May 30, 2024

A Syllabus of Actions for Building the Society We Want

This post is about a Syllabus of Actions, the result of last fall’s Building the Society We Want workshop, co-hosted by Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy and Center for Human Values.

The central theme of the workshop was rejecting the premise that any new technology constitutes “progress” except insofar as it causes too many identifiable “harms.” The goal was to think about the world we want to live in, rather than letting tech companies set the agenda. The second step is the practice of actually taking actions other than the actions allowed/encouraged by the tech companies: we cannot like, view, or post our way out of this.

The Syllabus is organized around Actions. The default Actions for a university course are reading, writing, discussing — perhaps some more formal symbol manipulation (coding, math) or instrument use. Most of the Actions in the Syllabus involve interacting with the world outside of the classroom — an advantage of digital technology is that we can in fact use it in disruptive or empowering ways, when we take the initiative to avoid using it in the way that maximizes the revenues of the producers of the hardware/software.

Week 1 of the Syllabus is below. Here’s the rest of the Syllabus of Actions.

The central question of this course is reflected in the assignment for Week 1. What’s the ideal technology policy for society?

I don’t know. But I do know that we’re never going to find out if the only relevant Actors in this space are tech companies. Try acting differently — and report back. We all want to know how it goes.

Good luck!

In-class exercise: Discuss the experiences of students using “technology” as part of their education, both in the classroom (e.g., laptops, smartphones, airpods) and outside of it (e.g., ChatGPT, GroupMe, Google Translate).

Begin by introducing Values: the normative principles that students think are relevant for their semester in this class. 

Then discuss Tools: the analytical methods by which they (or anyone) might come to know which policies produce the best outcomes with respect to these different Values.

Conclude with Actions: in this case, what procedure should be used to select the policies? Consider:

  • Democracy: majority vote by students
  • Technocracy: expert (the teacher) decides 
  • Traditionalism: ban all technology use
  • Conservatism: look up other classes (in the major/university) and adopt the most common policy
  • Liberalism: everyone does what they want, but individuals who feel their experience infringed upon can try to persuade others
  • Liberal socialism: everyone does what they want – subject to everyone in the class having equal technological access
  • Experimentalism: the policy is randomized – either for the whole semester, class-by-class, or student-by-student
  • Constitutionalism: for any of the above, should there be a procedure to revisit or amend this policy during the course?

As the instructor, be sure to highlight what has been taken for granted / is necessarily given:

  • This is happening as part of a university class. This class is governed by laws and policies, it has to meet at set times during week, and it has to have assignments and grades.
  • The “discussions” mentioned above are by default taking place by people taking turns speaking in person, usually by volunteering. We could be using other technologies or other rules to communicate. How should we choose how to decide how to choose?

One purpose of this exercise is to illustrate how certain things in our society are changing while others are remaining constant, how complicated it is to integrate new technology into existing social structures.

Another purpose, the main purpose, is to demonstrate to students that they can actually decide which technologies should be used, and how.

Meta-Assignment (for the instructor): actually implement and (at least attempt to) enforce the students’ chosen technology policy for the duration of the course. Reflect on how it went: what had your technology policy been before this assignment? What policy would you choose now?

Report back to the rest of us. We all really want to know how it went.

Here’s the rest of the Syllabus of Actions. Good luck!

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