High Tech, Higher Purpose

The future of tech goes beyond the algorithm.

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It was supposed to be different. Technology was supposed to empower and liberate us. It was supposed to be a path to the future, the key that unlocked the full range of human potential—and an escape hatch from the problems that have limited it. Instead, it’s become a tool for trolls, a get rich quick scheme for millions.

Ever since the Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) set up shop in a Los Altos garage, the dream of every Silicon Valley geek-gineer has been not only to change the world, but to make a billion doing so. To some, such naked self-interest is an essential ingredient in the push to bring new ideas to life. To others, the amoral nature of hypercompetitive, “there can be only one” development culture is the root cause of scandals at companies such as Facebook, Google, and the like.

Earlier this year, a group of 21 prominent universities—among them STEM heavyweights such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley—united to form the Public Interest Technology University Network. They were joined by some of America’s largest private foundations and wealthiest philanthropists (including the $13.7-billion Ford Foundation and the $10-billion Hewlett Foundation) in proposing a different path: tech by the public, for the public. Instead of a ravenous drive to create the next gazillion-dollar tech IPO, the group is putting forward a collaborative, open-source approach that views high tech through the lens of social, ethical, legal, and public policy implications.

By clarifying the connection between technology and various public interest issues, the group hopes to help the high-tech industry think beyond the algorithm and design technologies that support organizations making the world a better place. Perhaps most importantly, it hopes to nurture a new generation of engineers, programmers, and entrepreneurs, and imbue them with a vision of what Silicon Valley could be: a place where naked self-interest takes a back seat to the desire to leave the world a better place than you found it.

The daunting list of topics they intend to take on includes some of the most important ones facing the world: civil rights, justice reform, environmental degradation, the rise of the surveillance state, and more. In the coming years, members will create curricula and degree programs that address the role of technology in serving the public good. Call it Silicon Valley 2.0: a place where high tech drives a higher purpose.

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July 19, 2019