Sure, technologists can be smart. But to assume that expertise in software engineering converts to expertise in child development, public health, or the moral implications of technology more broadly — and that technologists thus need not consult expertise in other areas — has led to the ethical crises raging across the technology world today.
Note: this is an excerpt of an essay published with the Los Angeles Review of Books. Read the full essay here.
In the past several years, the media has produced a steady stream of stories about Silicon Valley tech executives who send their children to tech-shunning private schools. Early coverage included a widely discussed 2011 New York Times article about the preponderance of “digerati” offspring, including the children of eBay’s chief technology officer, at the tech-adverse Waldorf School of the Peninsula. A 2017 article in the Independent discussed the technology-free childhoods of Bill Gates’s and Steve Jobs’s kids. Haplessly conflating correlation and causation, it linked teens’ technology use to depression and suicide and smugly concluded, “wealthy Silicon Valley parents seem to grasp the addictive powers of smartphones, tablets, and computers more than the general public does.” A 2018 New York Times article called smartphones and other screens “toxic,” “the devil,” tantamount to “crack cocaine,” and intoned, “[t]echnologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.”
These articles assume that techies have access to secret wisdom about the harmful effects of technology on children. Based on two decades of living among, working with, and researching Silicon Valley technology employees, I can confidently assert that this secret knowledge does not exist.
To be sure, techies may know more than most people do about the technical details of the systems they build, but that’s a far cry from having expertise in child development or the broader social implications of technologies. Indeed, most are beholden to the same myths and media narratives about the supposed evils of screen time as the rest of us, just as they can be susceptible to the same myths about, say, vaccines or fad diets. Nothing in their training, in other words, makes them uniquely able to understand arenas of knowledge or practice far from their own.
As a case in point, many techies’ conviction that they must monitor and cultivate — with concerted effort — their children’s technology habits is firmly and prosaically rooted in the values and worldviews shared by many non-techie middle-class parents. Private schools almost by definition have to craft stories that appeal to privileged strivers anxious about their children’s futures. Some of these stories recount how their graduates’ creative brilliance was spawned in their school’s tech-free environment. Related ones ply anti-contamination themes, and fetishize the purity of childhood. Techie parents are as susceptible as anyone else. Moreover, the ways in which technology fits into these narratives — or is actively excluded from them — has far more to do with parents’ age-old fears about social change and new media than with any special knowledge vouchsafed to tech workers. Indeed, such stories are similar to widely held beliefs in 18th-century England that novels corrupted the soul. In the latter half of the 20th century, first television and then video games became the sources of this alleged corruption, joined by the internet at the dawn of this century.
This isn’t to say that these media are universally good for us — not at all — but their influence is far more nuanced and contextually dependent, and far less dystopian, than the stories quoted above lead us to believe. Research consistently shows that what really matters is the context of children’s technology use (is this time for the family to be together or a digital babysitter?), the content they consume (is this videochatting with grandparents or violent videos?), and how adults communicate with them about what they are seeing.
The more important point here is that believing techie parents have secret insider knowledge about the harmful effects of children’s technology usage reinforces the dangerous myth that techies are always the smartest people in the room — and that the more technical they are, the more wide-ranging their expertise.
My first exposure to this myth of “techies as thought leaders” was actually from the inside — as a computer science major at UC Berkeley in the early 2000s, where I constantly heard stories about engineering exceptionalism. Computer science was rumored to be both the most difficult and most desirable major on campus. I heard the usual array of sexist jokes about the relative value of “hard” and “soft” disciplines, used to dismiss any non-techie and all non-technical majors. And perhaps most damning and dangerous, we were told, and many came to believe, that technology could be the solution to every problem. This has emboldened many techies to ignore evidence to the contrary — including the fact that many online spaces are indeed harmful to most of the population; that technology-driven education and development projects are often short-lived and at the expense of long-term improvements; and that far from flattening hierarchies, technology has enabled ever more power consolidation, surveillance, and control. Beliefs in techie superiority are, unfortunately, buttressed by the fact that money confers credibility: even inexperienced computer science majors can earn three times more from a summer internship at a tech company than from a whole year of work-study at the university. In short, when I was a student, it was all-too-easy to believe that we were demigods with the ability to do anything.
More crucially, our classes trained us that the power of computer science and engineering was in “modularizing,” “parameterizing,” and creating solvable “abstractions” that separate out the messiness of real-world contexts. Grappling with the world’s complexity was, quite literally and intentionally, beyond the scope of computer science education, and dismissed as unimportant. To the extent that this complexity was discussed at all, it was in the department’s few and often-derided “human-computer interaction” classes or in the department’s sole “ethics” seminar, which tended to focus on how to avoid software-caused disasters like the Therac-25 radiation deaths. Not only were these classes optional for computer science majors but the instructor in one such class quipped one day that classes like his were always assigned undesirable morning time slots, a signal of their relative importance in the department.
These norms have defined the technical world more broadly. Grants abound for researchers in engineering departments to tackle big ethical issues, while those in the social sciences who actually study these issues in depth have to scrounge for funding. Even though an internal study at Google found that technical skills were among the least important variables in predicting the effectiveness of its team leadership, many companies across the industry have continued to favor technical degrees when hiring managers. Not only have companies like Google actively disregarded the “soft” fields that for decades have been focusing on these areas, but they have ignored the many lessons they could learn from their findings.
In short, there is nothing about being a techie — either in terms of training or work — that naturally equips techies to be moral or thought leaders. If anything, the apparent disjuncture between the technologies they help to build and the technology-free elite educations some of them choose for their own children says more about their comfort with the deep inequities that their work and personal choices help to sustain than it does about insider wisdom.
Nowadays, with almost metronomic regularity, we hear about how racism, sexism, and sexual harassment within the industry largely goes unpunished; how technologies surveil and discipline the most vulnerable; how companies cooperate with totalitarian regimes and compromise democratic processes; and how the industry has enabled and profited from unprecedented data consolidation. The various mantras I first learned as a computer science student and heard repeated hundreds of times across the industry — such as “move fast and break things” and “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission” — are having their “disruptive” effects, and the results aren’t pretty.
Among those few who do go against the grain of engineering education and the norms of their industry to question the moral valence of their work, even fewer have the language or perspective to really grapple with the complexities they encounter. We can see this in the messaging of Tristan Harris, Google’s former “design ethicist,” trained in computer science at Stanford. He has been called “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.” Nonetheless, he, too, leans on simplistically dystopian, and technologically deterministic, tropes and cherry-picked examples in fearmongering about our “addictions” to technology — the same kinds of stories that some techie parents lean on to justify technology-free private schools for their kids. Though this population is less likely to be enthralled by the inflated promises of artificial intelligence and other algorithmic sublimes, most lack the education and experience to unpack the intricate interplay between technical artifacts and the social worlds they inhabit.
When intersected with the myth that techies are the smartest people in the room, this moral lacuna takes on new urgency. Just as technical backgrounds have not insulated techie Waldorf parents from specious reasoning regarding vaccines, they have afforded them no privileged ability to assess technology’s influence on us more generally. Technical training as it generally exists today may even do the opposite, encouraging a degree of arrogance. As a society, we must see the technology world for what it is: an industry as insular as it is influential, and in desperate need of many more kinds of expertise.
Morgan G. Ames’s book, The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019), chronicles the history and effects of the One Laptop per Child project and explains why — despite its failures — the same utopian visions that inspired OLPC still motivate other projects trying to use technology to “disrupt” education and development. Ames is on the faculty of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.
This is an excerpt of an essay published with the Los Angeles Review of Books. Read the full essay here.