Skip to content Skip to navigation

Technology Talks Get a Reboot

May 1 2020
Jasmine Wenyi Sun

If you were to stroll through Palo Alto, you would undoubtedly be surrounded by discussions of technology.

On your right, you hear a product manager celebrating his company's IPO, joking about the Tesla he'll finally get to buy. On your left, janitorial workers lament Silicon Valley's rising rents as they prepare to commute three hours home on public transit. To these workers, technology is both the magic of a smartphone in their pocket and the reason they've had to move four times in the last eight years. Behind you, two students are embroiled in a heated debate: Is it immoral to work for Palantir, the data mining company that powers both ICE and the NSA? Or would it be noble to code for the government instead of another adtech firm?

In the last few decades, technology has penetrated every institution we have. People, places, and processes have been cast into disarray. Many in the tech world have read wave after wave of media investigations into algorithmic bias, sexual harassment, and right-wing radicalization.

But revealing technological wrongs is not enough. We can't just refactor code without asking who the software is serving in the first place. Nor can we simply swap out our masters, applying the same tools—venture capital, machine learning, lean startup—to a broader range of problems. Rather, ethical technology requires a broader interrogation of the ideologies and institutions that technology has come of age in. Slowly and collectively, we need to design new ways of thinking and new arrangements of power to take their place.

Enter Reboot

Reboot is an event series born from a desire for thoughtful, cross-cutting conversations about building better technological futures.

In April, we invited four authors of recent books on technology, power, and humanity to chat with students. These discussions were intended to be honest and participatory: in small groups of 20, participants' diverse experiences came to the forefront, building empathy and curiosity alongside understanding. Authors shared their favorite books and artists, their unique intellectual journeys, and anecdotes from their research. Finally, a copy of the author's book was raffled to an attendee.

Jenny Odell: How To Do Nothing

Jenny Odell is a multi-disciplinary artist, writer, and digital art instructor at Stanford. Her most recent book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, is a manifesto for reclaiming human attention, the most precious—and overdrawn—resource we have.

Jenny's perspective was a refreshing one. She urged us to embrace the ethic of "I prefer not to," turning consciously away from the constant notifications and updating Slack feeds that demand our attention. But unlike traditional digital detoxes, she encouraged us to find inspiration in nature: the passage of time as canyons are eroded by wind and water, or the random yet perfect chaos of a forest ecosystem. Perhaps life is less a giant to-do list, measured in terms of boxes ticked, and more a piece of artwork, always in-making.

Wendy Liu: Abolish Silicon Valley

Wendy Liu is a founder/engineer turned writer whose recent work focuses on Silicon Valley and inequality. Her debut book, Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, recounts her journey from startup enthusiast to fierce industry critic.

Our discussion focused on the ethical challenge that young technologists face as they design their careers. As students, we're familiar with the exciting technical problems, six-figure salaries, and mission-driven rhetoric that play a role in luring new grads into companies that may not align with our morals. In talking to Wendy, we got to hear from her struggle with the same questions, learned why software engineers should ally with service workers, and shared our strategies for having tough career conversations with friends.

Lizzie O'Shea: Future Histories

Lizzie O'Shea is a lawyer, writer, and broadcaster based in Australia. Her new book, Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us About Digital Technology, asks the provocative question of what Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune can teach us about digital technology.

In 1986, famed technology historian Melvin Kranzberg stated: "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral." Lizzie started her talk with this framework: innovation can never be extricated from its sociopolitical context. In fact, the most exciting utopian visions often come not from the Elon Musks of the modern world, but from the radical thinkers of the past, whether the Paris Commune decrees or Franz Fanon's self-determination. From there, we jumped into more concrete discussions of socializing technological infrastructure, the role of antitrust in protecting democracy, and what engineers can learn from lawyers.

Kevin Roose: Futureproof

Kevin Roose is a technology columnist at The New York Times and a three-time author. His latest book, Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, is a practical, research-based guide to living a fulfilling life in the face of technological revolution.

During our talk, we connected the question of impending automation to the broader landscape of technological change. Kevin tied our modern dilemmas to history, whether job obsolescence during the Industrial Revolution or the media backlash against Standard Oil's monopolistic practices. But Kevin's unique approach in Futureproof is how he refuses to diminish humans to passive recipients of change. Instead, his talk encouraged us to reclaim our agency: develop skills that are scarce, surprising, and social; combat radicalization by building community safety nets; be wary how photos can be manipulated.

Moving Forward

As a moderator, I was especially inspired by how thoughtful and engaged student attendees were. Participants TAed CS and Ethics courses, founded edtech companies, and agitated for change from their universities and employers. They attended universities across the country, studying fields like Math, Design, English, and Ethnic Studies, interweaving diverse disciplines into their understanding of technology and power.

Reboot will continue hosting talks with authors in May, including business reporter Alex Kantrowitz, writer Anna Wiener, and sci-fi writer Ken Liu. But based on feedback from the April seminar series, we're also begun sketching out the foundation for a broader community that encourages students to outline and collaborate on their own ideas for better technological futures.

In an industry hyper-focused on revenue goals and weekly wins, it can be difficult and isolating to plant the seeds for transformative long-term visions. But we finished the month of discussions with a sense of hope. I can feel the latent energy among young technologists—that we're ready to take on the responsibilities that past tech idols have shirked. 

Thank you to the McCoy Center for Ethics in Society for sponsoring these programs through an Ethics Event Grant, which has been used to purchase books for students and provide authors with stipends.

 

Jasmine Sun is a junior majoring in Sociology with an emphasis on ethical technology and social networks.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.