After the coal industry took a hit in eastern Kentucky beginning in 2009, Alex Hughes’s business went under. He had been installing commercial printers in offices that oversaw coal-mining operations. Hughes, then in his early 30s, found himself unemployed for nearly six months in what was the lowest period of his life. Nearly two decades earlier, Hughes had been stabbed in the face by a drunk stranger, and the scar still stretches across his jaw and cheek. If given the choice, Hughes told me, he would have preferred being stabbed again to losing the business he had owned for 15 years and going without work.
In 2017, while once again unemployed, Hughes saw a television ad for Interapt, a technology-services program, which paid $400 a week for six months of intensive training on 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 this 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, Hughes earned $42,000 a year as a basic coder, and now makes $77,000 annually as a lead software developer.
Stories like Hughes’s were on Representative Hal Rogers’s mind when he invited me to visit Paintsville, Kentucky, in 2017. Rogers, now 83, is a Republican who has served in Congress for 40 years in the heart of what today is Trump country. I am a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley in the House. The region that Rogers calls “Silicon Holler” exemplifies how many people in Appalachian Kentucky aspire to build a tech-savvy workforce to support their broader economic ecosystem. They reject the emptiness and elitism of the notion that all laid-off middle-aged workers or liberal-arts graduates should now become coders. Instead, they recognize that digital wealth can sustain a wide diversity of jobs. I felt flattered when headlines about my visit to Rogers’s district described me as the “ambassador” of Silicon Valley, but that characterization was also startling—as if, for Kentuckians, the hotbed of American tech innovation were essentially a foreign country.
Even as the digital revolution is reshaping our economy and society, it continues to sideline and isolate many parts of the country. My aim is to advance our democratic values by empowering all of us to direct and steer these digital forces. Placing democratic principles at the center of the 21st-century tech revolution is about more than unleashing untapped talent like Alex Hughes’s, facilitating his rise, and allowing him to support the cultural life of his hometown. We must make the high-tech revolution work for everyone, not just for certain Silicon Valley leaders who commodified our data to amass fortunes and now have a disproportionate influence on our national culture and debate.
The practical question is not whether we want more or less tech, but whether we can insist that democratic values guide its development. 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 that have a strong tech presence. Our goal should be to help communities find an appropriate balance when it comes to tech so that they are not engulfed by it or left diminished in its wake. A key pillar of building a multiracial, multireligious democracy is providing every person in every place with the prospect of a dignified life, which includes the potential to contribute to and shape the digital age.
My story 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.
In 1942, my grandfather was imprisoned for four years for participating in Gandhi’s Quit India movement, which demanded an end to British rule of the subcontinent. During the period of his imprisonment, my grandmother never spoke with him and did not know whether he was alive. My grandfather was one of the fortunate ones who made it out of prison in good health and spirits. After India attained independence, he served as a member of India’s first Parliament, in 1952.
The cliché rings true for me: Only in America is a story like mine possible. My parents benefited from the civil-rights movement that opened the country to immigration from non-European countries as well as America’s policy of recruiting engineers and scientists to compete with the Soviets.
They started their American life in Bensalem, 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 30 years while my mother worked as a substitute schoolteacher for kids with special needs.
I grew up in a Holland, Pennsylvania, neighborhood where our neighbors included senior corporate executives, mid-level professionals like my father, and also an electrician, a nurse, a teacher, and an HVAC technician. We went to one another’s homes for meals, had sleepovers, and celebrated holidays together.
Years later, when I told my family that I had accepted a job offer from a tech-law firm in Palo Alto, my grandmother told my mother that now she would understand what it felt like to have a child move far away. Today, I represent what is arguably the most economically powerful place in the world—the home of Apple, Google, Intel, Yahoo, eBay, and LinkedIn.
Prominent economists argue that, more and more, a smattering of select cities will be the hubs for new high-paying jobs. They draw parallels between today and the Industrial Revolution, which created similarly large disruptions yet made everyone better off in the long run. So let’s encourage people to move to where the new opportunities will be, the argument runs. But what does this disruption mean for people’s livelihood and identity? What does it mean for families living in the places left behind?
National policy makers, to our peril, have ignored the destabilization of local communities. Many 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 grew up might mean that extended family members meet for weekend meals, instead of seeing one another only on FaceTime. It might mean choosing love and responsibility over one’s career ambitions, prioritizing the care of an aging parent or a sibling with special needs. Place matters as much for certain techies who cannot envision leaving their adopted neighborhood in San Francisco as it does for parents in rural communities who do not want to lose their children to faraway cities. What about the unemployed? Should people like Alex Hughes have to leave their hometown and move across the country? If they want to, they should absolutely be able to. But no person should be forced to leave their hometown to find a decent job.
This is why we need place-based policy making that extends 21st-century jobs to overlooked communities. Prominent figures in Silicon Valley have proposed a universal basic income as a way of reducing the sting of inequality. Any economic arrangement where tech titans satisfy their conscience by depositing monthly checks indefinitely to fellow citizens is flawed. A national agenda must not simply favor the redistribution of wealth but should focus on the democratization of the value-creation process itself. 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.
For that reason, the U.S. government, in partnership with the private sector and educational institutions, should lead an initiative to seed digital jobs, which are expected to increase to 25 million by 2025 and have a median salary of more than $80,000, in geographically diverse communities. The pandemic shattered the status quo thinking about tech concentration. Digital technology, such as high-speed broadband, can allow millions of jobs to be done anywhere in the nation. According to a May 2020 Harris poll, nearly 40 percent of urban respondents said that they would consider leaving city life for the suburbs or a rural town post-COVID. This presents an opening for economic policies that promote decentralization. Although wealth will likely remain concentrated in places like Silicon Valley, public policy can cultivate sparkling nodes of new economic activity across our nation.
As Alex Hughes’s career shows, decentralizing tech can allow more Americans to stay rooted in their communities. They can attend their hometown church or synagogue, subscribe to local newspapers, join a service club, play in sports leagues, and support traditional industries and workers. At the same time, people can build more resilient and dynamic local economies by accessing cutting-edge digital tools, advanced training, and high-paying remote jobs. Communities can balance engaging with the wider world with supporting institutions and events that build civic bonds, loyalty, and pride. The promise of new jobs without sudden cultural displacement will allow people to restore the economic health of a community while giving them some control over developing their way of life. If we respect that place matters while facilitating connections to broader economic ventures and social affairs, we can foster a rich plurality of American communities and soften our cultural fault lines.
This article is excerpted from Ro Khanna’s recent book, Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us.
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