There is an alarming gulf between people thriving in the digital economy and those shut out of it. That gulf grew wider during the COVID-19 pandemic as tech workers enjoyed the ability to work from home while people in service jobs struggled with layoffs and housing insecurity.
Rep. Ro Khanna has watched this crisis unfold in the heart of Silicon Valley and across the country. He believes it’s possible to stop this trend by giving more Americans access to the technology necessary to thrive in the digital economy.
He spoke with San José Spotlight about his new book, “Dignity in a Digital Age,” and his vision of increasing access to technology locally and nationally. The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What compelled you to write your new book, “Dignity in a Digital Age?”
There’s $11 trillion in market capitalization in my district and the surrounding areas. Apple, Google, Intel, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Tesla and Cisco.
Young people in my district, according to polling, are very optimistic about America and the future. The world is their oyster. But as I traveled around the country, I met with some communities where they are not hopeful about globalization and digitization. They see towns de-industrialized, kids buying one-way tickets out of their hometown, huge disparities of opportunity in Black and brown communities.
I want the digital economy to fulfill its actual promise, and that means decentralize. That means people should have access to a good paying job without having to leave their hometown. That’s what sparked my interest in writing this book, this COVID realignment moment of decentralization across the country.
In our area, we have 10 to 12 jobs per housing unit. The national average is one and a half jobs per housing unit. That is totally out of whack. It’s why we have so many people who are rent burdened in our area, particularly the service workers. They can’t afford to live—50-60% of their paycheck is going into rent.
If we could get a better national equilibrium, if we could bring the ratio down in our area of jobs to housing units, and we could increase the jobs and prosperity in places with totally depressed property values, that would be a win-win.
Why are you passionate about increasing access to technology?
I’m passionate about giving people economic opportunity, and opportunity for affirmative citizenship in the 21st century. That requires access to technology.
Technology literacy is a prerequisite for economic empowerment in the 21st century. It’s a prerequisite for participation as a citizen. I want people to have agency over their participation, and so much of the public sphere.
The president’s State of the Union address hit a lot of notes about technology, what do you want to see this administration accomplish on the tech front?
It was a pleasure sitting next to (Intel CEO) Pat Gelsinger at the State of the Union. It was a great moment of pride for me that a CEO from my district is being recognized for $20 billion of investment into Ohio, the economic revival of Ohio and the Midwest.
The president has pushed for the passage of the COMPETES Act—I helped co-author that act—with the Endless Frontier Act. I worked for three years on getting that thing through the Senate. It’s gone through the House, we need to reconcile it and we have got to get it to the president’s desk and pass it.
That would be the largest increase in science and tech investments since the Kennedy years. It would have massive investment in semiconductor manufacturing, we need that in this country. And we need to have much more funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and land grant universities for preparing people for digital jobs and digital opportunities.
What would the America COMPETES Act do for Silicon Valley?
It would be the biggest increase in AI, quantum computing, clean tech, electronics manufacturing and synthetic biology investments that America has seen since the Kennedy years. A lot of this funding would go to (the National Science Foundation), and it would go to the labs and create a new technology director to make sure this funding isn’t just going to theoretical research, but also to commercialization.
People would benefit from this in every part of the country, in creating tech hubs and creating investments. And certainly Silicon Valley leading technologists would benefit and the region would benefit with investments in some of the funding and research that’s going on in the valley.
When you speak about this massive investment in technology, part of this also deals with closing digital divides across the country. How is the digital divide harming businesses and economies?
The digital divide is harming a lot of brick-and-mortar stores. They are being put out of business because of Amazon. One of the things I talked about is helping them with grants and tax credits so they can compete, so you don’t have these storefronts shutting down on Main Street. The digital divide is also hurting small businesses that don’t have digital market plans, don’t have digital advertising plans, so we need the tools to succeed in an online world.
The digital divide is closely aligned with an economic divide, even in Silicon Valley. We have a severe wealth gap and by some metrics it’s getting worse. How could increasing access to technology help people struggling to make ends meet?
There’s an enormous economic divide because of the digital economy. Nine of the ten wealthiest companies in the world are tech companies. Most of the billionaires in the world are tech billionaires. And yet, there’s so many people in Silicon Valley who are living paycheck to paycheck, who can’t afford rent, who can’t afford to live in the area, who are commuting in. There are workers who don’t have basic dignity, who have algorithms as bosses as opposed to human bosses.
We need greater pay for workers. We need more affordable housing, we need more housing supply, we need workers to have workplace democracy, to be able to organize in the workplace and have agency in the workplace. These are all things that would create more dignity and equity in a digital age.
You mentioned creating jobs as part of this investment in technology. What kind of jobs do you foresee being created in Silicon Valley?
What I want to see in Silicon Valley is workers getting greater agency, greater rights and greater benefits. I want to look at places that have been left out of the digital economy in Silicon Valley. A lot of the African American community doesn’t have opportunity, and that’s why I did a Black jobs fair at San Jose State. A lot of Latino kids are not getting these opportunities in East San Jose and parts of the East Bay.
I’d like to see greater expansion of digital jobs and opportunities for communities that traditionally have been left out of the Silicon Valley ecosystem. And to make sure that workers are being treated fairly and benefiting so their lives are improving from all the prosperity being generated, and not that rents are exceeding their paychecks and where they actually have less economic security.
Do you see the trend toward automation as something that could conflict with creating more jobs through this investment in technology?
No, I think all the projections show there’s going to be 25 million digital jobs. AI in our nation is actually making some of these new jobs low code or no code. That means it’s going to require less ability to code because AI is doing that. It’s going to be understanding how to use software to do services or to do manufacturing, and that’s something people can get with a nine-month course. They don’t need these extensive four-year degrees. So I think if you prepare properly, it can actually create a lot more jobs.
You believe in progressive capitalism—how does that intersect with democratizing access to technology?
Progressive capitalism means I celebrate innovation, I celebrate entrepreneurship. That’s something we need to celebrate not just in Silicon Valley, but across the country.
We need to have place-based policies. Yes, we want to celebrate entrepreneurship and innovation, but we need the state to help make sure that we have economic development across the country—and value place and community—and don’t just spend passively if markets are destroying communities. We need to have investment in people’s fundamental capabilities, and their potential to contribute. That means giving them education and health care.
How do we ensure new technological innovations and investments are paired with social policies that will make them effective?
My book is calling for expanding technology opportunities, expanding technology investment, but it has to be coupled with social policy that makes it fair for workers. We need to make sure workers are on board, so workers get the right to organize and are treated as employees.
It calls for policies that make it inclusive. We need to make sure the tech communities themselves are inclusive on gender, race and for people from rural communities. Otherwise you’re going to see a tech metropolis that is unfair for service workers, has too high of housing prices and is too exclusive when it comes to race and gender. That is not a good vision.
My vision is one of expanding tech, but combining it with social policy to make it benefit everyone. That’s why I sort of lay out this vision of progressive capitalism.