Where Stanford meets Silicon Valley: universities must consider ethics of tech

Stanford University student Kiran Sridhar explores the role that higher education must play in mitigating the negative effects of technology

September 4, 2016
Stanford University, Best universities in the United States 2016
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The thin line separating Stanford University and Silicon Valley is hardly a secret: many students drop out to found tech ventures, and many professors and administrators serve as board members and advisers to companies both large and small.

To some commentators, this is an unacceptable perversion of higher education. In a New Yorker cover story, Ken Auletta dubbed Stanford “Get Rich U”, a place that pervasively and uncritically “incorporates the excesses of Silicon Valley”. To journalist and Stanford alumnus Nick Thompson, the university today is little more than a “tech incubator with a football team”.

In many cases, the tech industry takes precedence over football; the student who just raised a venture-capital round for his or her start-up, or who won an international hackathon, is a bigger campus celebrity than sensational running back Christian McCaffrey.

Criticism of Stanford is emblematic of a view that the tech industry at large perpetuates inequality: academics Daniel Kreiss, Megan Finn and Fred Turner assert that Silicon Valley is heralding a world where “class-based and purely social forms of capital” will become dominant. The ivory tower of Stanford and the open-floor plans of Silicon Valley office spaces have become symbols of today’s era of class polarisation, this new Gilded Age.

To a large degree, contra Auletta and Thompson, the close ties between Stanford and industry are not the result of the idiosyncrasies of campus culture, but rather because of global economic and cultural forces that are driving a technological revolution. Indeed, when Stanford’s ambitious students, faculty and administrators are bombarded with reports about the latest unicorn – a start-up with a market valuation of more than a billion dollars – founded by a Stanford alumnus, or the latest perks and innovative projects that Google and Facebook are investing in, it is inevitable that they would be drawn in.

To many people – both inside and outside the tech industry – the assertion by Gavin Belson, a character in the TV comedy Silicon Valley, that the region is akin to “Florence during the Renaissance” rings true.

The arguments of Silicon Valley’s critics are tendentious; technology is unquestionably improving welfare around the world. Social media enable activist campaigns – from protest movements against oppressive regimes in the Middle East or demonstrations against police brutality in the US, for example – to organise and spread. Online educational ventures, such as the Khan Academy, Coursera and Udacity, are delivering high-quality educational content to segments of the world previously starved of information.

Exciting new social enterprises, such as the UN Global Pulse team, are leveraging data generated by tech companies to analyse and more effectively address the spread of pandemics. And increasing internet and mobile phone penetration around the world has empowered individuals living in poverty to participate in the global economy. We should not want to see the technology revolution rolled back, and we should support, not protest, the fact that one of the world’s most prestigious institutions is playing a critical role in facilitating it.

But even the most Panglossian among us must admit that something of what the critics say is right. The technological revolution does create losers.

In their book The Second Machine Age, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfson recount how technology is disrupting the camera industry. In the same year that century-old company Eastman Kodak went bankrupt, the photo-sharing service Instagram was bought for $1 billion. Today, it boasts about half a billion users. While Kodak, a prominent 20th-century company, supported more than 100,000 middle-class jobs, Instagram – a symbol of the tech economy – employs fewer than 10,000 highly skilled workers.

Throughout industrialised economies, as computers become more sophisticated, similar trends are emerging. As economist Robert H. Frank put it, we are seeing the emergence of a Darwinian “winner-take-all” economy and labour market where highly skilled workers are earning seven-figure windfalls while countless middle-class jobs are being displaced by machines.

The same economic conditions that enable tech workers to gentrify San Francisco neighbourhoods and enjoy $400 tasting menus could be said to be responsible for stagnant wages among the middle class and a hollowed-out manufacturing sector.

Unfortunately, discourse in Silicon Valley rarely broaches the subject of technology’s losers. Consider the concept of “singularity” – the idea that eventually, artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where humans and machines merge. To engineers, singularity would represent a technology triumph akin to the invention of the transistor or the internet; to business tycoons, singularity would be incredibly profitable. But to ordinary citizens, singularity encapsulates all that is wrong with the technological revolution.

Silicon Valley leaders are anticipating – and celebrating – the prospect of computers becoming so advanced that they displace most jobs in today’s economy. However, in the Silicon Valley bubble, developers and executives feel so far removed from the losers of technology that it is debatable whether they even consider the negative implications of the technological advances they are shepherding, much less how to mitigate them.

This poor discourse translates to other realms: in elections around the world, it is demagogues, not thoughtful policymakers, who have successfully tapped into the frustrations of the citizenry about the growing levels of automation and job displacement.

Universities have the unique opportunity to start a conversation about technology by researching the effects of technological progress and developing solutions that enable more people to derive its benefits. Yes, a meaningful conversation on this subject will require computer scientists and business people, but it will also require economists, sociologists, anthropologists, activists and political leaders.

Universities are unique in that they have the convening power to facilitate these discussions. And universities such as Stanford have the power to instil in the innovators of tomorrow a mindset that focuses on equity – on ensuring that broad swathes of the population have the potential to realise the benefits of technological progress.

Granted, some important discussions on the effect of technology on society are already taking place on college campuses: the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) programme offers one of Stanford’s most popular majors. But institutions such as Stanford, which has played an integral role in the tech revolution, and which in its mission statement tasks itself with “exercising an influence [on] behalf of humanity and civilization”, must play far deeper roles in addressing one of society’s biggest challenges.

For instance, Stanford could require all students to take courses on the social implications of technology advancements; produce research on policy prescriptions aimed at addressing rampant inequality (such as universal basic income and vocational training); and host more conferences that promote rational, instead of emotional, discourse on the topic.

Instead of calling on universities such as Stanford to divorce themselves from a technology revolution that – like it or not – is happening, we should call on institutions of higher education to ensure that the innovations of tomorrow benefit society at large and not just the privileged. 

Kiran Sridhar is a Stanford University student and founder of Waste No Food, a non-profit that diverts excess food to hungry people.

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