Dozens of students gathered at Meyer Green on Thursday to debate the possibilities and pitfalls of technological solutions to social problems as a part of the first event of the Socrates at Sunset series. The event, which was co-hosted by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and Veritas at Stanford, featured Stanford political science professor Rob Reich M.A. ’98 Ph.D. ’98.
The goal of the new event series is to provoke thoughtful conversations around topics of ethics and philosophy, according to Collin Anthony Chen ’06, an event organizer and the Associate Director for Undergraduate Outreach for the Center for Ethics in Society. Anthony Chen added, however, that Thursday’s event was also an experiment.
“We want students to not just ask questions, but also speak their mind with Rob and everyone who is there. We hope to see students feeling confident enough to go up and engage,” he said.
Event organizers were intentional about creating a relaxed and intimate ambiance, according to Anthony Chen. They offered blankets and boba to attendees, started the event after sunset and used LED lanterns to light up Meyer Green. In doing so, they hoped to help students feel comfortable enough to share their opinions and ask contemplative questions to Reich and fellow students, Anthony Chen said.
“Imagine those 2 a.m. late night conversations that you have with students in your dorm, and you’re just talking from midnight until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. There’s a kind of candor and honesty that exists in those late night conditions that’s really hard to replicate in a more traditional classroom setting,” Anthony Chen said. “We’re hoping to achieve something similar, and we think that the evening setting will help students feel a little bit more courageous than they would in a classroom.”
Intending to spark dialogue from the audience, Reich took the stage to offer a “Socratic provocation.” He started by painting a picture of Silicon Valley’s utopian promise for students, describing it as a place where they would be able to make a lot of money and use technology to make the world a better place.
Reich then switched gears and said that computer science does not teach students the skills they need to engage with complex social problems.
“In computer science, students are taught this language of optimization and problem-solving,” Reich said. “This yields enormous promise, but what does this blind us to?”
According to Reich, technologists often lose sight of the root causes of social problems, which often stem from unequal power dynamics and hierarchies in institutions. Through viewing problems as optimization questions, he said, technical solutions offer incremental improvements to flawed institutions instead of addressing core societal problems.
An example of this is in algorithms that help determine the risk of offering people cash bail, Reich said.
“But what if you think the problem is the carceral state itself? When are we going to talk about the real problem, instead of using algorithms to tweak and tune the issue?” he said.
The stage then opened up to student questions, which ranged from asking about whether democracy could survive Twitter to challenging Reich’s views that machines can’t optimize for all societal problems. Students also formed small groups to share their takeaways from the event and their opinions on whether technology can be used to solve social problems.
“I have a new appreciation for democracy,” said Citlali Blanco ’22, an attendee at the event. “Democracy is inherently not an optimization problem, because we’re listening to so many diverse opinions. Because each person has different values, it’s going to be very hard to optimize it and please a multitude of people.”
Rhiannon O’Keefe ’25, one of the event’s student facilitators, said that she wanted to keep Reich’s perspective in mind throughout her college education. “One point that hit home for me was the idea of technology being a surface level solution to things and the need for philosophy and deeper thinking to go to the root of the problem,” she said.
Ultimately, Anthony Chen wants to expand the Socrates at Sunset series into other topics such as relationships, love, inequality, immigration and racism.
“The driver of big, structural change is lots of democratically informed citizens who communicate with each other to really create change at a structural and institutional level,” Anthony Chen said. “And you might ask, how is that mission going to be solved with this one event? Well, obviously, it’s a much larger problem. But it does get people much more comfortable having these conversations about these difficult and big picture topics, which is certainly a first step.”