Shifting towards something greater: Tech4Good

Adam Novak
5 min readApr 28, 2022

--

Originally given as a talk at USC’s Tech4Good Student Symposium and posted on Shift SC’s blog

I can still remember three years ago, when I wished something like this existed.

As a freshman at USC studying computer science, like most of my peers, I got swept away in the tech hype. I joined every hackathon and pitch competition, brainstormed apps at every dinner in the dining hall… and yes, i will now admit, watched every Elon Musk YouTube video.

Yet amidst all this excitement for tech and its potential to change the world, something felt missing. In each class, we’d jump right into USC’s world renown curriculum on building technology, without thinking about the social context we’re building it within. With growing social issues around us, the ways technology contributes to the problem, or the solution, weren’t really mentioned.

To give some examples
- Social media algorithms now push political parties towards more divisive ads by optimizing for clicks and views. You’d think we’d touch on this in my algorithms class — but while we learned how to optimize, we never talked about what we should optimize for.
- Engaging user interfaces keep us spending more time on our phones than we’d like… But in my iOS class, this tradeoff was never touched on.
- Mass automation is predicted to create an unprecedented labor displacement and rising social tensions. Yet this social issue was deemed beyond the scope of my technical AI class.

Even outside of classes, I didn’t really have the chance to engage with these topics. My friends and I were busy striving for top grades and top internships, and given that I was rejected from almost every club on campus, my only option was podcasts… or.. more Elon Musk videos.

It felt like a haze — as I was pulled towards the competition and imposter syndrome, the important issues in tech felt overlooked, and I couldn’t find a space to share my concerns. I even started losing my sense of purpose- what am I doing with my time here in college?

After getting so deep into campus tech culture, I felt like I had to get as far away from it as possible.

The farthest place I could think of…

a Buddhist monastery.

I spent last summer living at a Vipassana Meditation Center. It’s a type of Buddhist monastery which continuously offers these 10-day silent meditation courses.

For three months, I lived the life of a monk. My 4am Taco Bell trips were replaced with 4am wake-up gongs, and this obsession on my grades and internships was replaced with focus on my breath and body.

At the monastery, every little thing was structured to support a practice of deep mindfulness. Part of that meant no phones, laptops, or any personal devices. You see, today, monastic life is just as much a trial of adding 10 hours of daily meditation as it is of removing 10 hours of daily screen time.

Throughout the summer, I checked my phone.. maybe once a month? My screen time had never been so low, my inbox had never been so empty… and my mind had never been so calm

I felt so content, and grateful…. but also… a little strange. Back at USC, I spent so much time improving this digital experience, yet it was putting away the digital experience which led to the deepest well-being i’ve known.

I started to wonder —
- How do our devices and apps not just add to our quality of life, but also take away from it?
- Technology has improved our lives in so many ways… but we should consider it holistically. When might some innovation, while making one thing better, make another thing worse?
- With technology advancing so rapidly, how do we account for its unintended consequences? How do we ensure a future that’s truly aligned with our best interest?

I also started wondering…
- is it just me who feels this way?
- Had I actually been brainwashed by this meditation cult?
- or could there be other students at USC who’re asking these same questions?

As my summer stay at the monastery came to a close and I prepared to return to college life at USC, I looked for a fresh start. I hoped to cure the disorientation and loneliness I felt as a freshman by finding others who care about shaping tech for the better

Before I knew it, I was having zoom calls, coffee chats, Kakao talks with all these students…

Some of them were into tech, others into education, policy, and design. Some had just finished a corporate internship, and others had just graduated high school. Each of us came from a unique background, and each of us came the same understanding.

We need a shift in tech, and we need a space for conversation and action around it.

Inspired to fill that gap, several of us came together to form a student org… centered around this shift.

A shift in how we think about technology — its role in our world, and our role in shaping it.

In our increasingly technological world, the way we design, regulate, and use tech matters more than ever. Ultimately, technology is just a tool that amplifies our intent and capacity. It’s up to us …to choose what we do with with it…
- to incentive innovation that’s truly in our best interest.
- to ensure social responsibility for unintended consequences.
- to place human well-being and societal welfare at the center of how we think about technology.

The great thing is, this shift has already begun here at USC:
- this year, we’ve had more speakers than ever talk on the equity, safety, and ethics of technology,
- last week, the founder of Tinder came to speak about mindfulness, of all things,
- and right now, we’re gathered here to appreciate how Trojans are doing Tech4Good, thanks to the hard work of everyone at Shift SC.

USC students gather to attend the Tech4Good Student Symposium on a beautiful April 26th evening.

And… this Shift doesn’t just stop at SC.

I’ve spoken with leaders of similar orgs around the country. Whether in LA, Palo Alto, Boston, everywhere, students just like us feel the same way.

We see problems which tech has created, we see problems which tech can solve… and we see that we have the ability and responsibility to do something about them.

Let’s create conversation around the more important issues in tech.
Let’s take action ideas that will change society for the better.
Let’s be the shift we want to see in the world.

--

--

Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology