Why I have issues with Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us

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Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg launched Fwd.us in a Washington Post opinion piece Thursday, a new group that is lobbying for a new approach to immigration in the U.S. He is joined by some Silicon Valley power houses — John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Dropbox’s Drew Houston and scores of others, including many Facebook alumni. In a carefully crafted piece for our capital city’s home paper, Zuckerberg told the story of his family. He talks about U.S. being left behind. Bring out the violins!

FWD.us is an organization started by key leaders in the tech community to promote policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy—including comprehensive immigration reform and education reform.

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I admire that Zuckerberg and his merry band of do-gooders for embarking on this quest. I also respect the idea of education reform and applaud the leadership position this group is taking here. And I also applaud the efforts the group will devote to science and innovation.

However, what I hate is the focus put on a specific immigration issue; but I am getting ahead of myself. This is from an op-ed currently on the FWD.us website:

The economy of the last century was primarily based on natural resources, industrial machines and manual labor. It was an economy where many of these resources were zero sum and controlled by companies. If someone else had an oil field, then you did not. There are only so many oil fields, and there is only so much wealth that can be created from them for society. Today’s economy is very different. It is primarily based on knowledge and ideas — resources that are renewable and available to everyone.

Yup, ideas and knowledge are renewable and available. But do they lay the bricks for the data centers that house Facebook’s servers? Do “ideas” — as Zuckerberg & Co describe — actually build the dams that in turn produce the electricity that helps you poke Mark? The food on your plate, it too is just bits and bytes?

Yup, those things don’t need people. They crop up magically. No natural resources, no machines, no manual labor, just …. ideas and knowledge!

What that snippet from FWD.us tells me that when it comes to our Silicon Valley leadership, there is a disconnect in understanding the real world that exists beyond the browser or the mobile phone. We don’t do empathy and human interactions very well in the Valley, especially companies whose raison d’être is social and people. You know, like Facebook.

The problem with this effort is that many of those leaders live in a bubble that is of their own making and have little interaction with the real world. The fact is that any immigration reform needs to dovetail with the domestic reality of the 21st century America. In order to change the world and wanting new policies, there needs to be a deeper understanding of the world around us.

The Flyover Nation

Between Sand Hill Road and Wall Street lies a big country that is going to bear the brunt of the coming connected age. Sorry Mark, but in the age of data, Facebook is Standard Oil and you are Rockefeller. And unfortunately, you have the data and we don’t. If we did, there would be naked transparency on data and privacy from Facebook. But I am digressing again.

Any immigration debate has to start with the education and re-education of the American workforce. With the coming connected age and continued proliferation of technology into our physical world, we are beginning to see disruption and massive displacement on a large scale. We don’t have the mechanisms in place to train people for this quantified societywhere data looks to become the ultimate arbiter. How can we have any talk of immigration and a knowledge economy that doesn’t acknowledge that there is a silent desperation outside of Silicon Valley and New York and Washington, D.C.?

People talk about robot-helpers and an army of drones, but I don’t hear how the factory workers and farmers will actually learn how to use them, as well as tame the data these gizmos will throw up and then will put it to work. What is going to happen to millions of people who will be replaced by those drones and robots? After all, they are as much a part of the capitalist food chain that makes the world go around. Damn … if we are going to continue to be an innovation economy, then it has to be about more than a couple of million people.

The Invisibles

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Now let’s talk about immigration issues, because when I see FWD.us and the focus of its charter, I see the same old self-serving argument the technology industry serves up when it comes to immigration reform. In my years of writing about technology, I have seen pretty much the same argument made every single time — just change the billionaire or the company clamoring for this change.

Every discussion is about getting startup visas, or visas for engineers and knowledge workers and experts and how we need to get these people to stay in the U.S. after they are done with college. Let’s not trivialize the challenges facing our society and the reality of immigration and job creation in today’s world.

As an immigrant, I see any such discussion as limited. We can’t have a discussion about immigration reform unless we talk about other immigrants — the invisibles who do a lot of the work in the offices of Facebook and Yahoo, but never get invited to the IPO party or are handed an iPhone. How can we have a lobby group which has no representation from those people? Instead we have this:

Across America, creative, hardworking people in coffee shops, dorm rooms and garages are creating the next era of growth. Let’s embrace our future as a knowledge economy and help them — and all of us — reach our full potential.

If Mark and others really cared deeply about immigration reform on a holistic level then the conversation would involve a whole lot of other people — members of non-engineering and non-technology corps. So, no, I don’t buy that just because an immigrant works on an algorithm make her more important.

I know, because I am one. Perhaps FWD.us and Zuckerberg should start actually learning about the whole and real problem: a society disrupted in connected age.

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