“Changing the world,” the rallying cry of the technology industry, sounds like a concept bursting with optimism. But in reality, it’s complicated.
Take Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s creation, built under the banner of “move fast and break things,” certainly changed the world. But the creation of Facebook has also impacted democracy, privacy, communication, and even the nature of truth, in unforeseen ways; Facebook has since disavowed that motto (and Zuckerberg was harangued for his company’s association with it while testifying before congress).
Too often, in the technology industry, disruption is valued in its own right, without a thought that there may be consequences outside the purview of tech industry leaders — let alone teenage college students, who have historically been many of the driving forces between world-changing tech.
“Technology, science, and business should be founded or created or innovated, shaped, on the basis of what is actually good for human beings,” Greg Epstein, a humanist chaplain at MIT, told Mashable. “Part of the problem is this idea that an individual can create a better world by him or her (and usually him) self. This idea of rugged individualism actually goes back a long time in American history, and is one of the problems that we’re seeing in science, technology, and business.”
With the help of Epstein, MIT, one of the pre-eminent technology-oriented schools in the world, is introducing its own change into how the future creators of world-shifting inventions approach the idea of disruption, to make it more wholistic, and thoughtful. MIT announced the hiring of Epstein on April 24 as its first humanist chaplain.
A humanist chaplain is a position in the university’s office of religious life who serves as a resource for secular ethics and philosophy. The secular aspect is important; Epstein said that 40 to 50 percent of students identify as either atheist, agnostic, or non-religious.
With this new position, Epstein and MIT want to bring resources and a discussion space to campus for students to think about the ethical and moral dimensions of how they might change the world with their technological innovations.
“There aren’t really enough ways at places like MIT and Harvard among innovators who are going to change the world to talk about why we’re trying to change the world, and what we’re trying to change it into,” Epstein said.
Epstein’s position mirrors corporate initiatives, too. Google’s acquisition of AI company DeepMind prompted their creation of an ethics board in 2014. DeepMind expanded the board into a whole “ethics and society” research board in 2017. And even Mark Zuckerberg talks about connecting the world as “moral responsibility.”
But Epstein thinks that providing the next Zuckerbergs with resources to discuss ethics and morals at the educational stage could be even more impactful; a proactive, rather than reactive, way to ensure a thought-through change for the better with technology.
“The goal is that every single student at MIT and at Harvard who’s working on the technology, the science, and the business of the future, is going to have the opportunity to be expected to talk about the meaning of human existence, and not just how to create successful money-making endeavors,” Epstein said.
So what does it mean to have an ethical education, for the tech world? I asked Epstein what he wished Mark Zuckerberg or Travis Kalanick had read, before they founded Facebook and Uber. And while an ethical education is a lifelong process, Epstein has provided some required reading, for anyone in a position of changing the world through the technology they bring into it.
Here is MIT’s first humanist chaplain’s “sample required reading list” for “humanists in and around the world of technology which will shape our future.”
Selections and captions by Greg Epstein, edited for length by Mashable.
The Drama of the Gifted Child
This classic work of psychoanalysis tackles the topic of gifted, talented people who were raised by loving, largely supportive parents yet struggle with feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and imposterism. It’s a larger demographic than you might think.
Between the World and Me
This landmark book on race and politics in America may very well also be the quintessential text on humanism and atheism of this generation. As Coates writes, with hope and inspiration: “godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.”
The Ethics of Ambiguity
One need not be a luddite to wish that today’s tech leaders were reading a little more great philosophy, and if I could nominate one school with which they could start, it would be the Existentialists— especially the movement’s two greatest thinkers, de Beauvoir and Camus. Ethics is one of the best explanations ever written of what it means to be an ethical human being in a complex and changing world.
The Plague, around which I build a major section of my book Good Without God, is a sweeping secular sacred text: a novel whose characters and drama are a metaphor for the question of how we create meaning and purpose in a world where it otherwise might seem, as Dostoyevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov, that ‘without God, all is permitted.’
Too many tech innovators think their biggest mission in life is to be a kind of superhero, single-handedly changing the world through their own genius and strength. But Brown, a professor of social work and famous TED speaker, offers an inspiring vision of a different kind of heroism: the ability to be vulnerable.
In my experience, open and honest conversations about death can actually be incredibly inspiring, causing us to reflect profoundly on what we want to do with the limited time we have in this world. When students really concentrate on that question, they almost universally realize it is better to live and die as someone who loves others, who helps people, and who spends much of his or her energy on helping make the world a better place. There are many great books to help us reflect on these subjects, but this one by Gawande may be the best and most relatable to a young science and tech audience.
The Atheist Muslim
The Atheist Muslim offers the most sophisticated and nuanced (yet also compelling and readable) answers yet published, to questions critical to humanity’s future: how can one consider oneself Muslim by culture and heritage, yet embrace a nonreligious and progressive worldview? And how can we in the secular world learn to critique problematic ideas in traditional and modern Islam, while enthusiastically protecting and caring for Muslim immigrants and others who face prejudice and discrimination mainly because they seem different, because they are the “other” in western societies that still contain too much racism, not to mention Islamophobia?
A World of Three Zeros
Can we innovatively nudge capitalism to evolve toward something healthier and more just, without having to tear it down and start over again? Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his work alleviating poverty, is a visionary for new economies that can improve the human condition. A humanist economics may not yet have been fully invented, but it needs to be, and this book is one of the best markers and conversation starters along the path.