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⚡ Tech For Good But Make It Better
How to go beyond techno-solutionism in public interest organizations
Today’s guest essay is from my friend Matthew Sun, the Reboot Fellowship mentor for the Tech x Labor peer group.
Matthew is a first-year PhD student in Computer Science at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy, where he's advised by Arvind Narayanan, the celebrity-scholar of STS Twitter. Last year, Matthew graduated from Stanford as a Terman Scholar with dual degrees in Computer Science and Public Policy. He's also interested in financial regulation, baking dim sum treats, and watching meme edits of drag queens on YouTube.
While today’s essay highlights Matthew’s takeways from leading Stanford CS + Social Good, one of the first university student groups organizing CS students around impact projects, it contains broader lessons for any technologist interested in applying their skills to social problems.
👨🏻💻 tech for good but make it better
By Matthew Sun
Picture this: you're in the first few weeks of your freshman year of college, and you're thinking of majoring in computer science. You're enrolled in CS 101, but deep down, you're less interested in the mechanics of recursion than you are in what computers can do for the world.
So you think — what if I started a group of students that worked with non-profits to use technology for social good? — and boom, you have the prototype of a classic "tech for good" student organization.
By now, the template offered above might sound familiar. An increasing number of organizations centered on the intersection of technology and society are springing up on college campuses and large corporations alike. Behind the (ab)use of the phrase "tech for good" is a multiplicity of actors and ideologies that are not always in perfect alignment. There is a growing question of whether it should exist at all — in a world where policymakers, community organizers, and tech workers are fighting the harms of Big Tech, “tech for good” might seem like a distraction that is at best irrelevant and at worst counterproductive.
I found my way into the nebulous world of tech for good through Stanford CS+Social Good, a student organization that I led as President from 2018 to 2019. Over my four years of involvement, I witnessed concerns about the possibilities and limitations of technology play out on the national stage, in Silicon Valley, and within our own organization.
I've come to believe that while "tech for good" has become a vacuous, corporatized label, the impetus behind it — the belief that the technological status quo is failing society, and that technologists have a responsibility to help craft a better future — still has value.
So even if I can't tell you the "right" way to use tech for good, here are a few ways we might do better:
(1) create space to define, debate, and interrogate the concept of "social good”
Do not assume that everyone is on the same page about what social good is, and be patient with folks encountering these questions for the first time. This can be tricky, since those who would benefit the most from these conversations are the most likely to be intimidated by abstract conversations that invoke jargon-filled social theories.
In CS+Social Good, fostering these discussions were just as important as engineering. Over the years, thousands of students attended events we hosted with folks like Tyler Shultz and Erica Cheung, the employees who exposed unethical practices at Theranos, and Susan Fowler, who blew the whistle on sexism and harassment at Uber. Events like these provided an entry point for students to seriously question the activities of companies that claimed to be “changing the world,” and, more broadly, think critically about technology, society, and power.
(2) seriously engage with technology’s harms
If you are passionate about maximizing the benefits of technology to society, then you should also be equally committed to minimizing its harms. The collective will to rein in the excesses of Big Tech has reached an all-time high, and any organization claiming to be interested in social good should be recognizing this historic opportunity and amplifying these efforts.
Often, this should take the form of following the lead of existing grassroots groups; in 2019, Stanford Students for the Liberation of All People and Stanford NAACP organized an event that featured organizers from Mijente and the Google Walkout, which was co-sponsored by CS+Social Good, among other campus organizations.
(3) prioritize long-term relationships with partner organizations
Unsurprisingly, realizing a vision of a just society is not something you can accomplish in a five-month project. Once you've formed principles and goals around what types of work you will do, reach out to organizations you are aligned with and design your engagement with them around their needs and schedules (which may not always line up with the academic calendar). This kind of deep partnership requires constant communication about the scope of projects, a dedication to documentation and maintenance, and honesty about organizational bandwidth; without those, projects can actually be damaging to or extractive from the organizations you work with.
This is especially difficult in an environment where students come and go, but I’m proud of the multi-year partnerships CS+Social Good was able to maintain with organizations like Raheem, the UN Refugee Agency, and Recidiviz.
(4) encourage your members to seek out multiple avenues for engaging social issues
Participating in a student group that does work for non-profits, runs speaker events, and hosts hackathons is perhaps the most resume-friendly way to pursue tech for good, but it shouldn't be the only one. Committing to social change also means engaging with local politics, grassroots advocacy, and policymaking. In addition to the outside organizations mentioned above, CS+Social Good prioritized collaborations with various other campus groups, such as Stanford In Government, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics.
(5) challenge students to look inward
How students see themselves in their work is just as important as the work itself. I’ve always believed that CS+Social Good’s key leverage point is helping students reorient the trajectory of their lives and careers. That’s different than debating the abstract notion of social good; instead, it requires students to ask themselves questions about their motivations, values, and commitments.
For example, service learning opportunities in which students are framed as “fixers” and communities as deficient reproduce, rather than subvert, dominant narratives of power and subordination. Instead, students must see themselves in solidarity with, rather than simply building for; the former places the student in a collective, while the latter puts them in the role of savior. These mindset shifts can shape how students go on to interact with their local communities and the avenues for change they pursue.
It’s difficult to measure this kind of long-term impact, but many students who participated in our summer fellowships or classes told us that the experience had changed their lives and how they viewed their role in making change.
toward better technological futures
“Tech for good” should not be synonymous with “tech is good,” nor should it be an excuse to ignore technology’s real harms. Instead, it is a constructive and ongoing demand that all technologies be designed, evaluated, and deployed on the grounds of their social benefits and harms. It requires more than rebranding — it involves committing to principles, articulating our values, and holding ourselves accountable to them.
So let's lose the naïveté, but keep just enough of the idealism: better technological futures may not be just a few keystrokes away, but they are still within our grasp.
how are you approaching "good" in your own career as a technologist?
Honestly, the PhD is my route to figuring out what "good" really means (sorry for the cop out). I have five years to think about tech and society more rigorously than I ever have, and am afforded a lot of freedom and autonomy. I used to think that the most good I could do was building an app, and now my goal is for my research to inform policy, activism, and regulation.
tell us about your experience being a mentor for the reboot fellowship!
I've had the best time as a mentor. The folks in the tech x labor group (shout-out to Bianca, Anh, Tanya, Ethan, and Lena!) are so thoughtful and kind, and we've actually gotten really close as a group. Also, I sound like such a suck-up when I say this, but I am consistently amazed at Jasmine's ability to keep us all organized and get the coolest guests for Reboot events.
what's one book you loved this year?
I read (and loved) The Souls of China by Ian Johnson. Not only did it help flesh out my understanding of Chinese culture, it also brought me a lot closer to my mother; I'd read a chapter and then have a conversation with her that would teach me something entirely new about our family history. It was intellectually stimulating, beautifully written, and deeply moving.
It’s been a hard week. I’ve struggled to peel my eyes from the news and my Twitter feed, to be distracted by violence and hate during hours of meetings, to stop reaching for the chocolate-covered-ginger-pieces in a bag by my seat.
Instead of sharing a link roundup full of #thought #leadership, I want to ask you a favor. The volunteer team at Reboot has hosted 18 free author events, run a 20-person student fellowship, and published 20 issues of this newsletter.
If you’ve enjoyed our work, I’d appreciate a donation to one of the following organizations advocating for the rights and lives of Asian American women:
NAPAWF: policy advocacy for Asian and Pacific American women
Red Canary Song: mutual aid for Asian & migrant sex workers
Womankind: culturally competent support for survivors
You might wonder: Is this related to Reboot or technology? Not really. But it’s about lives like mine and the lives of those I care for. Being a conscious technologist means recognizing that not everything is about technology — and we shouldn’t abstract ourselves away from problems that don’t beg our skillsets to solve.
💝 a closing note
I asked the fellows: How do you care for yourself in times like these?
Tanya (MIT 2022): I’ve been trying to be more conscious about doomscrolling. While Twitter is great to understand and hear how others are feeling, it's also super overwhelming. I treated myself to the luxury of an espresso drink and an almond croissant too! It’s a small amount of joy that deviates from the standard droning of pandemic lifestyle, which has been aggressively torn open this week with the news.
Bianca (Ateneo de Manila University 2023): Aside from processing the issue with friends and staying away from social media, I moved a lot, diving deep into exercise, dance, and yoga. When it comes to experiencing negative feelings like rage and grief, I’ve learned that the less I move, the more likely I am to be consumed by them. Endorphins help me slowly get back on track!
Michelle (Stanford 2023): I've tried to give myself permission to feel and grieve right now, instead of expecting to compartmentalize or find a solution to feel better. This means also giving myself grace and knowing that that isn't a selfish act — for example, I stepped away from a couple of meetings today that I wasn't feeling up to!
—Jasmine & Reboot team