Technology and science have long played a central role in American life. But for generations, the relationship has been a one-way street. Innovations like television or home computers appeared in our lives fully formed, and we adapted in response.
Along the way, stories surface about the individuals or tiny teams of people credited with these innovations.
“We have these heroic American narratives that are about ‘someone invented this thing’ or ‘someone discovered this new phenomenon.’ And we love to tell that story,” Dr. Arati Prabhakar told the audiences for two concurrent events last month: the New Frontiers Virtual National Summit and the Association of Science and Technology Centers virtual annual conference.
But change has never really happened that way, said Prabhakar, founder and CEO of Actuate and former head of DARPA.
If we’re “really going to work on this next generation of our hardest problems—the things that really shape our future—you really have to peel those layers back and understand that every interesting advance took a really complex ecosystem,” she explained. “And I think that’s actually one of the great richnesses of how we innovate.”
That message was at the heart of the daylong New Frontiers summit on Oct. 20, which took inspiration from the White House Frontiers Conference held in Pittsburgh in 2016.
Change is created by broad ecosystems made up of people—and all of us are part of the ecosystem that will shape America’s future.
Twenty years into the 21st century, “it is no longer sufficient for us to be passive recipients of technology,” said Christofer Nelson, president and CEO of ASTC, a professional membership organization with a vision of increased understanding of—and engagement with—science and technology among all people.
Given that science and technology are now inextricably linked to our everyday lives, Nelson said, “we have to be a lot more proactive about setting course for those new frontiers and a more equitable future.”
If we continue as passive recipients who perceive science as something removed from our lives, then “the communities that have always been left out will be left out even more,” he said. And “technology will continue to passively flow over us increasingly in ways that we don’t want or don’t like.”
During a full day of presentations, panels and breakout sessions, New Frontiers brought together a wide array of scientists, entrepreneurs, educators, community leaders, policymakers and philanthropists to explore ways that we can all participate in setting a course toward a more equitable tomorrow.
As those discussions unfolded, several themes emerged:
Science is everywhere. As our society operates on the frontiers of human knowledge, science is not separate from our everyday lives. So we increasingly need community engagement and we need learning professionals who can help us understand, connect with and make use of science and technology.
Lifelong learners of any age now have access to remarkable tools (“I have more technology power in my phone than NASA had, even during the space shuttle era,” Nelson points out). We can use this technology in active ways that go beyond simply speaking up about changes we’d like to see.
To truly tackle society’s biggest challenges, Prabhakar told the ASTC audience, “we’ve got to build a community.”
Just one example of this kind of community progress that came up during the New Frontiers summit: Local partnerships around environmental justice and climate action are showing citizens that they can test their own water and air, and they can use that data to fight for necessary change.
Active engagement like this can create a better tomorrow. And that “better tomorrow” can and should be defined by the people of a given community, including young people.
Youth participation begins with solid science and technology education, but it doesn’t have to end with that foundational learning. During presentations in the summit’s climate track, for example, “we saw several examples of groups of organized youth who were taking the tools of science and technology, and organizing and getting involved to impact researchers and technology developers,” said Melissa Ballard, director of programs at ASTC.
Science and technology are not neutral. In the earliest days of the internet, it was easy to believe a techno-utopia was on the horizon. It seemed that a place of creative expression, democratic free speech and respect for science was being born. Even as recently as 2011, summit speaker Eugene Yi said he was filled with hope that social media was emerging as a purely positive tool to support democratic reform around the globe.
But technological advances are driven by institutions. And institutions are run by individuals with their own agendas—some overt and others less visible or conscious.
“I started to realize that digital connectivity wasn’t about empowering voices necessarily, but about how those voices reverberate in these networks,” Yi told the summit and conference audiences. “I started to doubt that for-profit speech platforms could be incentivized to empower citizens.”
And yet our tech-infused future, we’re realizing, won’t necessarily be all good or all bad.
“We have two dominant stories that we tell and that we’re told about technology,” said keynote speaker Dr. Ruja Benjamin “Although on the surface they seem like opposing stories—the techno-dystopian one that Hollywood sells us, the techno-utopian version that Silicon Valley sells us—they share an underlying logic.”
This logic, she said, tells us “technology is in the driver’s seat and we’re either helped or harmed by it, but that our own human agency is removed or washed away from the story.” But human agency remains and it is more important than ever.
People create technology, and all people can claim a voice in that process.
Right now, “a very small sliver of humanity is currently doing the technological design and the imaginative work that goes into our digital and physical infrastructures,” Benjamin said. What would it look like if we democratized technological development to make sure all communities were involved in imagining and designing our physical and digital world?
If we want a more equitable tomorrow, we have to make sure that all communities are participating in the creation of and use of technology. We need a truly diverse group of people practicing science and technology—and teaching these disciplines. And scientists and technologists must build space for community voice into their design budgets and methodologies.
Change won’t happen if we simply tweak one algorithm, Benjamin said. As New Frontiers and the ASTC conference ended, she left the audience with a larger and more uplifting call to action.
“If inequity is woven into the very fabric of society, then each twist, coil and code is a chance for us to weave new patterns, practices and politics,” she said. “The vastness of the problems that we’re up against will be their undoing once we accept that we are pattern-makers.”
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