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Letter to the Editor: Social good, advancement sometimes at odds in tech fields

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

This letter was addressed to David Kosbie, instructor of 15-112, the introductory programming class at Carnegie Mellon. The letter poses questions about technology, social good, and whether the two actually correlate.

Dear Professor Kosbie,
You said in class that you were purposefully trying to hide your politics from us. Having just completed your class, I am kindly going to ask you questions that will require you to do otherwise. Not because I am curious, but because I am in desperate need of some perspective.
I had no real programming experience prior to taking 112 this fall. I come from a culture where programming hasn’t become a “thing” yet, especially not at the high-school level. In fact, it is mostly associated with dull positions in the IT departments that existed since the 80’s. Therefore, I think you can recognize the culture shock I experienced coming to a place like Carnegie Mellon to study engineering. I was not sure at first I could fit in.
112 was definitely daunting at first, but I came to enjoy the rigor and creativity involved, and ended up doing fine. I was hoping that excelling at your class would make me feel as though I belong here, but it didn’t. I like to ask questions, and for some reason, that did not go well with being in an environment full of talented people whose sole purpose in life was to create technology. There were times when I felt depressed. But unlike most people at this institution, you seem to understand that technology is not intrinsically valuable, but worthwhile, as long as it promotes the interests of humankind.
You told us from the first day that you did not leave your high-paying corporate job to teach at Carnegie Mellon for your love of “for loops.” Throughout the semester, you tried to disillusion us about material pursuits, and encouraged us to program for social good. You did this in a packed schedule in which every minute counted. Your sincerity and optimism made me and many others stick with 112. I also do like for loops, however.
But the world is an ugly place, and I’m sure you would agree. Despite all of our economic and technological “progress,” extreme poverty exits, and is perhaps more widespread than ever. While asking us to volunteer for Stop Hunger Now, you yourself admitted that it is unacceptable that there can be hunger in a city like Pittsburgh. We are constantly being told that we have the power to change things, and it has some truth to it, if Carnegie Mellon students do not have the capacity to make a social impact through technology, I don’t know who else does. I have been here long, enough to realize, however, that most of us choose not to.
Big companies attract top talent, they always have. But let’s look at what the companies who frequently “farm” Carnegie Mellon grads are really doing. Facebook devises more efficient ways to get us to click on ads, Google cracks our search patterns to figure out what we might want to buy in the first place, Uber and Airbnb drive the existing service industry out of business by avoiding regulation. Not only that, but they actually drive people out of their homes, being on the forefront of the gentrification movement all across America. And these are not the worst ones, in fact, these are the ones frequently glorified for their attempts at social responsibility. But desirable urban space is rapidly becoming inaccessible to anyone without a six-figure salary. Entire cultures disappear. Class conflict is at an all-time high, surpassing that prior to the Great Depression. I’m really not sure how much philanthropy can compensate for that.
If any and all technology we create can somehow be used for socially detrimental purposes, how can we keep ourselves motivated? Can we really class ourselves responsible citizens when the traditional path to success as developers requires an indifference to what a society actually needs? Can we live with ourselves when we are so ready to blindly follow that path? How can we ever reconcile our love for solving puzzles and making a genuine social impact?
These are the thoughts plaguing my mind as I’m on the Pennsylvanian 43, about to start my second semester of college. Perhaps it is unfair of me to seek your guidance on such a topic, and I’m not sure if we are on the same page. But you seem to be my best shot, and I had to take it. Oh, and this train also happens to take 9 hours to reach Pittsburgh, and I don’t have much else to work on.
Best,
Alp

Although Professor Kosbie agreed that this is “the question,” and that we should be asking it in a rich variety of ways, he still believes that the letter captures only the “half-truth.” Technology is amoral in itself, and it can be used for good, just like it can be used for achieving horrendous deeds. Yet any attempt to block out technology will not make bad technology go away. The challenge is creating positive social impact, and then lies in finding the right puzzle to solve. He also added that the priorities of people change over time, tending to get less selfish as they begin to observe what is truly important in life.
Necati Alp Muyesser