Monday, June 30, 2014

Sowing C++ Seeds, Growing a Java Garden

Brogramming comes about not because it's actively promoted, but because our school isn't doing the careful gardening and cultivation required to produce good fruit, dispel weeds, and grow respectful, humanistic, open-minded citizens.

Racial discrimination, misogyny, and other forms of intolerance that number among the tech industry's rather more problematic traits arise when you aren't paying attention to social and human factors, and are only looking at so-called "outputs." (The distortion is especially acute when these outputs are being valued by Wall Street and its standards, and not even by our Valley's own standards for creative output).

It's not that the university administration is malicious; it's just that it doesn't care enough, whether through obliviousness, neglect, or low priority.

Developing a healthy culture of technology innovation doesn't just mean producing more patents, more apps, more investment. It means developing a culture that recognizes both the role technology plays in society and the responsibilities we have to that society; and in turn, ensuring that technology is shaped by meaningful social norms and in accordance with our deeply-held ideals.

Prof. Mehran Sahami talks about "good coding practices" in CS106A as a crucial first step in an engineer's education. Beyond that, we have to develop "good cultural practices" too. As the producer of so many engineering and tech minds, Stanford has a responsibility to "get the culture right" and inculcate appropriate ways of treating other human beings into all its students, CS students included. There should be a Stanford CS ethos—not just how to code, but how to interact respectfully; how to coexist; how to support others; how to empathize.

Beyond issues of etiquette and human decency, it would be amazing if more Stanford CS graduates were also motivated to work on social issues—education, environmental challenges, development aid, justice. (This is a separate, but linked issue, so more on this at another time).

What if Stanford CS folks were committed to human rights, cared about privacy, and felt inequality and institutional racism were problems that should be tackled and rooted out anywhere and everywhere? That these issues affect them and solving them matters? What if "community" and "organizing" and "solidarity" were ideas that meant something, so we weren't just in it for ourselves, but because we cared about a larger cause? Maybe we should take a page out of UC Berkeley's book here on social justice and strive to develop an equally vibrant culture of caring.

That should be Stanford's mission: to humanize its citizens. Otherwise it might as well be a coding trade school.

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