June 14, 2024
A Hard Fork for Justin Trudeau

Kevin Roose, Justin Trudeau, Casey Newton I’m not going to prevaricate here: I’ve long been in the bag for Canada’s federal Liberal Party. I give them money every month to split between my local riding and the federal party. And I was elated when Justin Trudeau became our Prime Minister back in 2015.

But my affections have waned over the last nine years. Trudeau’s proven to be an incredibly divisive figure in Canadian politics; even now I can’t go far without seeing a “Fuck Trudeau” sticker on the back of a pickup truck in my town (yeah, it’s always a pickup truck). But more materially, I’ve been frequently disappointed by certain failures: abandoning a promise to enact democratic reform, appearing utterly tone-deaf and uninterested in being transparent in the SNC-Lavalin affair, and letting the housing crisis fester and grow while letting arch-Conservative leader Pierre Poillievre become the middle-class champion who will solve it. There’s other stuff too, like that whole blackface thing, accepting luxury vacations from wealthy friends, that trip to India… anyway.

After a decade in power, I think Trudeau should step down and let one of his super-capable ministers take the reins: defuse the acrimony, and allow the party’s direction forward to continue. The bench is pretty deep: Chrystia Freeland, Anita Anand, Francois-Philippe Champagne are all solid contenders.

And yet! On one of my favourite podcasts, the New York Times’ Hard Fork, Trudeau came on to talk about his feelings about AI, and Canada’s position as a centre for technology development. I loved his messaging on Canada’s place in the world, which is pragmatic and optimistic. He sees his job as ambassador to the world, and he plays the role well.

I just want to pull some choice quotes from the episode that highlight what I enjoyed about Trudeau’s position on technology. He’s not merely well-briefed; he clearly takes an interest in the technology, and has a canny instinct for its implications in society.

Hosts Kevin Roose and Casey Newton credited Canada as an innovation centre for being the home of notable AI pioneers such as Ilya Setskever. Trudeau:

One of... Canada's advantages comes down to our access to talent from around the world. The fact that it's easier to emigrate to Canada when you have tech abilities than just about any other country. I remember talking with some folks in Silicon Valley saying, "Wow, if you can guarantee me quick visas for engineers, I'll keep opening engineering centers in Canada." And we took them up on that. We created a three week global skills immigration program that has a lot of people coming in and setting up shop.

But he’s realistic about Canada’s influence and the size of its economy, when the great minds we grow here move to other countries to create massive companies. But:

Ultimately, if people are just driven by money, there are places you can make a lot more money than in Canada. But if the schools your kids are going to, if the community you live in, the quality of life, the opportunity to have so many of the advantages of a developed advanced nation without some of the inconvenience that come with some other places, Canada still has a very, very strong pitch to the world.

I like that. And when it comes to the uses that technology can be put to, Trudeau is not neutral.

I think one of my biggest preoccupations because we know technology can be positive or negative, how can we maximize the chance that it actually leads to better outcomes and better lives for everyone?… We see always a concentration of new technologies in the pockets of those with the deepest pockets. And that can go through a period of accentuating wealth inequality and a feeling of being left out or left behind by large swaths of population. If we can be part of democratizing it, of making sure that people are comfortable with the opportunities and advantages it gives and that it's helping everyone move forward and not just those who own the algorithms or the computing power, that's what I most like… If it creates opportunities for people to succeed, if it lifts people out of poverty instead of exacerbating differences between haves, have-nots and have-yachts, then we're on the right track.

I’d never heard of “have-yachts” before, and I am here for it.

There’s a useful comparion to the way Canada positions itself in relation to the United States, versus how the US positions itself in relation to big tech. In both cases, I feel there’s a clear power imbalance, and it’s important to be delicate about how the lesser power behaves in efforts to maintain standing. Trudeau is consummately aware of this, and recognizes that we’re in a perilous moment for governments everywhere to protect their citizens:

I think the larger conversation… has to do with putting the onus and the responsibility on some of these mega platforms that wield so much power in people's lives. Governments used to be able to pretty much protect and control every aspect of people's lives 50 years ago. And it wasn't necessarily for the better, it was just the way it was. We controlled our borders, we controlled what came in, including content and books and things like that. It was horribly abused in some situations, but we at least had the tools. Governments no longer have the tools to even protect people in what is a huge part of their lives because you're connecting with some server in Romania or dealing with misinformation from Iran or whatever, we just don't have those tools. So there has to be a conversation about how we build complete societies that do have responsibilities and that there are people with power, even if it's not political power, power over those spaces to think responsibly about what it is...

Justin Trudeau is not the perfect Canadian Prime Minister (truth bomb: there has never been one!). But he has what I look for in a leader: he understands the best ways forward, and guides us — imperfectly, and with many backward steps — in the right direction.

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