Flagships Lost in a Sea of Money, Fame, and Power

February 10, 2019

I read “The Ethical Dilemma Facing Silicon Valley’s Next Generation.” The headline sounds like an undergraduate essay created by a Red Bull crazed philosophy major at Duquesne University. (I should know. I attended Duquesne when working on an advanced degree in — wait for it — medieval religious literature.)

But this essay is not going to be read by a slightly off kilter professor with a passion for Søren Aabye Kierkegaard and Augustine’s On Christian Teaching.

No. This essay is aimed at those interested in technology and the intersection of Silicon Valley, Stanford University, and the scorched earth approach of “move fast and break things” wizards.

The write up includes this observation:

Stanford is known as “The Farm” because the verdant 8,000-acre campus was once home to founder Leland Stanford’s horses, but today tech firms and venture capitalists treat the 16,000-person student body like their own minor league ball club.

And the university is now flicking the switch on the archives of the university library which contains documents like Pausanias’s description of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Stanford’s leaders, professors, and students may have forgotten the injunction (which I have anglicized):

Know thyself or gnóthi sautón

But universities, public and private, want to be just like Stanford.

The Ringer reports:

Professors are revamping courses to address the ethical challenges tech companies are grappling with right now. And university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne has made educating students on the societal impacts of technology a tentpole of his long-term strategic plan.

I found this item of information interesting:

In 2013, Stanford began directly investing in students’ companies, much like a venture capital firm.

One would think that universities provided education. The Ringer makes this somewhat surprising statement:

Stanford and computer science programs across the country may not be adequately equipped to wade through the ethical minefield that is expanding along with tech’s influence.

Who is equipped? Consultants from McKinsey, Bain, or Booz Allen? Politicians? Perhaps universities should seek council from the top three officials in Virginia to add an East Coast flair to the ethical challenge? What about individual thinkers? Jeffrey Skilling (Wharton and Enron) and Martin Shkreli (the pharma bro)? Soon El Chapo (a bro-chacho) will have time on his hands once a verdict is rendered in his trial.

Courses about ethics are sprouting like flowers after April showers in a temperate zone.

I underlined in yellow this passage which is almost bittersweet:

The [ethics] course’s popularity is a sign that the gravity of the moment is weighing on many Stanford minds. Antigone Xenopoulos, a junior majoring in symbolic systems (a techie-fuzzie hybrid major that incorporates computer science, linguistics, and philosophy), is a research assistant for CS181. She wasn’t the only student who quoted a line from Spider-Man to me—with great power comes great responsibility—when referencing the current landscape. “If they’re going to give students the tools to have such immense influence and capabilities, [Stanford] should also guide those students in developing ethical compasses,” she says.

Yep, Spiderman. Spiderman.

Net net:

  1. Stanford is not the “problem”; Stanford is one member of a class of entities which cultivate and harvest the problem
  2. Silicon Valley has and continues to function as a high school science club without a teacher supervisor
  3. Technology, unlike a cat, cannot be put back in a bag.

Years ago I did some work for an investment bank. One of the people in a meeting was filled with the the George Gilder observation about convergence. I asked this question of the group of 12 high powered people:

Do you think technology could be like gerbils or rabbits?

The question evoked silence.

The situation today is that the interaction of technology has created ecologies in which new creatures are thriving. The result is that certain facets of a pre-technology world have been crushed, killed, or left to starve by the new digital animals and their inventions.

The Ringer’s article reminded me that “ethics” and the ability to understand oneself are in danger of extinction.

As one of the investment bankers for whom I did some work was fond of saying, “Interesting. No?”

Stephen E Arnold, February 10, 2019


One Response to “Flagships Lost in a Sea of Money, Fame, and Power”

  1. investors sites on March 13th, 2019 9:40 pm

    Now I am ready to do my breakfast, later than having my breakfast coming
    over again to read additional news.

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