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Dan Rather: ‘We are a deeply divided country’

Posted at 5:41 PM, Mar 11, 2017

AUSTIN — There’s a growing distrust of the technology industry, and if you ask Dan Rather, it’s because people are afraid.

“We are deeply a divided country,” the iconic news anchor told CNNTech. “The digital divide, the divide about fear of the future, but also a general divide between the haves and the have nots. People in the technology sector are perceived to be among the haves.”

Rather, 85, spoke at SXSW Interactive on Friday, discussing the results of a global trust survey from Edelman.

The marketing firm surveyed over 33,000 people in 28 countries and found that people are increasingly distrustful of media and government. And while people still largely trust the tech industry, they are concerned about how things like automation and globalization will affect the job market.

According to the survey, 51% of people are concerned about the pace of innovation, while 22% consider themselves “fearful.”

The tech industry is centered in Silicon Valley — home to Facebook, Google, Apple and Twitter, all major companies that play a role in people’s daily lives. And yet they are perceived as being incredibly out of touch with much of America.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gone on a campaign trail of sorts, visiting cities around the country to connect with people outside of the Valley.

Rather says Zuckerberg reaching out to new communities and emphasizing his mission to “connect the world” is a direct response to the fears of people who perceive the tech world as elitist. In fact, he says, tech companies are increasingly promoting their feel-good missions as well as actual products, in order to regain people’s trust and confidence.

“It’s a very steep hill to climb,” Rather said. “[Many people’s] minds are already made up, and unfortunately many people take the view, ‘Don’t bother me with the facts, my mind’s made up.’ It makes it more difficult to persuade them.”

Facebook was criticized after Zuckerberg said it was “crazy” that the company had any impact on the elections. (Thanks to filter bubbles and viral fake news, people rarely saw news they disagreed with on Facebook.) He later walked that claim back, but it was a reminder that technology isn’t always ready to take responsibility for how its tools impact society.

It’s understandable why people might be afraid of technology — in his farewell address, President Obama said the “relentless pace of automation” will drastically affect middle class jobs. And it’s expected that at least five million jobs in the richest economies will be lost to automation by 2020.

But tech can also create more opportunities. In Austin, which has banned Lyft and Uber, new ride-hailing companies have sprung up, giving drivers more flexibility — and some even say more money. Drivers who didn’t make enough money driving for Uber in Houston have even started making the two-hour trek to Austin to drive there.

And yet Rather knows that this isn’t enough yet. People are still afraid of the future — and that only makes our divisions worse.

“I believe this is rooted in the increasing fear that many in the general public of their being left behind. First we had the beginning of the digital divide in the late ’80s or early ’90s,” Rather said. “Now when they look toward the future, such things like the robotization of America that’s coming right down the line, their fears are exacerbated.”