Trump on Tech: Planes Are ‘Too Complex to Fly,’ and ‘What Is Digital?’

WASHINGTON — He prefers Sharpies over email. His aides cart around cardboard boxes of work papers — not laptops — for him to sift through on Air Force One. On pressing technology matters, including drones at the border, clean energy and, most recently, the evolution of airplane engineering, he prefers a nonscientific approach.

In short, President Trump often operates on the theory that older is better.

“Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday, sharing his views on the still-unconfirmed cause of an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash last weekend that killed all 157 people on board. “Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better.”

At a time when experts are citing a serious need to bolster the nation’s infrastructure and science initiatives to remain globally competitive, Mr. Trump has long used partisan language to encourage his supporters to follow him in embracing a 1950s Rockwellian approach to technology.

In his continuing crusade to build a wall along the country’s southwestern border, for instance, Mr. Trump dismissed the idea of drones to secure the border. He wanted a wall, an ancient technology he has said never fails, much like its Mesopotamian cousin, the wheel.

“The fact is there is nothing else’s that will work,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter in December, “and that has been true for thousands of years. It’s like the wheel, there is nothing better.”

Mr. Trump added, “I know tech better than anyone.”

But it is a tactic that current and former administration officials said overshadowed efforts that in any other universe would look a lot like bipartisanship: Mr. Trump, they say, has privately committed to expansions of several technological initiatives that were hatched in the Obama White House, including revamping the government’s technology system and digitizing health care records.

Not that this is evident when Mr. Trump addresses the public. He tends to frame the willingness to embrace technology as a partisan issue, which his fans lap up. His mocking examination of wind power led to laughter from a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference this month.

“When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric,” Mr. Trump said before mimicking a man trying to watch TV: “‘Darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.’”

His theatrical approach tends to dazzle fans, but it has alarmed experts who worry that the president’s analog behavior has failed to signal to Americans which technological ideas they should be excited about — or which they should be worried about — as global competitors, including China, pour money into technology initiatives like the race to master artificial intelligence.

“It doesn’t put the best face forward for the United States to have a president talking that way,” Darrell West, the director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. “It makes us look like we’re not a scientifically literate country.”

Cristin Dorgelo, who was chief of staff in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Barack Obama, said a commander in chief was supposed to be the nation’s most effective intermediary between the public and the science and technology communities.

Mr. Obama, she pointed out, edited an issue of Wired magazine and was notorious for imbibing detailed memorandums on technology policy.

“I think that we have a problem where there are people doing good work inside of the building to advance policy on technology issues,” Ms. Dorgelo said, “but a president who at the same time does not ground his remarks about science and technology in fact and in evidence.”

It’s not as if Mr. Trump dismisses all technology in his public life. He likes hobnobbing with technology executives at the White House, like Tim Cook of Apple (although he called him “Tim Apple”), and has masterfully re-engineered the presidential Twitter account to serve as his e-bully pulpit. Aides say he is also adept at using his DVR systems to record television shows. Mr. Trump, after all, believes TiVo is “one of the great inventions of all time.”

Mr. Trump has also used an executive order to establish a national strategy for artificial intelligence and another to develop a strategy to lead the world in fifth-generation, or 5G, cellular networks. (Mr. Trump remarked recently on Twitter that 6G would be even better.)

“The Trump administration has been laser-focused on an ambitious national tech policy agenda that drives innovation and American leadership in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, 5G networks and quantum computing,” Michael Kratsios, the deputy assistant to the president for technology policy, said in a statement. “The president cares deeply about ensuring these technologies are developed by American innovators, built by American workers and reflect American values and priorities.”

Some experts are concerned that the commitment is little more than lip service. Mr. West, from Brookings, said the White House established an A.I. policy a year and a half after China announced that it planned to create an A.I. industry worth $150 billion to its economy by 2030.

“It’s too little, too late,” Mr. West said. “If you’re not funding a major initiative, agencies are not going to take it seriously.”

But Aneesh Chopra, who was Mr. Obama’s chief technology officer, said in an interview that in other matters there was a “surprising alignment on a number of key areas” where the Trump White House has worked to expand a blueprint left by predecessors.

“I may strongly disagree with the president’s views of health care reform,” Mr. Chopra said, “but I am pleased with the president’s commitment to build on progress on the long-term technical foundation of what we refer as a health care internet.”

Mr. Chopra and several of the president’s aides credited Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, with pushing Mr. Trump to recognize the importance of some of those efforts.

A key to getting Mr. Trump to respond to technological efforts, several of his advisers said, is to frame the pitch in cost-saving and customer-service terms. During a 2017 meeting to get him on board with revamping government technology systems, a project Mr. Kushner championed after helping establish the Office of American Innovation, aides said they told Mr. Trump the effort could save billions.

After asking his aides what Americans would see if the systems to apply for farming loans or veterans health care benefits were redesigned, Mr. Trump eventually approved the effort. But Mr. Trump said at the time that he knew he would never get credit for it, according to two people familiar with his remarks.

After all, this is the same president who said the United States Navy should get rid of an electromagnetic catapult system on a new aircraft carrier and replace it with an old one that used steam.

“They have digital,” Mr. Trump told Time magazine in 2017. “What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out.” The Navy, Mr. Trump recalled, told him they had to stay with digital. “I said, ‘No you’re not,’” Mr. Trump recounted to Time. “‘You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.”


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