciate the culture, traditions, struggles, and stories of blue-collar or rural towns if they work with people who live there. And from a justice perspective, the inclusion of Black and Brown communities in the innovation economy is imperative to overcome the stark economic disadvantages that exacerbate the devaluation of their voices in our democracy.
While distributed jobs are foundational, they are just the start of what must be a broader conversation to respect dignity in the digital age. If we are going to expand the digital economy to new places, we must simultaneously call for reforms that address the abuses of big tech. The digital economy has brought real dangers, such as surveillance, vitriol, censorship, exclusion, and the proliferation of misinformation. I will outline principles for protecting our autonomy online and creating space for new platforms to emerge that can improve the quality of both our markets and public discourse. In addition, we should create digital institutions that better link citizens to governance, providing them with an empowering alternative to merely liking and sharing social media posts. A theme running throughout these pages is how to facilitate robust citizen participation in this new era, whether on science policy, climate policy, or even foreign policy. I ultimately put forth a theory of democratic patriotism that calls for citizens to have an equal opportunity to participate in building our national culture, which can inspire shared attachment as we experience tensions stemming from social and demographic change. It asks us to embrace a spirit of civility so we can appreciate and support a plurality of local cultures, including many important customs and traditions passed down to us, as vibrant threads comprising our nation.
Each chapter of this book shares a set of stories, ideas, and policies that will help us reach this goal as a nation, recognizing the need for mobilization, activism, experimentation, and struggle along the way. These chapters are broken down into two main parts—the first devoted to the twenty-first-century economy, and the second devoted to twenty-first-century citizenship. A brief road map follows to lay out the arc of the argument.
PART I: TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY ECONOMY
The first part of the book focuses on jobs and the question of how to expand technology-driven opportunities to the people and places who have been left out of the first wave of the digital revolution. Chapter 2 looks in particular at a few rural areas of the country, picking up with the story of Alex Hughes and the people I met when visiting places like Paintsville, Kentucky; Beckley, West Virginia; and Jefferson, Iowa. These regions aren’t trying to become tech utopias but want to use tech to revitalize their local economy in the industries of their choosing while augmenting their existing skill set and expertise. They recognize, as the writer Michael Lind astutely observes, that digitization can be a source of renewal for farming, construction, and manufacturing, in addition to bringing in new possibilities for remote work. There are also jobs in setting up a town’s digital libraries, digital malls, and digital services. It no longer makes sense to speak of a stark distinction between the old and new economies. Many of these new digital opportunities do not require a college degree, or for that matter, learning how to code.
Chapter 3 extends the focus on tech equity beyond geography to race and gender. I share the experiences of Ifeoma Ozoma, a rising tech star who was subjected to retaliation at Pinterest for criticizing the company’s racism. Unfortunately, Ozoma’s story is common. Nearly 20 percent of computer science graduates are Black and Latino, yet they comprise fewer than 10 percent of technical employees at big tech companies. These companies are 70 percent male. Consider also that less than 3 percent of all venture capital in the United States went to Black or Latino entrepreneurs—only .32 percent to Latinas and .0006 percent to Black women. Equally problematic, the multiplier effect of tech jobs does not benefit those who live in racially segregated neighborhoods far from a city’s tech center. Black and Brown communities must be participants in the wealth generation of the digital revolution. Younger generations, in particular, are tired of being consumers, early adopters, and cultural influencers only to have investors and founders reap the profits. I will argue that tech companies must do much more than appoint diversity officers and will offer fresh ideas for inclusion.
Chapter 4 confronts the reality that high-tech has disempowered many in the working class. A staggering share of high-tech gains go to software developers and executives, but far too little to the people I spoke with like Courtney Brown, an Amazon Warehouse worker, or Marcie Silva, a bus driver for a big tech company who sleeps in her car. These workers deserve respect for the physically demanding and difficult jobs they do, not condescending lectures about acquiring more “digital skills” or overcoming a “skills gap” that devalue their contributions. This era calls for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, which I introduced with Senator Elizabeth Warren during the height of the pandemic. The framework would promise livable wages, benefits, and bargaining rights for workers. It envisions giving employees a voice in shaping automation and pushing back against intrusive surveillance and abusive supervisors—a particular challenge in a remote and distributed workplace, which makes organizing difficult. Until all workers reap the benefits of their hard work and are treated with dignity, the promise of the digital age remains unfulfilled.
Chapter 5 concludes Part I of the book by building the recommendations of the first three chapters into a larger vision for progressive capitalism. There is space in our nation’s politics for pro-innovation progressives who celebrate the distinctive American ethos of starting a business in a garage and are committed to ensuring everyone has the freedom to fulfill their potential and lead a dignified life. Markets are at their best when they are truly open to everyone, allow individuals to start new ventures, and are designed to advance the public interest. Crippling them hurts the wealth generation necessary for social progress. So when I talk about progressive capitalism, I mean that our nation must make significant investments in every American and facilitate attractive and fair opportunities for them to produce value in today’s economy, including the private sector.
My framework is indebted to Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, two of the leading thinkers who formulated the capabilities approach. They say our society has a responsibility to cultivate the intrinsic capabilities of every person to lead the life they envision and to provide avenues to exercise their talents. Investments in developing capabilities, particularly early in life, unlock human potential and are also principal drivers of growth in an innovation economy. We achieve national excellence when every individual reaches their highest potential. The progressive framework for our era can be both pro-dignity and pro-growth.
PART II: TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY CITIZENSHIP
Dignity is about more than an economic agenda. Silicon Valley has not only left many Americans out of wealth generation; certain tech companies have made profits by commoditizing them, extracting their data, and amplifying misinformation campaigns. Social media often targets the very communities that are struggling with economic decline with conspiracies and misinformation, leading to an increase in both polarization and even radicalization in our nation. We need to ask what reforms are necessary to ensure that the digital economy does not infringe on our standing as free citizens or erode our democracy.
Chapter 6 focuses on protecting our freedoms on the internet and on regulating the tech giants who have been its chief architects. The chapter starts by outlining an Internet Bill of Rights, which I created at the request of Speaker Nancy Pelosi in collaboration with Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web. Our list of rights protects Americans from both private firms and the government abusing their data to manipulate or surveil them. This chapter underscores the power that big tech companies wield in shaping our digital architecture, and in turn it calls for stronger antitrust protection to curb and remedy their anticompetitive practices and provide new players in different regions with a fair chance to succeed. I also suggest policies to counter tech’s antidemocratic impact on local newspapers, local artists, and retail shops.
Chapter 7 turns to the internet’s impact on deliberation. The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer. It launched viral movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the Sunrise Movement, and gave voice to communities long shut out of traditional media. Yet it also spread conspiracy theories and hate far and wide, promoting violence that culminated in the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021. We need an alternative to the dominant model for social media that elevates attention-grabbing and addictive content. I argue that a well-regulated market can facilitate the emergence of multiple digital forums, including publicly backed ones, that have new structures and features to improve our public discussion. The hope is that a plurality of online discursive spaces with various guardrails against the rapid mainstreaming of violence, hate, and disinformation will, over time, strengthen our public sphere.
Chapter 8 takes up broader issues of the place for science in a modern democracy. Public confidence in science was high during the space race, but public opinion and funding have both languished despite scientific progress and literacy being more important than ever. This chapter looks at how we can broaden support for major scientific investments to tackle climate change and continue our technology leadership. And it also explores the areas of investment that will jump-start all areas of the country in the coming decades. We need a new Apollo moment to build solar plants, electric car factories, battery plants, and clean steel, and to drive breakthrough technologies such as synthetic biology. At stake is whether our democracy is capable of leading in advanced production or whether authoritarian regimes like China take the lead by constructing and exporting new technology platforms that violate dignity.
The role of technology on foreign policy is the focus of Chapter 9. The digital age has already shown that technology can be used on the one hand to combat repressive regimes and, on the other, to entrench state surveillance, censorship, and authoritarianism. Within a democracy like the United States, I argue that the digital age will give citizens beyond the Beltway a larger voice in our country’s role in the world. There is concern over whether the decentralization of foreign policy would lead to “America First” skepticism of multilateralism, or to greater global engagement. But such concerns warrant more involvement of our increasingly diverse citizenry, not less democracy. The lasting question for the United States and its allies is whether pluralistic democracies can establish transnational norms and rules for dialogue on global digital platforms to respect dignity.
I conclude the book by looking back a century and a half to Frederick Douglass’s “Our Composite Nationality,” in which he lays out a vision for a cohesive multiracial, multireligious democracy that is shaped by his lifetime struggle for dignity. His speech, when read in conversation with Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls, who are the two political philosophers who have most influenced my thinking, offers a foundation for what I have described as democratic patriotism. It also speaks to me personally, and to the future that millions of Americans would like to see. Douglass writes: “I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours.”
My belief in this vision is grounded foremost in my parents’ story, stemming from the conversations they had with neighbors, the acts of kindness they received, and the dignified way they continue to live in Bucks County. It is also grounded in the people I have met around the country like Alex Hughes who have opened up to me about their dreams for themselves, their children, their hometowns, and our country. They give me hope for a future where we can be fiercely proud of our defining narratives and add to local cultural life but also embrace a shared national purpose that at minimum gives every American the freedom to thrive.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 16, 2023)
- Length: 384 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982163358
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Raves and Reviews
“In this passionate and inspiring book, Khanna offers a vision for creating spaces for rational exchange in digital media that do not serve first and foremost economic interests. I am impressed by the precise imagination of this well-informed politician.”
—Jürgen Habermas, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main
“Is there any dignity in digital? That’s a great question to ask in the wake of the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, which got a toxic assist from tech giants like Facebook. It seems more clear than ever—from misinformation to hate speech, from screen addiction to the immense wealth held by tech billionaires—that tech is working against us more than for us, as it was intended at the dawn of the internet age. It’s to Ro Khanna’s credit then that he is trying to change the narrative so that we can democratize the inventions that were paid for by the American people and let us all share in the wonders they are capable of delivering. If you are interested in trying to even the digital playing field as we move to even more critical technologies of the future, you should read this book to find out how.”
—Kara Swisher, New York Times columnist and cohost of Pivot and host of Sway podcasts
“In his new book, California Representative Ro Khanna rolls out a vision to train rural as well as urban job-seekers to build 'digital' roads, bridges, and other aspects of infrastructure. Calling simultaneously for effective regulation of Big Tech, and protection of local community, Khanna envisions redistributing opportunities from coastal cities to rural middle-America, bridging cultural differences, and creating a new cosmo-local culture. An exciting vision, brilliantly rendered—a must read.”
—Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
“This book is a highly principled, empirically grounded, progressive blueprint for building an inclusive society in which all Americans share a common national identity and participate in constructive dialogue. It is founded on the possibilities of sharing technology much more widely, on building the skills and capabilities of all people, and on the basic principles of inclusion and participatory democracy to chart a path to a flourishing society.”
—James J. Heckman, Nobel Prize winner and professor of economics at the University of Chicago
“Congressman Ro Khanna’s book, Dignity in a Digital Age, is both a practical and aspirational guide to the future of tech, governance, and equity. Congressman Khanna leans on critical race and gender theorists, economists, and philosophers to articulate a vision for the future of the technology sector that centers racial and gender justice and eschews the digital segregation that has defined the tech sector since its infancy. Dignity in a Digital Age asks the question, ‘What could our country look like if we legislated and designed for marginalized people to lead the next era of Silicon Valley?’ and leads its reader to a measured understanding of how our country can’t afford any other alternative. Too often, the voices of people of color who’ve called for a radical reimagining of technology companies, their hiring and retention practices, and the products they produce, have been shouted down as too radical or their ideas too impractical. Dignity in a Digital Age not only amplifies those leaders, their stories, and their solutions, but provides a legislative and policy roadmap for anyone unsure of how to reach that vision.”
—Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder of the African American Policy Forum and professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University
"It might seem counterintuitive for a member who represents Silicon Valley to write a book on expanding technology to the middle of the country, but that is precisely why it is so important. In this ‘shake the snow globe’ moment, Representative Khanna makes a compelling case for place-based policymaking and how a more well-dispersed innovation economy can help rising cities thrive.”
—Steve Case, author of The Third Wave, chairman and CEO of Revolution, and cofounder of America Online
“In Dignity in a Digital Age, Khanna provides a compelling vision of how spreading opportunities in the technology revolution across America can contribute to healing the nation's wounds. Today's technologies allow workers to collaborate on projects with diverse people in disparate locations while staying rooted in their communities. This joint work has the potential to humanize differences and increase the democratic intelligence of the body politic, allowing America to live up to its founding vision.”
—Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, McGill University
“Ro Khanna is a great American dreamer. His dream, powerfully presented here in personal, political, and philosophical registers, is of a twenty-first-century democracy—multiracial and multiethnic, with fair opportunity for all to participate in the extraordinary fruits of American technological innovation. Deeply rooted in values of equality, freedom, and public reason, Khanna’s democracy is also rooted in places—from redwood forests to Gulf Stream waters, from diamond deserts to waving wheat fields. It is a democracy in which strong attachments to families, neighborhoods, and local communities—places that people call their homes—is married to a capacious, generous, inclusive sense of justice. This is the American democracy that my grandparents immigrated for, that my father defended on the beaches of Normandy and in the Ardennes Forest, and that I hope my own children live in. We are in danger of losing it. But with people like Ro Khanna fighting for it, with great moral clarity and political energy, we all have reason to hope.”
—Joshua Cohen, coeditor of Boston Review and member of faculty, Apple University
“In this deeply considered and precisely detailed examination of technology’s impact on the country’s financial future and emotional present, Khanna presents policy initiatives that aim to bring civility back to public discourse, both online and in person, and to level the employment playing field. With both anecdotal accounts and factual evidence, Khanna champions the responsible use of technology to improve lives and unite factions.”
"Khanna has a nuanced take on the tech industry and offers genuine solutions to significant problems plaguing the country... [a] commonsense call for change."
“Just on the evidence of his new book, Ro Khanna is one of the broadest, brightest and best-educated legislators on Capitol Hill... His book is bulging with ideas about how to transform big tech from a huge threat to liberty into a genuine engine of democracy.”
—The Guardian US
“[F]ierce and compelling.”
—National Book Review
“Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) argues democratizing access to tech can strengthen both the economy and our social fabric with a roadmap to bridging the geographic and digital divides.”
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