Technology Can’t Save Us (from ourselves)

Nearly every day a new app, invention, or scientific innovation that is supposed to change the world comes out. Almost always, they fail to change the world in any significant way. This is the normal order of things.

We can’t engineer all our problems away. Specifically, we can’t engineer away our collective failures as a society. Yet policymakers hold these inventions up as cure-alls for what ails America today.

Policymakers use these technofixes, created in good faith by good people, as distractions from the larger issues. In reality, none of these fixes is going to do any serious damage to society. They may even do some significant good for a small number of individuals. But technology can’t save us from the greatest failures of American public policy. Only better policy can do that.



Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, took the media by storm last year when they were hailed as the first major “disruption” to higher education. MOOCs generally consist of a series of prerecorded video lectures and assigned readings about a given topic, plus a few assignments, all conducted online. Major universities, including Princeton, partnered with companies like Coursera and Udacity to release MOOCs taught by star professors. At long last, supporters proclaimed, anyone – no matter his age, socioeconomic status, or wealth – could get an Ivy League quality education for free. MOOCs could mark the end of elitist ivory tower academia!

But in the end, who actually uses MOOCs? In an October 1, 2013 article, The Economist noted as one example 15-year-old Battushig Myanganbayar of Ulan Bator, who got a perfect score on MIT’s course on Circuits and Electronics. By contrast, a September 17, 2013 opinion piece in The Daily Princetonian opened with a story about the author’s father, described as “a retired investment banker,” who found himself reinvigorated by his participation in a MOOC about Einstein. Research from the University of Pennsylvania shows that the average MOOC participant is more similar to the retired investment banker than to the Mongolian teenager. According to this study, more than 80% of MOOC students had already completed an associate’s or undergraduate degree. In fact, the average MOOC student is already more educated than others within their country, both in the developed and developing worlds. In developing countries, where computer access is less ubiquitous, the vast majority of MOOC students hail from the wealthiest classes. In their current state, MOOCs have not yet meaningfully leveled the socioeconomic playing field for undereducated or poorer people in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Moreover no study has yet shown whether those who complete MOOCs generally have similar levels of conceptual understanding and information retention as those who complete classes in traditional educational environments.  For now, at least, MOOCs seem largely to be educational entertainment for people who already have access to education.

But some politicians have been eyeing MOOCs as a replacement for traditional higher education. California State Senator Darrell Steinberg introduced a bill in March 2013 which would have forced state colleges to accept the completion of certain MOOCs as equivalent to course credit. The bill was proposed in an effort to reduce overcrowding in introductory-level courses. When these courses are over-enrolled, students who cannot take them get stuck—after all, it’s hard to complete a degree in chemistry if you can’t get into the Chem 101 class.

But this approach – funding MOOCs instead of more-expensive instructors – can create a dangerous long-term precedent, as Princeton Sociology Professor Mitchell Duneier has described in explaining his decision stop teaching a MOOC through Coursera.

“I’ve said no, because I think that it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities,” Professor Duneier says. “And I guess that I’m really uncomfortable being part of a movement that’s going to get its revenue in that way. And I also have serious doubts about whether or not using a course like mine in that way would be pedagogically effective.”

Professor Duneier’s doubts are well-founded. Both in California and nationwide, those in power have promised universal high-quality education. Now that the time has come to make good on that promise, no one wants to pay for it. Instead, we have turned to untested but cheaper and efficient technological alternatives — like MOOCs – with no assurance of their quality or potential.


Bulletproof glass in schools

In late December, 2014, The New York Times ran an article about the inventor of School Guard Glass — a lightweight, relatively inexpensive bulletproof and impact-proof glass designed for use in schools. This technological innovation was a response to the Sandy Hook massacre, in which a shooter gained entry into an elementary school by shooting out a window near the front door and letting himself in. School Guard Glass might have delayed the shooter’s entry, possibly long enough for police to respond before any students or teachers would be killed.

Maybe these windows will save a life one day. But a more effective way to reduce the number of school shootings might instead be to reduce the number of guns that potential shooters have access to. The Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 was an attempt to do just this, but political gridlock ensured that the bill never made it past the Senate. In fact, at the federal level, our gun laws have not sustained serious scrutiny since the mass murder at Sandy Hook.

NRA-backed Republicans have tried to switch the narrative of gun violence to being a public health issue. It’s a small number of mentally ill individuals, they say, who commit mass murder with guns. This is certainly true. But it’s impossible to identify every would-be mass murderer in advance. Further, the Republican Party has done everything in their power to prevent serious federal reform in health care— witness the House’s dozens of votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Either way, preventing tragedies like Sandy Hook requires not a technological quick-fix but a serious reduction in the number of firearms in this country in conjunction with comprehensive health care, including mental health, for all people in the United States. But this would require serious government intervention and policy changes – Americans must come together to solve the root of this problem instead of relying on a technological innovation that asks us to quietly hope that the next school shooter also opens fire before he enters the building, not after.


Police body cams

On November 24, when it was announced that officer Darren Wilson would not be prosecuted for killing Michael Brown, the Brown family released a statement asking the public to “[j]oin with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.” A week later, President Obama requested Congress to fund $263 million towards this project. And just like that, the technology of body cams entered the narrative as the means to catch those few bad cops who do bad things.

An initial criticism of this approach was that police officers would either not wear the cameras, or sabotage their use by “accidentally” setting them up improperly, turning them off, or losing footage. On December 23, 2014, an officer wearing a body cam shot and killed an 18 year old, Antonio Martin, in Berkeley, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. The body camera was not activated.  Police claim that Martin was aiming a handgun at the officer, but the lack of footage leaves room for doubt.

Yes, the implementation of serious legal and financial penalties might prevent police officers from refusing to wear their body cams, but the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo has shed more light on the limitations of this new technology. A bystander used a cellphone to film Officer Pantaleo clearly choking Garner to death, and yet a grand jury declined to indict Officer Pantaleo. In this situation, would a body cam have been more helpful?

Lack of evidence is only a minor part of the larger problem of American police violence. Even when video evidence is available, police officers have escaped penalty for their brutality – something we’ve seen since 1991, when a bystander captured the police beating of Rodney King. Our biggest problem is not a lack of evidence or even a few bad cops. Rather, our problem is that state violence against African Americans (particularly men in their teens and 20s) is considered normal and acceptable.



If we want to educate young Americans, then we must be prepared to fund education. If we want to end school shootings, then we must be prepared to reduce the availability of firearms to people with mental disorders. If we want to end racialized police violence, then we must be prepared to rebuild the entire justice system in the United States.

But none of these technological inventions – made by good people with good intentions — adequately fix the critical ailments of our society; instead, they are temporary band aids, technofixes to the symptoms of far more serious ailments. These are recurring problems, fundamental in our society, that will not go away without serious changes to our policies. We cannot simply widget, gadget, or app them away.



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