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Navigating the Silicon Future

February 2, 2018

This piece represents the opinion of the Bowdoin Orient Editorial Board.

As the Board of Trustees prepares to make its pilgrimage to Silicon Valley, we think that its members and the Bowdoin community should consider the implication of this trip.

As President Rose noted in an interview with the Orient, the culture of Silicon Valley has given rise to both good and bad. Silicon Valley firms have created new products that affect our lives every day, connecting the globe and improving access to information. They grapple with questions ranging from how to improve public transportation to how to potentially deal with an uninhabitable future-Earth.

Yet while they try to change the world, they also seek to turn a profit. They wield immense and often insidious power over our lives, shaping the ways we interact with each other, the way we access information and even the norms and well-being of our democracy. Moreover, these companies’ practices have contributed to increased social atomization and the related increases in anxiety and depression, the propagation of political misinformation and the massive income inequality that results from billionaire executives employing workers for less than living wages.

We believe Rose and the trustees recognize these issues and take them seriously. As they seek to learn from these companies, we urge the Board members to keep these issues in mind and consider how they implicate Bowdoin and its graduates.

While Bowdoin seeks to understand the power of Silicon Valley, the College should not blindly adopt its practices. We think Bowdoin should think critically about how to graduate students with skills to do genuine good within an economy controlled by these companies. More importantly, we think the trustees and our fellow students should consider the weighty questions that cut to the heart of the tech firms and their power. To name a few: how to responsibly and effectively regulate Artificial Intelligence, how to engage with new technologies so that we may use them rather than allowing them to use us, how to curb the monopolistic power these firms exercise over channels of information and communication.

The trustees must remember that the purposes and goals of Silicon Valley’s information economy are often in tension with those of the College. The tech industry’s vision of “innovation” relies on a constant pursuit of the new—new technologies, new practices, new economic opportunities—to create and satisfy consumer demand. Institutions of higher education, on the other hand, exist not only to prepare the future generation of workers and citizens for a changing world but to engage with knowledge and practices from the past, even if those things appear remote from the practical demands of the present day. In imbibing the spirit of the former, members of the Board should not neglect the demands of the latter.

The final paragraph of Bowdoin’s mission statement reads: “Bowdoin’s intellectual mission is informed by the humbling and cautionary lesson of the 20th century: that intellect and cultivation, unless informed by a basic sense of decency, of tolerance and mercy, are ultimately destructive of both the person and society.” As we move into the 21st century, this maxim is truer than ever.

This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is comprised of Harry DiPrinzio, Dakota Griffin, Calder McHugh and Ian Ward. 

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