The theme of our annual Grace Hopper Celebration this year is “Technology for Social Good.” What does technology for social good represent? Is technology beneficial or harmful to society? Technology has had both negative and positive consequences on our world. The interaction between human nature and technology has always been one of a difficult balance. As James
Burke, scientific historian, writes “the moment man first picked up a stone or a branch to use as a tool, he altered irrevocably the balance between him and his environment” –James Burke, Connections.
This human capacity has led to both significant societal advances and significant destruction. Our ability to innovate in all spheres of life has left us with massive environmental destruction on our hands – and we are only beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem we have created. The combination of technology and capitalism has increased inequality between rich and poor, and we see increasing disparity between who can access the immense wealth of information afforded by digital technology and those who cannot access it around the world. For those of us who have access to this technology, there is increased concern about spam, information security, and user-privacy.
On the flip side, technology has also improved millions of lives: medical breakthroughs such as new medicine and life saving medical devices, such as the artificial heart pump, and the robotic arm that was invented by NASA scientists for space exploration, now used for surgery. Massive gains in efficiency in food distribution has significantly reduced hunger in developed
countries. Digital technology has also served as a force for the
democratization of education and knowledge in industrialized countries, putting information at the fingertips of millions. It has also given a voice to many of us, through participatory information sharing with the advent of blogging and social networking. Technology has significantly improved our standard of
living, from food distribution channels to washing machines and microwave ovens. Technology, and digital technology in particular, has made us closer across boundaries. Technology is also at the core of our ability to solve the environmental problems that we created.
In order to increase our potential to harness the positive impact of technology, a diversity of voices must be a part of technology creation and use. In “Unlocking the Clubhouse,” researchers found that women’s motivation for entering computing fields was frequently associated with a desire to effect
positive social impact through computer science.Our data of 1795 technical men and women in Silicon Valley shows that technical women are significantly more likely than technical men to value working for a company that
is socially responsible. 66% of women and 51% consider the social
responsibility of their companies as being very or extremely important to them.
There is a critical opportunity for computer science and engineering education to start conveying the possibilities to young children and college students. Indeed, as Margolis and Fisher state in Unlocking the Clubhouse, computer science curricula are often solely focused on programming and its technical aspects, without providing the context of larger purpose, and this focus leaves out those women who are motivated by “real-world contexts and concerns” (p.56). We need to start spreading the word: a career in science and technology can be a powerful tool for positive1 social impact.