The Technological Citizen, Year One: A Recap

World in handGreetings!

This post marks the end of the first year of The Technological Citizen, and the end of my Hackworth Fellowship at The Markkula Center for Ethics.  And what a year it has been!

Over the course of the past 9 months, I’ve written and featured 22 articles, on topics ranging from biotechnology to neuroscience to social networking to artificial intelligence.  These articles have amassed upwards of 650 thoughtful and interesting comments, and over the course of the year, approximately  150,000 people have visited the blog.

Throughout the year, posts from The Technological Citizen have been incorporated into the curriculum of fifteen courses at Santa Clara University in five different departments, including Social and Ethical Issues in Biotechnology (Biology Department); Science, Technology and Society (Philosophy Department); Technology and Communication (Communications Department); Science, Ethics, and Society (English Department), and Difficult Dialogues in Genetics and Medicine. Hundreds of students have responded to posts as part of their coursework, and students from the philosophy course Science, Technology and Society wrote “guest posts” as their final papers, from which the previous post on electronic recycling was selected.

Over the year, I’ve been able to connect with some amazing people in the fields of technology, ethics and beyond.  Contributing writers to the blog have included Paul Bloom, psychologist from Yale University;  Wendell Wallach, ethicist from Yale University; and Colin Allen, from Indiana University.  I’ve also been honored to feature articles by Dr. Lawrence Nelson, bioethicist from Santa Clara University, and Dr. Sean Hatt, psychologist from Santa Clara University’s Graduate School of Psychology.  I am so grateful, too, to Roger Holzberg from Methuselah Foundation for letting me interview him about the foundation’s work in life extension, and to Dr. Wallach and Dr. Allen for featuring my article on The Singularity on their blog, Moral Machines.


Living in the Silicon Valley has afforded me some excellent opportunities throughout the year as well: I’ve attended lectures by Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; Dr. William Hurlbut from Stanford’s Neuroscience Institute on ethical issues raised by biotechnology; Dr. Hank Greely, Dr. David Magnus, and Dr. Christine Wijman at The Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford on fMRI technology and Vegitative States; and blogger and writer Jonah Lehrer on neuroscience and decision making.

Picture 2I also had the opportunity to learn about The Power of Social Technology from Professor Jennifer Aaker at Stanford Business School, when I was invited to serve on a panel evaluating the final presentations of her course on using social media for social good.  Excitingly, excerpts from The Technological Citizen are going to be featured in her forthcoming book, The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media To Drive Social Change, an amazing book coming out next fall on the power of social media.

To top it all off, just recently I attended Wisdom 2.0, a conference bringing together leading thinkers in the fields of mindfullness and neuroscience with tech leaders from Silicon Valley and beyond to discuss how we can integrate our use of technology to lead better, more meaningful lives (very Technological Citizen-y, indeed).  Overall, it’s been rewarding and exciting to write about these topics in an area that is such a hub for technological innovation!

Looking Back

When I started The Technological Citizen, I knew nothing about blogging or web design; I didn’t know how to “embed” videos or post podcasts or even how to post a link. But I felt passionately about ethics and technology, and eager to share ideas, so I figured it out (with some help, of course) and set out to create my first blog.

My primary goal was to begin to spread the notion of “technological citizenship” and empower others to become informed and make thoughtful decisions about shaping our technological future — because it is our individual decisions about how we use technology that aggregate into our technological norms.  To that end, I tried to build a site that reflected a deep engagement and commitment to exploring technological issues, one which I hope modeled the type of intellectual engagement I hoped to inspire in others.

Blogs in blue

I wanted The Technological Citizen to be a bit different than the blogs I had become accustomed to reading, though.  My feeling is that on the web, so much gets posted, so frequently, that we can read blog posts only to forget about them 5 minutes later when we’re on to the next one.  I also think in our technologically paced world, we mistake sharing information with engaging with that information: it’s one thing to tweet out articles or blog a couple times a week (or a day) about a few thoughts about this or that, and to receive quickly formulated, knee-jerk comments or even just a Facebook “like” button in response; but what is missing from this type of internet discourse is a more in-depth, sustained reflection on the topics we are exchanging.  So much of the content online gets transmitted in bits and pieces, isolated from context, removed from any cohesive whole; is there a way, I wondered, to challenge this model, to create a website that was more about ideas than updates, which valued dialogue more than instant reactions?

LaptopSo instead of posting constant updates, just linking to other articles and writing a paragraph or two on a topic, I wanted to take time to research, reflect on, and carefully construct my posts,  in hopes of creating an atmosphere of more in-depth reflection.  I wanted to create a forum for ideas that would have some staying power, where posts didn’t have a 24-hour expiration date but could be valuable sources of information, hopefully long after they were posted, and where people took the time to reflect on what they were contributing to the conversation, instead of just pressing “reply” and moving onto the next thing. And my hope was that the extra time it takes to read a long post, watch a video, or listen to a podcast is time readers might engage more fully with the topic, consider its impact, and reflect on it more meaningfully.  In essence, I wanted to try to reframe what a blog could be, and by bringing my own sustained reflection to the blog, elicit that from my readers as well.

The result? I can’t feel anything but deep gratitude towards the 475+ people who have shared their reflections in the comments section of the posts this year, for you all have really helped me to achieve this goal.  Thank you all so much!  On my posts on Cognitive Stimulants, there are over 40 comments; on my post on Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, there are over 65 comments; and on my post on Personal Genetic Testing, there are over 120 comments.  I am so grateful for all the support and interest I have received for the blog, and for all the enthusiastic readers that have really made this year a success.  I know there is a lot to read online, and I thank everyone who has taken the time to stop by and contribute to The Technological Citizen!

Posts: A Summary

When people ask me where I get ideas on what to write on, I usually say, “Everywhere!” One thing I certainly never suffered from was a lack of things to write about, and my one regret is that I couldn’t have covered more topics.  But looking back, it is fun to see the diversity of the topics that have been featured on the blog so far…

Over the year, I’ve written about everything from Ritalin to Robots; I’ve examined “ubiquitous human computing” and a Singularity-fueled post-human future.  I’ve looked at internet privacy and advertisements for egg-donors and presented views on designer babies, too.

Picture 9

I’ve tried to present issues in a balanced and nuanced way, and in so doing, asked readers to take some time out of their media-multitasking to sit and read posts which are long and sometimes complicated, hoping earnestly to create a blog that flies against the conventions of online reading behaviors, which condition us to expect quick, short bits of information that we can easily skim (but often quickly forget as a result).

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I’ve tried to inspire those same readers to think twice about whipping out their cell phones in public places at the expense of talking to those around them (and I also suggested what to do with those cell phones when you’re ready to move on to a newer one).  I hoped to encourage readers to consider spending some time in nature, and to try and appreciate the natural world for its intrinsic value, not just as a resource we can use for our technological gains.

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I also took my interest in neuroscience and philosophy and tried to draw some attention to “brain overclaim syndrome”; I’ve even offered up some tips on how to live a longer, healthier life (and cued you in to the benefits and pitfalls of getting your genome tested, also).

And I wrote about how you can use technology to change the worldand highlighted that you can live in a pretty swanky house while you’re at it.

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When I look back at all of these articles, I’m so happy to have been able to write about such a broad range of topics.  But my real hope is that the culmination of all these articles achieves something beyond what any individual post could get across — my hope is to have challenged you, in general, to think about technology with a critical, analytic eye; to see technology as not only something that we shape, but something that shapes us; to become aware of it as a powerful and  influential force in all of our lives and to constantly question if the path we are heading down is the path we should be taking.

I also hope to have inspired you to think about both the powers and dangers of each of the technologies that impact our lives, and furthermore, to plant a seed of skepticism that causes you to think twice about the technologies that are advancing around us each day, and say, “Yes, we are able to do this with technology.  But does that mean we should?”  And  lastly, I hope to have provided you with some information or insight you may not have thought about otherwise, so that the next time you’re skimming an internet article, checking your cell phone while having a conversation with someone, or reaching for that Ritalin, you might approach it with a bit more careful reflection.  “Concern for man himself and his fate,” Einstein said, “must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors.”

I’d Like To Thank…

In the process of looking back on this year, I want to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has read the blog, sent the blog to friends, and left comments on the posts: I appreciate it so very much!thank_you

This blog could not have been possible without the thoughtful encouragement and feedback of my advisor Dr. David DeCosse, who has been so supportive and helpful throughout the year, as well as the support of The Markkula Center, including Kirk Hanson and Miriam Schulman, and the generous Hackworth Fellowship.

I’d also like to thank all of the people who have guest posted throughout this year: Dr. Sean Hatt, for his thoughtful piece on cognitive stimulants; Dr. Lawrence Nelson, for his article on PGD, and whose bioethics course got me interested in studying ethics in the first place; Dr. Wendell Wallach and Dr. Paul Bloom from Yale University and Dr. Colin Allen from Indiana University for generously allowing me to feature their thought-provoking material. To the students who have contributed guest posts: Preet Anand, Kaelin Holland, Danny Meyers, Rachel Hammel and Kendra Postell.  Thank you for your interest in the blog, for your willingness to contribute, and for all the discussions you have inspired as a result.  Keep it up!

I’d also like to thank Professor Leilani Miller, who has been so supportive of the blog from the beginning — your support has meant so much to me; Professor Margaret McLean, Professor Aparajita Nanda, and Professor Jeremy Townley, for graciously using this blog in their courses; to all of the amazing students and people who have contributed their comments over the course of the year, thank you for your thoughtful feedback.  Also, to Professor Jennifer Aaker, for all of the wonderful opportunities she has afforded me – thank you so much!

To my family and friends for being so supportive over the course of the year, and for listening to me talking about these topics non-stop(!), thank you.  To Angela Zhu, for all of her help, particularly launching the blog, with helping me design and troubleshoot for the website.

And last but certainly not least, I’d like to thank Professor Shannon Vallor, without whom this blog would not exist.  The Technological Citizen is an outgrowth of her profound teaching, guidance, and intellectual influence, and I am deeply indebted to her for all that she has taught me.

What Next?

Global communicationWhen I look around, I see that things are changing.  Fast. Genes are being spliced. Brains are being scanned. Tweets are being Tweeted.  The decisions we make as a generation now about how we approach these things — the internet, genetic engineering, neuroscientific pursuits, environmental technology, robotics, and reproductive technologies — these decisions will be crucial in the shape our technological future will take.  And if we get interested, get informed, and get involved, we can better create a future we can be proud of, instead of just mindlessly being along for the ride.

So what happens with The Technological Citizen now?  I will continue writing, albeit less frequently, into the forseeable future.  (Of course, in our technologically saturated world, I will never, ever run out of topics to cover!)  I hope you will continue to read, comment, and share the blog.

In addition to new posts, I will be working on other pages for the blog, like a books page, and a page on philosophy of technology, highlighting some of my favorite philosophers and ethicists.  I will also be updating my articles page with my favorite sources for interesting ideas.  The blog will also continue to be incorporated into the curriculum of courses at Santa Clara University, next year and in years to come.

As year one of the blog comes to an end, I wanted to close my posts with a passage from Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly’s article, “We Are The Web,” because it expresses a powerful concept I believe to be true:  We are living through a major technological transition, one which will go down as a pivotal, transformational period in history.  And as we live through this time, I think it is important that we not only open our eyes to the technological changes taking place, but that we examine these changes from a place of ethical and philosophical inquiry. The type of wisdom necessary to guide us through these changes is not inherent in the creation and proliferation of technology, but must be called upon through reflection and dialogue.

Technology is a tool: whether we choose to use it for good is up to us.

From “We Are The Web,” by Kevin Kelly:

There is only one time in the history of each planet when its inhabitants first wire up its innumerable parts to make one large Machine. Later that Machine may run faster, but there is only one time when it is born.

You and I are alive at this moment.

We should marvel, but people alive at such times usually don’t. Every few centuries, the steady march of change meets a discontinuity, and history hinges on that moment. We look back on those pivotal eras and wonder what it would have been like to be alive then. Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha, and the latter Jewish patriarchs lived in the same historical era, an inflection point known as the axial age of religion. Few world religions were born after this time. Similarly, the great personalities converging upon the American Revolution and the geniuses who commingled during the invention of modern science in the 17th century mark additional axial phases in the short history of our civilization.

Three thousand years from now, when keen minds review the past, I believe that our ancient time, here at the cusp of the third millennium, will be seen as another such era. In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand network. From this embryonic neural net was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing, cognitive device with power that exceeded any previous invention. The Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall) and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning.

-Courtney, The Technological Citizen

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