I have to admit that, like everyone else, I’m done with the pandemic. Last year, Zoom teaching and online social gatherings became more than old. When I got my vaccinations (thank you, science!), I fired Instacart. I’ve hungered for the long, in-person conversations over coffee that make deeper connections than tweets and TikTok videos.
Yet the internet saved my life in 2020 and early 2021. For myself and others, it was the only way to go to work, attend class or celebrate holidays with family on the other coast. It’s hard to imagine how isolating the last year and a half would have been without today’s information technologies. Over the last decade, and especially during the pandemic, these technologies have become critical infrastructure — full participation in the world around us is almost impossible without using the internet. Yet with the benefits of cyberspace have come real and sometimes dangerous risks: unfettered behind-the-scenes personal data collection, mass surveillance, the rapid spread of misinformation, and data breaches rendering private and financial information open to the world.
How do we make technology good for us, promoting its benefits and minimizing its risks? The cyberspace each of us experiences is a fusion of tech innovation and social controls — tech that provides mind-blowing capabilities and social controls that protect us by reducing misbehavior and exploitation. The same internet supports not only PornHub but also CDC.gov, Goodreads and Parler.com. Today’s culture of tech opportunism has made cyberspace into a Wild West of misuse, manipulation, misinformation and radicalism — dangerous enough that it must be regulated to ensure the well-being of all who depend on it.
If we want to live in a world that is enhanced, rather than oppressed, by technology, we need to change the culture of tech opportunism to a culture of tech in the public interest. That will require a shift in how we develop, use and oversee technology — a reprioritization of public protections over private profits. It will require us to proactively educate current and next-generation students, citizens and leaders about the social impacts of technology. Changing culture is always a long, hard slog, but it’s the only way to ensure that technology is ultimately good for society.
To change tech culture, we need to play tech offense and learn tech defense. Public servants and leaders play tech offense when they create and enforce laws, policy and practices that promote public protections: privacy, security, safety and the like. Culture begins to change when those protections are expected to be architected into current and next-generation products and services. Citizens employ tech defense when they understand the benefits and risks of the technologies they use and take steps to safeguard themselves and their information against exploitation, intrusion and worse. Like self-defense, tech defense provides a layer of protection and control between ourselves and the digital world.
Higher education can lay the groundwork for better tech offense and tech defense. Today’s colleges and universities are the last stop before many professional careers and should prepare current and future generations of professionals, public servants and citizens to live successfully in a tech-driven world. In the past, 20th-century higher education prepared us to create the powerful technologies of cyberspace; now 21st-century education must also prepare us to address the complexity, ethical dilemmas, social implications and need for protections in a digital world.
Public Interest Technology
Awareness about the social impacts of technology and strategies for tech defense and offense are the focus of the emerging field of public interest technology, or PIT. A PIT curriculum is more than just extra computer science courses. It is composed of interdisciplinary courses that explore the impacts of technology — on personal freedom, on communities and on society — with the purpose of developing the critical thinking needed to make informed choices.
For the last few years, I’ve taught a course called Data and Society — a good example of a general education public interest technology course. The purpose of the course is to expose students to the real-world trade-offs inherent in today’s technologies and help them develop critical thinking skills they can use as tech consumers, professionals and leaders. The course is continually adapted to reflect new social challenges and emerging technologies.
In 2020, we talked about facial recognition and its complexities: the challenge of determining when surveillance is protective and when it is intrusive, and whether and what kinds of social controls might be necessary. Facial recognition database images are collected from everywhere — Facebook, dating sites, driver’s licenses and more — and algorithmic identification is often inaccurate, especially for people of color. Knowing the benefits, risks and challenges in limiting this technology makes for good tech defense and better tech offense.
We also talked about tech-powered discrimination — how algorithms become biased, how tech becomes unethical, how training sets and unsupervised learning can steer algorithms towards bad outcomes. We talked about how the tsunami of data collected on each of us actively determines what products and pricing we’re offered, what information we’re shown and what communities we’re connected to. There is no “party line” in the course, no right answers. But the course is designed to help students develop tech defense skills for challenges they confront every day: Does this tweet provide information or misinformation? Is it leading me to a particular conclusion? What will this app or service do with my data? How safe is it for me to buy a smart doorbell, connected insulin pump, self-driving car?
And students are hungry for this kind of course and the tech defense skills they offer. In recent years, we’ve seen a groundswell of interest for socially relevant courses and experiences that help students tie college curricula to the real world. Many institutions couple public interest technology courses with PIT clinics or internships that provide experiential learning with the socially messy, real-world political and economic environments in which decisions about tech often get made. Student experiences can vary from participation in a cybersecurity clinic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on cyberattack vulnerability assessments to a public interest technology lab at Harvard University that concentrates on justice, accountability and equity. Currently, almost four dozen higher education institutions in New America’s Public Interest Technology University Network are pioneering PIT clinics and internships. Their practicums prepare students to put tech defense into action.
Most important, students with a background in tech defense are poised to play tech offense and build better tech. Today’s students will be next-generation public servants, professionals and entrepreneurs. A PIT background gives them the tools and knowledge they need to develop effective tech policy and regulations and to design products and choose services with public protections in mind.
Students are not the only ones who need exposure to public interest technology. As trusted institutions, colleges and universities also provide a resource for the broader community. PIT outreach activities can help alumni, executives, local communities and working public servants expand their knowledge base and skills about the digital world. Public interest technology lecture series, podcasts, short courses, boot camps and other university outreach efforts can help citizens better protect themselves and accelerate the changes we need in tech culture.
Most of us are happy to see 2020 in the rearview mirror. But the pandemic gave us a clear view of the crossroads at which we find ourselves: Will tech control us, or will we control tech? Can we prepare ourselves to thrive in today’s digital world? Higher education can help point us in the right direction. By including public interest technology as part of a 21st-century education, we will better prepare students and citizens with the skills they need to prosper in a post-pandemic world.