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In State of the Union, Obama Calls for a More Democratic Technological Future

The president’s remarks show that he still thinks innovation can be a liberating force.

President Obama delivers his 2016 State of the Union Address. Screenshot image via The White House YouTube channel

President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union speech on Tuesday. Like most of his speeches, it was smartly conceived, written, and delivered. As a summation of a two-term presidency, it had the desired effect of outlining what had been accomplished, despite perpetual congressional stonewalling.

But that summation wasn’t the most interesting part of the president’s State of the Union. That distinction goes to the words Obama delivered on how technology is rapidly and relentlessly altering the fabric of the modern global economy, and the shock waves this is sending through the system—and, beyond that, what must be done about the issue.

After having a go at those claiming that the American economy is in decline (they are “peddling fiction,” said the president), Obama observed how the economy has been changing in “profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit and haven’t let up.”

The president’s message is clear: So far, the 21st-century economy has been about technological progress, in the service of not only creating and selling products, but also in creating the technology—robotic assembly lines, other types of automation, artificial intelligence—to pump these products out.

“Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated,” Obama said. “Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.”

Despite a growing technology-based economy, Obama said that all of these trends have “squeezed workers, even when they have jobs.” Like anyone who cares to look at the techno-economic landscape, where investors can make millions or billions from startups, Obama sees a nation where it’s more difficult for a hardworking family to lift itself out of poverty, or for young and old to enter or exit the workplace, respectively.

But Obama did strike a hopeful note. While not explicitly stating that Wall Street and Silicon Valley shouldn’t have such a stranglehold on the benefits of technology, Obama did clearly suggest that tech innovation needs to be more diffuse, more democratic. In other words, a more decentralized tech-driven economy, where the barriers of entry are fewer so that innovators and entrepreneurs can succeed against tech titans like Google and Facebook, as well as billionaire investors.

“In this new economy, workers and startups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less,” Obama said. “The rules should work for them.”

“We’ve protected an open internet, and taken bold new steps to get more students and low-income Americans online,” Obama added. “We’ve launched next-generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day.”

To even the casual observer, these words suggest Obama still thinks technology can be a liberating force; one that can still employ people and not just corral users in sandboxed ecosystems to drain their data and enrich the already wealthy. Beyond that, he believes that technology can lift the middle and lower classes without being driven by the twin pillars of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, which the president’s team elaborates on at the White House blog.

Obama sees a future where technology works for rather than against us. Whether Obama is ultimately proven right remains to be seen.

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