I found Shane Snow’s essay on prison reform — “How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix the Prison System” — through hate-linking.
Friends of mine hated the piece so much that normally-articulate people were at a loss for words.
A real person thought it would be a good idea to write this and post it on the Internet. pic.twitter.com/rj8viJr1HQ— Susie Cagle (@susie_c) January 30, 2016
With a recommendation like that, how could I pass it up? And after reading it, I tweeted my astonishment to Susie, who told me, “I write comics, but I don’t know how to react to this in a way that’s funny.” I realized that I couldn’t offer an appropriate reaction in 140 characters either. The more I think about Snow’s essay, the more it looks like the outline for a class on the pitfalls of solving social problems with technology, a class I’m now planning on teaching this coming fall.
Using Snow’s essay as a jumping off point, I want to consider a problem that’s been on my mind a great deal since joining the MIT Media Lab five years ago: How do we help smart, well-meaning people address social problems in ways that make the world better, not worse?
In other words, is it possible to get beyond both a naïve belief that the latest technology will solve social problems—and a reaction that rubbishes any attempt to offer novel technical solutions as inappropriate, insensitive, and misguided? Can we find a synthesis in which technologists look at their work critically and work closely with the people they’re trying to help in order to build sociotechnical systems that address hard problems?