I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the role of Universities in the Climate Crisis. I plan to write more on this, but first, here’s a piece I scribbled on a napkin during a workshop prior to the pandemic, on bringing human values in to computer science, and never got around to sharing…
We speak of research agendas, curriculum change, working with practitioners, etc, as if the future world (over the next decade or so) will be like the present world. It won’t be.
The next decade will be marked by a struggle for rapid transformational change throughout society, and the outcome of that struggle will determine the future of human civilization. Yet everything we’ve mapped out speaks of incremental change. It’s a gradualist agenda that talks about working with existing companies, existing curricula, existing research labs, nudging them to take human values a little more seriously in their work.
But if you take seriously the confluence of (at least) three serious and urgent crises, it’s clear we don’t have time for an incrementalist approach:
1) The climate crisis, in which digital technology is deeply implicated. The carbon footprint of computing is growing dramatically, because we’re putting the internet in everything, and it’s amplifying all the worst trends of our disposable, consumerist society. Silicon valley’s model of innovation (“move fast, break things, and leave others to clear up the mess”) has focussed for so long on finding new ways to monetize our data that we’ve forgotten what innovation really looks like. A reminder: over the next decade or so, we need to completely transform our energy infrastructure to reach net zero global emissions. We can’t do this while silicon valley continues to hoover up all the available investment capital.
2) Automation and AI, which threatens to destroy any notion of a stable job for vast sectors of society, and which replaces human empathy for the cold, impenetrable injustice of algorithmic regulation (How do we just say “no” as a society to such technologies?).
3) The dismantling of democracy, through the use of ubiquitous digital surveillance by autocrats and corporatists, and the exploitation of (addictive) social media as a vector for extremist propaganda designed to pit us against one another.
So we should be striving for a much more radical agenda that envisages the wholesale transformation of the computing profession, putting an end to the technological solutionism of Silicon valley, turning it into a humble enterprise that places human dignity first. We need to dismantle the stranglehold of the big five tech corporations, break the relationship between digital technology and consumerism, and give ourselves the power to ban some technologies completely. We should not put activism in a box. As academics, activism should infuse all of our teaching, all our research, all our community engagement. If we’re not working for transformational change, we’re reinforcing the status quo.
Put simply, we need to recognize the unique historical moment we find ourselves in, and the role computing has played in our current existential crises.