A Response to "Breeding the Tech Elite"
Sunday, February 9, 2014
This post was largely motivated by Libby Rainey's Daily Californian article entitled "Breeding the Tech Elite." I have often had discussions with my fellow CS friends about the growing importance of technology, and a question we often ask ourselves is, "What can we as engineers do with our skills and knowledge to better society?" I think this is an important question to ask as our responsibility to society grows with increased influence and resources.
However, I felt that Ms. Rainey's article did an extremely poor job of asking this question or providing a positive contribution to the discussion. Rather, the article pointlessly singles out a fellow student and is perhaps far more insulting than anything he may have done to the author (not returning a text). Furthermore, the article relies heavily on stereotypes that are both not representative of the CS population at large and are not constructive. Rather, many CS students have found this portrayal of their lives to be inaccurate and even disparaging.
My point in writing this post, however, is not to poke holes in factual inaccuracies or to discuss my problems with the article. Rather, I hope to contribute to the question posed above and alluded to briefly in the article. How can we as computer scientists use our skills, knowledge, and - arguably - our newly "dignified" status to help others?
Technology can help people and change the world.
I think that there are already a myriad of wonderful examples of tech companies and computer scientists that change the world and better society. A discussion of what is possible with computer science should first start with what has already been accomplished.
1. Intel's upcoming hackathon with the CSUA (Computer Science Undergraduate Association) is called "Code for Good," and that name is not simply for show. Rather, the whole theme of the hackathon is create applications on hardware (that can link with satellites and sensors) for disaster relief and diaster preparedness. Yes, Intel has revolutionary advances in processors, immersive gaming, and 3D augmented reality, but at the same time, it makes sure to develop for social issues like diaster relief, education for women and girls, and even conflict free minerals from Congo.
2. Many computer science student-run clubs on campus seek to help society through computer science. Cal Blueprint creates applications and websites for non-profits such as the Berkeley Public Schools Fund and Suitcase Clinic, and Code the Change does something similar and even runs a DeCal through which students can help non-profits while gaining web development skills.
3. Last semester, Raphael House, a shelter for homeless families, reached out to CS student organizations such as HKN and CSUA to find a tutor for a homeless father who wanted to develop skills for a job to support his two sons. I posted to the CSUA Facebook group only once but received volunteer requests from at least six different students, each of whom was willing to take time out of their busy schedules to bus to Oakland's Tenderloin district to teach this motivated man what they have themselves been learning here in Berkeley's CS program. My contact at Raphael House told me that they were so grateful and overwhelmed by the generous response of our CS undergraduates.
4. Palantir is known for its incredibly powerful algorithms, and it created an algorithm to help combat human trafficking. Palantir understands how powerful technology and algorithms can be, so it uses them in their own philanthropy engineering. Already, it has partnered with police departments to help rescue victims and prosecute criminals.
Education is key.
One of the things I love most about the CS community is its openness to friendship and collaboration. I have seen students in other majors compete negatively. However, this is strangely absent in CS. Students help each other on problem sets and projects and teach each other what they know. There are so many student organizations run by students and created for students. Honor societies like HKN and UPE provide tutoring services, clubs like CSUA, Hackers@Berkeley, and IEEE hold lots of hackathons and workshops to teach fellow students and provide opportunities, and organizations like AWE and SWE provide support services for women in the major. We know how to teach each other and take care of each other, and this extends to what we do for those outside of Berkeley.
One of the core reasons for poverty, income inequality, and a host of other social problems is a lack of education. Some industries characterized by influence and affluence - such as business - try to keep their skills a hidden art. However, this is exactly opposite for computer science. Most of the engineers I know both in person and also online through spaces like StackOverflow and Hacker News are willing to teach others what they know. And since education is so key, encouraging the pursuit of education is computer science directly helps combat the disparity in access to education.
I am a huge supporter of Code.org and other campaigns to encourage people to educate themselves. In fact, the very same CS 10 class mentioned in the Daily Cal article is designed to teach non-majors about programming and technology. This class is advanced through the efforts of our very own Berkeley professors such as Brian Harvey and Dan Garcia. Furthermore, Prof. Harvey is a great supporter of introducing public school students to Scratch/Snap! from an early age. There is a huge push to share technology and knowledge with others, and this is something that makes CS very different than other fields traditionally considered "elite."
Individuals must make their own commitments.
My point in saying all this is to say that I think there is something fundamental to most computer scientists and engineers that goes against the grain of gentrification and elitism. I think the common voice is NOT, "We have great jobs, we are rich, and we don't need you." No, we say, "Look at what CS has done for us. Look at what is possible with technology. You can learn, too!" And this is something that really redeems the field in my eyes.
And ultimately, I think it comes down the to the fact that each of us as individuals have to commit ourselves to be socially and globally conscious so that we can help others less fortunate and share the joy that is CS. Anyways, those are my two cents. Thanks for reading.