Everything Is Just Dandy!

Educating the Silicon Citizen: Literature, Philosophy, and the Case for Slow Tech

Phenomenology and Existentialism
Ana Ilievska
2022-04-28
https://arcade.stanford.edu/blogs/educating-silicon-citizen-literature-philosophy-and-case-slow-tech

Presumably, it has never been a good time for the Humanities. Perhaps because it is simply in the nature of the discipline to find itself perpetually in crisis, lagging behind the times, dragging its leaden feet made out of indelible words, asking for more and more time in a civilization perpetually in a rush. It is constantly on the edge of a precipice, but we cannot deny that, while it is awkwardly balancing itself on the edge, it does enjoy magnificent views. After all, our field does not thrive on security, on solid facts, on controlled experiments with measurable outcomes. Rather, it follows the works and tribulations of that most fickle of earthly species that gives the discipline its name, the human. And like their namesake, the Humanities are subjective, slow, and terribly inconvenient. Yet without this nuisance that, at universities, usually comes in the form of compulsory survey courses, “fun” but “useless” writing assignments, and endless reading lists, higher education would become quite an uncanny affair not unlike Olimpia, one of the first humanoid automata in Western literature, who “might be called beautiful if her eyes were not so completely lifeless.”1

No doubt, an institution with little emphasis on the Humanities would still produce an excellent, reliable, intellectual workforce sprinkled with a genius or two: the hoodie-wearing Silicon Citizen who eats bottled food, exercises regularly, has a considerable Twitter following, reads book summaries on Blinkist (“big ideas in small packages,” the company’s slogan goes), creates start-ups, and is obsessed with optimization, design, high-impact entrepreneurship, and that concept “blitzscaling” that smacks of inflated globalization and fascist regimes.2 As a response to the evolution of these inconspicuous but powerful technologists and their mindset, Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein set out in their System Error (2021) to create a roadmap for the education of “a new generation of civic-minded technologists and policy makers."3 For years they have been teaching one of the most popular ethics courses for computer scientists and engineers at Stanford University, CS 182 “Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change.” In this extraordinary course that attracts about 300 undergraduates per run, students are introduced to some concepts by philosophers John Milton, Martin Heidegger (through Hubert Dreyfus), Michel Foucault, and John Rawls. They read brief excerpts alongside papers on technology and public policy, diversity, and computer science. Moreover, students read computer science papers alongside and through such concepts as “utilitarianism,” “justice,” “liberty,” and “diversity,” presented in such a way as to capture the short attention span of students who at any moment might drop out of Stanford and start their own company. A call for more government regulation of technologists emerges as key take-away from the book as well as the course by the three Stanford professors. Unsurprisingly, except for one short story by Ursula K. Le Guin on the CS 182 syllabus, literature plays no role in Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein’s mission. And while their mission is noble, it is indeed questionable what philosophy can do for a multitude of 300 students who will cursorily look thorough Foucault’s notoriously dense Discipline and Punish (1975), never to return to it again.

Another publication by a Stanford professor, Dev Patnaik’s Wired to Care (2009), similarly attempts to shape the minds of Silicon Citizens by introducing empathy as driving force behind product design and the workplace.4 “Companies, and indeed organizations of all kinds," he argues "prosper when they tap into a power that everyone already has: the ability to reach outside ourselves and connect with other people” (6). This because “having an emphatic connection to the world around you can reveal huge opportunities that everyone else was missing” (143). Patnaik teaches another very popular course at Stanford, ME 216 “Product Design: Needfinding,” that each year has a “corporate sponsor that pays for the right to have fifty of America’s best and brightest try to solve one of its pressing business needs” (152). As noble as Patnaik’s idea of empathy might sound, it smacks of monetization and, as in Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein’s project, it reduces the term to a business strategy based on keywords and the generation of wealth for companies. Such an approach is quite problematic. And although their publications and courses do make some positive difference in the education of the Silicon Citizen, a critique of their work is also necessary.

Patnaik’s project, too, does not take literature into consideration. It has an anecdotal structure where the examples to be emulated are such companies as Starbucks, Disney, Mercedes, and Harley-Davidson, and capitalist CEOs such as Lou Gerstner, Joe Rohde, and Nina Planck. The book very much reads like a tale straight out of medieval Britain and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Gerstner came to save IBM and he “broke up dysfunctional fiefdoms, slashed operating costs, and streamlined decision making” (32). The Silicon Citizen clearly suffers from a chronic hero-worship illness while claiming to thrive on tradition-breaking and on shunning of authorities. Words as “faster,” “competitors,” “courage,” “risk,” “new,” “outperform,” and above all “growth,” compose Patnaik’s book but also the basic vocabulary of the Silicon Citizen. Empathy for your client will allow you to make a better product and outperform your competitors. 

Furthermore, “needfinding” sounds a lot more like need-making. Rather than finding solutions to existing problems, in Adrian Daub’s words, tech companies “end up reconfiguring your ideals in order to justify their business model."5 Problems are solved that aren’t worth solving. Or, rather than solving existing problems, new problems are created but only ones that can be solved by those who created them. As Aimé Césaire wrote in 1950, “a civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.”6 Too often, venture capitalists invest in projects that benefit the few. But Silicon Valley’s facilities are maintained by the invisible and unrecognized labor of a vast number of immigrant, Hispanic, and Black bodies.7 Isolation and loneliness prevail in a networking culture populated by some of the world’s brightest minds. Basic not-for-profit human behaviors and how to monetize them are taught to students at one of the most prestigious universities in the world—values that people should have learned in kindergarten: “how to spend time with people, learn about their lives, and then make better products and businesses as a result” (42). This might sound like a local story, but it is one that has global implications. And it is a story that has been cleverly crafted in such a way as to convince the audiences that everything they know about the world and history cannot possibly be used to understand such a story. Just look, marvel, and imitate. This, I dare say, is a form of epistemological cruelty, ultimately begging the question, in the words of Boris Pahor, Slovenian novelist and concentration camp survivor: “When will the human race be organized—and who will organize it?—so that kindness and not cruelty can be realized?”8

Yet the Silicon Citizen prevails, the founder-worship persists, companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon continue as prime examples in new publications on technology: it suffices to open Patnaik’s but also regrettably Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein’s monograph and there emerges already on the first page that Machiavellian technique of instructing the prince through the notable examples of past rulers. In current publications, instead of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, the examples are Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Peter Thiel. As Daub has aptly pointed out, what is painfully old is repackaged as new to “deprive the public of the analytical tools” pertaining to the critical approach to the problems created by the tech-world, and to further “disenfranchise all of the people with a long tradition of analyzing these problems—whether they’re experts, activists, academics, union organizers, journalists, or politicians” (5). Students without a doubt benefit greatly from their courses that include lectures by star computer scientists, CEOs, and policy makers. But should we stop there?

From reading these publications and from my own observations as a recent denizen of Silicon Valley and lecturer in the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford, it is obvious that there is an urgent need for recalibration. This is perhaps what Nicole Wong, the former deputy chief technology officer (CTO) of the United States, had in mind when she called for a “slow food” movement in technology.9 How would this “slow tech” movement look? How can we make the Humanities and literature relevant in this movement and in the education of technologists to avoid the blitzscaling of thought and human interactions? More specifically, I am interested in how we can leverage the ideas and analytical tools of literary fiction to a generation weaned in a culture of facts, summaries, catchphrases, and the optimization mindset. As Karel Čapek, the Czech playwright who popularized the word “robot” with his Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920), wrote: “it’s better to lay a single brick than to draw up plans that are too great.”10

From my neck of the academic woods, I believe that the following three ideas are key in the elaboration of a slow movement in technology: the idea of judgment, the idea of moderation, and the idea of love. There is an urgent need for the practice of judgment11 especially now that Big Tech blatantly disenfranchises humanistic thought by claiming that no previous analytical tools or traditions can possibly be used to understand its products and strategies.11 The type of ethics envisioned by Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein to counteract Big Tech’s strategies of intellectual disenfranchisement overlaps and can be trained through the practice of moderation (misura), or temperance, and limit.12 Finally, the “emphatic connection to the world” that Patnaik promotes as driving force behind product design and successful companies is a kind of training of citizens “to love” through literature and the arts.13 For our purposes, all three ideas have been respectively elaborated within a contemporary context by scholars as D. N. Rodowick, Franco Cassano, and Martha C. Nussbaum. I am greatly indebted to these thinkers who have shaped my pedagogy and research. However, given the space constraints of this piece, in what follows I will focus solely on the idea of judgment.

What is judgment? What does literature have to do with judgment? And how is judgment relevant to the education of the 21st century technocitizen?14 For one, the practice of judgment takes time and involves communal effort. Judgment ideally is the product of slow thought and reflection. As Rodowick defines it, “judgment is a quotidian practice that is reflexively exercised whenever we fail to find an overarching concept or rule to guide experience of whatever kind or quality” (vxi). Where laws—whether moral, religious, or societal—provide no definite pronouncements, we are asked to exercise our judgment. Furthermore, the practice of judgment is not so much concerned with reason, but with an “affirmation of our freedom to remake in community our experience and understanding of the world" (Ibid). Such a practice is intersubjective and “brings individuals into communities” in order to “give coherence and meaning to human experience" (xvii). In other words, the practice of judgment does not take place in isolation but insofar as we can test our opinions against those of others. Thinking is individual, judgment communal. Both must converge for the advancement of knowledge and the continuous reevaluation of humanity. For where thinking lacks, witch-hunts prevail; and where judgment is absent, dictatorships are born. The lack of both is a holocaust. Today, the practice of judgment is of utmost importance especially in the area of technology where policy and laws notoriously lag behind.

If we were living in a direct democracy, we could all gather on the city square and chat, provoke one another, and polish our concepts. Alas, in our times this is quite impossible. And it is wrong to assume that online platforms are a viable replacement for the city square. Online, there is no accountability, no nuance, nor tolerance for boredom which thought seems to require. It is one thing to critique someone’s thoughts in presence; an entirely other thing to write a nasty comment and immediately disappear into the comfort and shelter of one’s own home. It is then unsurprising that one of the few remaining sacred spots where judgment can be practiced is the classroom.15

Here is an example: In my “Literature and Technology” class that I’ve taught at the University of Chicago and at Stanford, I usually assign 19th/early 20th century novels that students either do not know or do not usually associate with technology or machines. My goal in doing so is to challenge students to think about technology in broader terms than those outlined in science fiction and fantasy, but also within academic disciplines that have nonfictional narratives as primary sources and main output. One book that I like to assign is Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1883). Here are the topics that the reading and discussion of this novel prompts in the classroom: Animism and what it means to be alive or dead; consciousness; intelligence; the mind-body dualism; the Turing test; ethics; nonhuman agents; human-machine interactions; embodied intelligence; artificial intelligence; artificial life; the concept of humanity and who and what counts as partaking in it or not; speech and voice recognition; education; machine learning; evolution; robots; wireless technologies. A scientific paper on each of these topics might provide students with immediate, verifiable, and applicable answers. But nothing hones thinking, the art of conversation, and judgment as the act of sitting around in a classroom, listening to one’s peers’ interpretations, expressing one’s own, and then collectively exploring the nuances of each of the aforementioned problems. The role of the instructor in this context, as Rodowick writes, lies in “helping others bring forth whatever thoughts and opinions they are capable of bearing and communicating.”16 Thinking and judging are then political acts, i.e., acts shared and exercised in public.17

Furthermore, each time we as individuals, as scholars, or representatives of a generation or an era reread Pinocchio, the novel is renewed and becomes a source of renewable energy for the spirit. As Massimo Riva writes, “Collodi did not write his masterpiece with technology in mind. Yet [Pinocchio] can indeed be read as a response to technological change and its effects on our shifting idea of the ‘human.’”18 Like the wireless puppet and its story, the human too is a “constantly self-renewing, perpetually coming-of age” entity “which likes to play with its own ever-more sophisticated technological toys, engaged in reverse-engineering its own nature.”19 Reading is slow. It requires a certain positioning of the body, a retreat from the public, a deep focus on another person’s argument, a return to the page, and then a confrontation with a peer, a public discussion that then leads to the practice of judgment. Reading a novel is even slower because it takes one read to just have a sense of the general plot and idea of a novel; it takes two to take notice of its form and reconstruct its creative process; it takes three reads to start engaging critically with it and perhaps introduce a paper or two as aid; but it is only after the fourth reading, plenty of collective discussions, and a significant amount of thinking, that deep-judgment is formed. After the fifth reading, usually one understands that one hasn’t understood anything and then we go back and read it again. That is a form of engaging in slow technology: the laborious construction, reconstruction, and public performance of techniques of thought, argument, and understanding. Such a practice equips us with the necessary analytical tools to tackle change and to be able to evaluate proposals and new technologies for their coherence, viability, and ethical implications.

I encourage students and scholars to contribute and keep contributing to this conversation with proposals (legible to the general audience) from but not limited to Black, Ethnic, and Indigenous Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Decoloniality, Cultural Studies, and from every corner of the literary world. We need a plan, a roadmap, if we want the future to be navigable; if, as Dante wrote 800 years ago, we don’t want “to live [our] lives as brutes / but be followers of worth and knowledge.”20

 

 

 

  • 1. E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman,” in Tales of Hoffmann, ed. and transl. by R.J. Hollingdale, pp.85-125 (London: Penguin, 2004), p.116.
  • 2. Reid Hoffmann in an interview with Tim Sullivan: “Blitzscaling is what you do when you need to grow really, really quickly. It’s the science and art of rapidly building out a company to serve a large and usually global market, with the goal of becoming the first mover at scale. This is high-impact entrepreneurship. These kinds of companies always create a lot of the jobs and industries of the future. For example, Amazon….” In Tom Sullivan, “Blitzscaling: The chaotic, sometimes grueling path to high-growth, high-impact entrepreneurship,” Harvard Business Review (April 2016), https://hbr.org/2016/04/blitzscaling, last accessed 13 April 2022.
  • 3. Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein, System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot (New York: HarperCollins, 2021, p. 251).
  • 4. Dev Patnaik, Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy (New Jersey: FT Press, 2009), with Peter Mortensen.
  • 5. Adrian Daub, What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley (New York: FSG, 2020, p. 4).
  • 6. Aimé Césaire, 1950, Discourse on Colonialism, transl. by Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000)
  • 7.  Chris Benner and Kyle Neering, “Tech’s Invisible Workforce: A Closer Look at the ‘Invisible’ Subcontracting Trend in Silicon Valley,” March 29, 2016: https://www.wpusa.org/research/techs-invisible-workforce/, last accessed on 19 April 2022. I thank my student Luca Messarra for bringing this report to my attention.
  • 8. Boris Pahor, 1967, Necropolis, transl. by Michael Biggins (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2020).
  • 9. See for instance, Eric Johnson, “Is It Time for a ‘Slow’ Movement on the Internet?” Vox: Recode, September 12, 2018: https://www.vox.com/2018/9/12/17848368/nicole-wong-cto-google-twitter-slow-food-tech-internet-congress-regulation-kara-swisher-podcast, last accessed 19 April 2022.
  • 10. Karel Čapek, 1920, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), transl. by Claudia Novack (New York: Penguin, 2004), 34.
  • 11. a. b. For my conception of judgment as outlined in the thought of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, see David N. Rodowick, An Education in Judgment: Hannah Arendt and the Humanities (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2021), pp. xvi-xvii.
  • 12. For the concept of moderation or (in Italian) misura I am indebted to the thought of Albert Camus and, above all, to Franco Cassano’s “southern thought.” See Cassano, 1996, Il pensiero meridiano (Bari: Laterza, 2005), transl. by Norma Bouchard and Valerio Ferme as Southern Thought and Other Essays on the Mediterranean (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), p. l: “The idea of ‘moderation’ alludes in fact to a criterion of equilibrium that rescues thought from the mythology of progress. […] This behavior [of the West] reveals a true passion for excess, while moderation presupposes that none of the extremes be considered absolutely positive or absolutely negative.” The lesson here is of misura not as a banal “happy medium,” but as a “complex and courageous construction that seeks to save the multiplicity of life forms, giving back to each, with a single act, its value and completeness.” (Cassano, xxxii).
  • 13. See Martha C. Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press at Harvard UP, 2013). Nussbaum argues that “all of the core emotions that sustain a decent society have their roots in, or are forms of, love—by which I mean intense attachments to things outside the control of our will.” The political cultivation of this emotion will allow us “to see the uneven and often unlovely destiny of human beings in the world with humor, tenderness, and delight, rather than with absolutist rage for an impossible sort of perfection.” (15)
  • 14. By “tech citizen” I mean any individual inhabiting a given community and engaging with technological devices and virtual networks on a daily basis. At the extreme point of the tech spectrum is the Silicon Citizen.
  • 15. Ibid., xvii: “an education in judgment, whether in aesthetic, cultural, or other domains, is also a political force that is as local as the classroom where the skills practiced through conversations and disagreements about art, philosophy, and other areas of humanistic concern can be applied to many other domains of decision and action.”
  • 16. Rodowick, 14
  • 17.  For an excellent, more informal but expert conversation on the topic of thinking, I recommend Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison’s conversation with Prof. Markus Gabriel within the podcast Entitled Opinions, episode on “Thought and Perception” from April 1st 2022: https://entitledopinions.stanford.edu/thought-and-perception-markus-gabriel
  • 18. Massimo Riva, “Beyond the Mechanical Body: Digital Pinocchio,” in Pinocchio, Puppets and Modernity: The Mechanical Body, edited by Katia Pizzi, 201-214 (New York: Routledge, 2012), 201f.
  • 19.  Ibid., 208f.
  • 20. Dante, Inferno (XXVI, 119-20): “fatti non foste a viver come bruti, / ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.” Tr. Mandelbaum. Ibid., 208f. Dante, Inferno (XXVI, 119-20): “fatti non foste a viver come bruti, / ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.” Tr. Mandelbaum.

Graphic by Sheena Lai; image by Daniel Friedman.