A longtime creature of the tech world, it’s perhaps not surprising that Rep. Ro Khanna makes an appearance in the latest Silicon Valley scandal. Elon Musk, the new Twitter owner whose Tesla has a major presence in the congressman’s Northern California district, recently engineered the release of Khanna’s correspondence objecting to Twitter’s decision to block tweets on the New York Post’s explosive coverage of Hunter Biden’s laptop shortly before the 2020 election. Khanna’s emails were with Vijaya Gadde, a fellow veteran of the tech industry, big law firm world with whom the third-term Democrat runs in the same circles.
Silicon Valley is a place, and a concept, Khanna’s championed far more than strictly required by his job representing California’s 17th District, which also houses Apple, Intel, eBay, Yahoo and LinkedIn. First elected in 2016, Khanna kicked off his time in office traveling to places like Appalachian coal country’s Paintsville, Ky., to make the case that technology is key to revitalizing America economically. And he’s been busy since articulating the idea that technology — its excesses checked by wise leaders and a more proactive Washington — has a key role to play in the country’s future, and that it holds enormous promise for helping Democrats win back middle America. Khanna’s eager to spread and expand the gospel; his 2022 book Dignity in a Digital Age is being rebranded and released in paperback in the new year as Progressive Capitalism.
But the past few months have left American tech a bit bruised and battered, in a way that arguably complicates Khanna’s message. Musk’s early forays running Twitter have complicated the idea that it is a megaphone for the less empowered. The crypto exchange FTX collapsed, lending weight to criticisms that an unregulated, highly volatile currency will end up hurting those with fewer resources the most. The tech industry is going through massive layoffs, throwing into doubt that the sector is a reliable pathway to good, middle-class jobs.
Khanna and I spoke about his vision nearly exactly four years ago, and at the time, Khanna said, “I’m a technology optimist, ultimately.” He believed, he said back then, “the world is a better place because of these technology companies.”
So we recently sat down on a rainy late afternoon in his third-floor Capitol Hill office, Khanna dressed in a dark gray suit and light blue tie, to discuss a simple question: Still?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nancy Scola: I’ve seen you mention elsewhere that you’ve spoken a couple of times with Elon Musk. I’m curious what you made of him. And if I can ask you to get inside his mind, what do you think he’s thinking about Twitter?
Ro Khanna: I wanted to get his take on what we could do to bolster American manufacturing and economic production, and I wanted to discuss labor issues. I wanted to get his view around economic patriotism — his ideas on what it would take to have American manufacturing be more self-reliant, to build more factories here, to build more industry here.
Whatever else you think of him, he’s a brilliant mind. He was willing to listen. We obviously don’t see eye to eye on every issue, but he’s someone you can have a conversation with.
I have not discussed Twitter with him. [Khanna later clarifies that the conversations occurred earlier this year, before Musk completed the purchase of the company.] Just based on the people around him, I think he cares very much about freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and he cares about getting rid of bots on that platform.
Scola: The emails that were released between you and a senior executive at Twitter showed an interesting exchange. You’re raising concerns that Twitter’s blocking people from sharing something that appeared in a national newspaper. In response, she parses the particulars of Twitter’s content policies. Leaving aside the substance, what’s striking to me is that, just days before an election, you’re attempting to negotiate questions with potentially huge consequences with a decision-maker inside a tech company. Did you look at how much power over American democracy a few people inside Twitter had at that moment and say, “Hey, this is weird?”
Khanna: Well, this has been the history since [German philosopher Jürgen] Habermas wrote in a famous piece in the 1960s about the bourgeois, with newspapers controlling what the modern public sphere was going to look like. He has a line that newspapers are commercial but not fully commercialized. [“The publishers insured the newspapers a commercial basis, yet without commercializing them as such.”] In other words, you had private sector actors at newspapers that still had some social responsibility to democracy.
The idea that you have private actors influencing the public sphere is not new. This has been a challenge for decades.
The modern equivalent of that has become the social media companies. The question then becomes, how do you create both regulations — on disclosure, on algorithmic amplification, on the use of data to target people — and ethics within these new media companies that give them some responsibility to the public square? And I think we’re still trying to figure that out as a nation.
Scola: Along those lines, you’ve always been willing to talk about the need to curb tech’s excesses. But it’s possible to see recent events calling into question its fundamentals. You could argue that the lessons we’re getting are that Twitter is a cesspool if unpoliced, crypto is a house of cards, tech’s “visionary” leaders are betting on shaky business plans a la Facebook’s metaverse. Does it make you rethink the idea that what’s needed is just correcting tech at the margins?
Khanna: I think most people are glad that they have the ability to search for information online in a way that’s probably greater than President Reagan had. They’re glad they have a smartphone and can FaceTime with their grandkids. They’re glad that they have email to communicate. They’re glad that there are ways of organizing that allowed for the candidacy of Barack Obama [in whose administration Khanna served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Commerce] or Bernie Sanders [whose 2020 presidential campaign Khanna co-chaired] to emerge. They’re glad for the massive advancements in medical science that technology in Silicon Valley has afforded. They’re glad for the extraordinary achievements and climate, from batteries to electric vehicles to solar panels. I think the trajectory of technology is still a force for good.
Now, obviously, it has to be regulated. Obviously it has to be in the service of higher purpose. But I think we need technology to solve climate. We need technology to bring manufacturing back. We need technology to democratize voice in America. I don’t mind that we don’t have a Walter Cronkite telling us what the truth is; I think it’s a good thing that we have a proliferation of voices in this country.
Scola: I mentioned shaky business plans, and we’re seeing a lot of tech industry layoffs — not just Twitter and Facebook/Meta, but Salesforce, Snap, Amazon. You said your vision has broadened since your visit to Paintsville, but would you be comfortable going back to eastern Kentucky and saying, “bet the future on coding apps”?
Khanna: Twenty-five million digital jobs are going to exist by 2025. It’s not necessarily « Go work at Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter. » These are jobs in data management and cloud computing and digital marketing and robotics and the « Internet of Things » that are going to exist in Fortune 500 companies and any small business that wants to build their reach.
Now, Silicon Valley companies are facing a challenge because they’re growth companies and we have higher interest rates that disfavor high-growth stocks, but I think that’s a bump. You had two years of extraordinary growth because of Covid, so some of this is natural correction.
Scola: Let’s switch gears to talk about cryptocurrencies. Back during a hearing in May, you grilled derivatives-marketplace CEO Terrence Duffy over his testimony that FTX wasn’t built on a stable financial foundation. You’ve since tweeted that while you were correct on the technical question on capital requirements, Duffy was correct that FTX was a scam.
Khanna: I called him afterwards and said, “Mr. Duffy, you were right about the instinct.” He had met [FTX CEO Sam] Bankman-Fried and had gotten a sense there was something off there. He was gracious.
Scola: Have you met with Sam Bankman-Fried?
Khanna: Once. He wanted to talk about climate and this altruistic whatever philanthropy, I forget what it’s called …
Scola: “Effective altruism.”
Khanna: Effective altruism, and his vision on social justice. I found him to be an interesting person with interesting ideas. I would never have guessed that FTX would collapse. [Note: Khanna says his campaign received a $2,900 donation from Bankman-Fried shortly before Election Day that he has since refunded.]
Scola: Some of the framing that you hear from crypto advocates — I’m thinking of not just Bankman-Fried but Musk and former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — is that it’s “democratizing” financial access like the way you talk about how social media’s democratized speech. Does the FTX collapse call that into question? There are plenty of critics who are pointing to it and saying, “I told you this whole thing is a scam.”
Khanna: You can’t take customers’ funds and then spend it on something the customers didn’t authorize. I mean, there are laws on the books about the misappropriation of funds. From the public reporting, it has less to do with blockchain than with that.
I’m balanced on it. I still think the underlying technology has value. I don’t know if I’m right about that; it’s just my view from talking to a lot of people in the Valley who believe that there are a number of use cases for blockchain technology.
I have confidence in [Securities and Exchange Commission chairman] Gary Gensler and the [Commodity Futures Trading Commission], and think we need a stronger regulatory framework to give both the SEC and CFTC the power to make sure that there is not improper speculation on these technologies.
Scola: With Republicans taking the House, they’re probably going to ramp up their railing against “Big Tech,” and Democrats seem less incentivized to defend the tech industry. Have the politics around tech in Washington shifted, or do they remain status quo?
Khanna: I think it’s just more people are aware of how much tech matters in their economic life, their political life — how much privacy matters. I think these are issues they’re all very concerned about.
But for all the bluster, we still haven’t passed much substantive legislation. We still haven’t passed a privacy bill. I introduced an “Internet bill of rights” four years ago. We still haven’t passed antitrust legislation. We still haven’t passed any legislation about people having the right to their data or any regulations on social media. So, you know, there’s been a lot of hoopla. But there hasn’t been a lot of action.
Scola: As a self-involved journalist, I look at publications struggling because tech’s advertising and sponsorship budgets are down, and it’s possible to see it as an example of how just about every aspect of American life has merged with tech. Certainly politics; you have Dustin Moskovitz as a major funder on the left, Peter Thiel on the right. You look at academia, and there’s a growing influence of the tech industry in things like AI research.
That’s a long way of saying that we seem to be hitching the world’s wagon to an industry that is at the very least going through growing pains. Does it worry you to see how dominant the tech industry has become?
Khanna: This is why we need to give more people access to technology. If technology companies are the architects of so much of modern life, then we need more people participating in it, more companies having an opportunity to shape that. Otherwise, you have too few companies, too few individuals with power over American culture.
If we have the concentration of technology and wealth generated in Silicon Valley, does that give those folks there a disproportionate say in American culture? I think the solution for that is not to say we don’t want technology. We love innovation in this country. We’re forward-looking people. It’s to say, “How do we get more people to be the architects?”
Scola: I wanted to ask about the likelihood of you running for the Senate in 2024 for the seat occupied by Dianne Feinstein. But instead of asking you directly, I decided to turn to artificial intelligence and asked Open AI’s GPT3.
Khanna: What did it say?
Scola: It said, “I do not have the ability to make predictions about future events.”
Khanna: Affirming the wisdom of AI.
Scola: Can you help it out?
Khanna: I don’t know if I have the ability to predict it either. [Laughing.]
It’s on my radar. I love my job representing Silicon Valley. If there are people who reach out to me, progressives who reach out to me, I’d look at it. Who else is in the race? Are there strong progressive voices being represented? It’s contextual.
Scola: Years ago you said that the world is better off with these technology companies. Still?
Khanna: Yeah, I believe that.
I mean, I don’t understand how people want to solve climate change without technology companies. How do you want to solve the challenge of bringing manufacturing back without technology companies?
Technology is a force that can be used for good.