<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/Kfxj2i_6q_M” frameborder=”0″ allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture” allowfullscreen></iframe>A man takes a job at Care-A-Spondence, writing letters that people don’t want to write for themselves. When he’s assigned to help a woman write her suicide note, he finds that making a living isn’t so easy when someone might end up dying.
Jeffrey Epstein, the multimillionaire financier indicted on federal sex-trafficking charges, died after he was discovered unresponsive from an “apparent suicide” on Saturday morning in a federal detention center in Manhattan. His death has raised questions about the investigation and its political implications.
What happens to the case now?
Epstein’s death comes a day after new documents pertaining to his global sex-trafficking ring were unsealed in court filings on Friday.
On Saturday, Attorney General William P. Barr said that he was “appalled” after hearing about the suspect’s death and that many questions would need to be answered, according to a Justice Department statement. Barr said he “consulted with the Inspector General who is opening an investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Epstein’s death.”
Epstein was placed on suicide watch last month but then taken off within about a week, a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Washington Post. But he was subject to higher security in a special housing unit.
Because Epstein is dead, the criminal case is over, but that doesn’t mean all investigations surrounding the allegations will cease, said Paul Butler, a professor of law at Georgetown University and former federal prosecutor.
He said investigators may now turn to others who were accused of being involved with the sex-trafficking activities. According to Butler, this is partly because accusers feel they haven’t received justice.
“Even though the criminal prosecution of Mr. Epstein ended this morning, there remained questions about co-conspirators,” Butler said.
Attorneys representing some accusers said they will continue to seek justice.
“There’s a whole network that enabled him and allowed this to happen, and it’s time that everyone who was a part of this be held accountable,” said Kimberly Lerner, an attorney for one of Epstein’s accusers.
Jennifer Araoz, Lerner’s client and one of the women who has accused Epstein, said in a statement that she and others will have to “live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed — the pain and trauma he caused so many people.”
“Epstein is gone, but justice must still be served. I hope the authorities will pursue and prosecute his accomplices and enablers, and ensure redress for his victims,” Araoz said.
Brad Edwards, a lawyer who represents some of the other alleged victims said: “The fact that Jeffrey Epstein was able to commit the selfish act of taking his own life as his world of abuse, exploitation, and corruption unraveled is both unfortunate and predictable. While he and I engaged in contentious legal battles for more than a decade, this is not the ending anyone was looking for. The victims deserved to see Epstein held accountable, and he owed it to everyone he hurt to accept responsibility for all of the pain he caused.”
How are lawmakers reacting?
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle reacted to Saturday’s news with frustration and sadness. Reactions were especially strong from New York and Florida, where Epstein had residences and allegations were made.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted: “We need answers. Lots of them.”
Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said the “victims have once again been denied their day in court.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in a statement on Saturday: “The victims of Jeffrey Epstein’s heinous actions deserved an opportunity for justice. Today, that opportunity was denied to them. The Federal Bureau of Prisons must provide answers on what systemic failures of the MCC Manhattan or criminal acts allowed this coward to deny justice to his victims.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in a statement on Saturday: “The victims of Jeffrey Epstein’s heinous actions deserved an opportunity for justice. Today, that opportunity was denied to them. The Federal Bureau of Prisons must provide answers on what systemic failures of the MCC Manhattan or criminal acts allowed this coward to deny justice to his victims.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said on Twitter he couldn’t “even begin to imagine how many horrific secrets this sick perv is taking to the grave.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) wrote in a letter to Barr: “Every single person in the Justice Department — from your Main Justice headquarters staff all the way to the night-shift jailer — knew that this man was a suicide risk, and that his dark secrets couldn’t be allowed to die with him. Given Epstein’s previous attempted suicide, he should have been locked in a padded room under unbroken, 24/7, constant surveillance. Obviously, heads must roll.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) tweeted he was “pleased the @TheJusticeDept Inspector General and FBI will be investigating. There are many questions that need to be answered in this case.”
On Saturday afternoon, Trump retweeted conspiracy theories that blamed the Clintons for Epstein’s death. Earlier in the day, Trump appointee Lynn Patton, an administrator at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), similarly targeted Hillary Clinton in an Instagram post.
What do we know about the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Epstein was found dead?
The Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan has held various criminals, ranging from Bernard Madoff, who orchestrated an enormous Ponzi scheme, to notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. In June, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was moved to the MCC, The Post reported.
According to Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an al-Qaeda conspirator, the prison at Guantanamo Bay was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal facility, the New York Times reported in 2010.
What do we know about suicide in jail?
Suicide is the most common cause of death in jails, where 50 of every 100,000 inmates died by suicide in 2014 — a rate 3.5 times that of the general population, the Associated Press reported. High rates of addicted and mentally ill people behind bars are believed to contribute to the problem, as well as possible poor treatment of inmates and the stress of being incarcerated.
Among the most high-profile inmate suicides in recent years is the death of Sandra Bland, a Texas woman whom police say they pulled over in July 2015 because she failed to signal while she changed lanes. Authorities said Bland, 28, hanged herself within three days of being arrested on a charge of assaulting an officer.
In the year after Bland’s death, at least 815 people died by suicide in U.S. jails, HuffPost reported. Suicides accounted for nearly one-third of the jail deaths counted by the news organization, which said its numbers were incomplete because of lack of access to data.
Former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein said Saturday on Twitter that preventing self-harm by people accused of pedophilia is difficult. A report in the journal Federal Probation that he posted says defendants charged with sex crimes often experience suicidal ideation because of shame and the likelihood of a prison sentence.
The report cites a suicide prevention program in the Central District of California that involves a psychological assessment, support group sessions, cognitive behavioral therapy, lessons on healthy coping skills and education about the federal prison system. None of the 100 defendants that had gone through the program when the report was released had died by suicide.
In addition to whether a defendant is a flight risk and the likelihood that they will commit criminal activity, the report said, judges should consider the risk of suicide when deciding whether to grant someone pretrial release.
Lawyers representing Jeffrey Epstein’s accusers said Saturday that his death won’t stop their clients from seeking justice from those they say enabled or conspired with Epstein to allegedly sexually abuse dozens of underage girls.
The attorneys condemned as cowardly Epstein’s apparent suicide overnight while in a federal facility on charges of sex trafficking because now he won’t ever have to face the women he allegedly hurt.
“I guess there is somewhat an element of relief because the fear of him getting out is obviously over, but there is also, they’ll never be able to look into his eye and say, ‘You hurt me.’ There’s that element of closure that he’s taken away from them,” said Kimberly Lerner, an attorney for one of Epstein’s accusers.
But, Lerner said, Epstein’s death isn’t “the end, it’s just a new beginning.”
“There’s a whole network that enabled him and allowed this to happen and it’s time that everyone who was a part of this be held accountable,” she said.
Lerner’s client, Jennifer Araoz, released her own statement about Epstein’s death. Araoz has accused Epstein of raping her in his New York City home when she was 15. She said she was recruited outside her high school to make regular visits to his house
“We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed the pain and trauma he caused so many people,” Araoz said. “Epstein is gone, but justice must still be served. I hope the authorities will pursue and prosecute his accomplices and enablers, and ensure redress for his victims.”
Epstein’s death came less than a day after new details about his alleged sexual abuse of underage girls were unsealed in court filings. In the documents — part of a lawsuit settled in 2017 against a woman who allegedly recruited underage girls for Epstein — accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre named
- Prince Andrew, former New Mexico governor
- Bill Richardson (D) and former Senate majority leader
- George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) among the prominent men in Epstein’s orbit she was ordered to have sex with.
All three men have denied any wrongdoing. Epstein, a multimillionaire, kept powerful company and socialized with both President Trump and former president Bill Clinton.
Epstein was arrested last month on federal sex trafficking charges that could have put in him prison for 45 years. New York University Law School professor Stephen Gillers said Epstein’s death puts an end to that prosecution, but it doesn’t mean the investigation is over.
“Is there the equivalent of a little black book whose contents implicates others? Was incriminating video, email or voice mail found in his mansion’s safe?” Gillers said. “While the case against Epstein is over, the investigation is not.”
OKLAHOMA CITY — It was 1962 in Oklahoma City and Liz Herring, a new student at Northwest Classen High School, was feeling insecure. She was good at school, had skipped a grade, and now, as a skinny freshman with glasses and crooked teeth who had grown up in a town south of the capital, she was hungry to fit in.
She joined the Cygnet Pep Club to show her school spirit and the Courtesy Club to help visitors find their way around the school. She became a member of the Announcers Club, reading messages over the school’s central sound system. But it was the debate club where she really found herself. At a time when Home Ec and preparing for marriage were priorities for young women, debate was a place where they could compete on equal ground.
She loved learning about the big topics of the day — Medicare, unions, nuclear disarmament. She began carrying around a large metal box with hundreds of index cards with quotes and facts written on them.
She was competitive and had extraordinary focus and self-discipline, spending hours after school each day practicing. Joe Pryor, a high school friend and debate teammate, remembers her “ruthlessness in preparation.” By the time they were juniors, he said, “she was just flat out better than me.”
Malcolm Gladwell talks about the law of criminal concentration.
He says that crime and suicide (on the Golden Gate bridge) are coupled and do not result in displacement.
(40:50 min) Of the 515 people who attempted suicide on the Golden Gate bridge, only 25 attempt again in another way.
(42:40 min) Most police deny that the law of criminal concentration exists. They deploy stop-and-frisk too broadly. There are no “bad neighborhoods”. There are only “bad blocks”.
Stanford has established itself as the epicenter of computer science, and a farm system for the tech giants. Following major scandals at Facebook, Google, and others, how is the university coming to grips with a world in which many of its students’ dream jobs are now vilified?
At Stanford University’s business school, above the stage where Elizabeth Holmes once regurgitated the myths of Silicon Valley, there now hangs a whistle splattered in blood. More than 500 people have gathered to hear the true story of Theranos, the $9 billion blood-testing company Holmes launched in 2004 as a Stanford dropout with the help of one of the school’s famed chemical engineering professors.
When Holmes was weaving the elaborate lies that ultimately led to the dissolution of her company, she leaned heavily on tech truisms that treat dogged pursuit of market domination as a virtue. “The minute that you have a backup plan, you’ve admitted that you’re not going to succeed,” she said onstage in 2015. But Shultz and Cheung, who faced legal threats from Theranos for speaking out, push back against the idea of pursuing a high-minded vision at all costs. “We don’t know how to handle new technologies anymore,” Cheung says, “and we don’t know the consequences necessarily that they’ll have.”
The words resonate in the jam-packed auditorium, where students line up afterward to nab selfies with and autographs from the whistleblowers. Kendall Costello, a junior at Stanford, idolized Holmes in high school and imagined working for Theranos one day. Now she’s more interested in learning how to regulate tech than building the next product that promises to change the world. “I really aspired to kind of be like her in a sense,” Costello says. “Then two years later, in seeing her whole empire crumble around her, in addition to other scandals like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica and all these things that are coming forward, I was just kind of disillusioned.”..But the endless barrage of negative news in tech, ranging from Facebook fueling propaganda campaigns by Russian trolls to Amazon selling surveillance software to governments, has forced Stanford to reevaluate its role in shaping the Valley’s future leaders. Students are reconsidering whether working at Google or Facebook is landing a dream job or selling out to craven corporate interests. Professors are revamping courses to address the ethical challenges tech companies are grappling with right now. And university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne has made educating students on the societal impacts of technology a tentpole of his long-term strategic plan.
As tech comes to dominate an ever-expanding portion of our daily lives, Stanford’s role as an educator of the industry’s engineers and a financier of its startups grows increasingly important. The school may not be responsible for creating our digital world, but it trains the architects. And right now, students are weighing tough decisions about how they plan to make a living in a world that was clearly constructed the wrong way. “To me it seemed super empowering that a line of code that I wrote could be used by millions of people the next day,” says Matthew Sun, a junior majoring in computer science and public policy, who helped organize the Theranos event. “Now we’re realizing that’s maybe not always a good thing.”
.. Because membership costs $21,000 per year, the career fairs tend to attract only the most renowned firms.
“Honestly, I think they’re horrific,” says Vicki Niu, a 2018 Stanford graduate who majored in computer science. She recalls her first career fair being as hectic as a Black Friday sale, with the put-on exclusivity of a night club. (Students must present their Stanford IDs to enter the tent.) But like other freshmen, she found herself swept up in the pursuit of an internship at a large, prestigious tech firm. “Everybody is trying to get interviews at Google and Facebook and Palantir,” she says. “There’s all this hype around them. Part of my mind-set coming in was that I wanted to learn, but I think there was definitely also this big social pressure and this desire to prove yourself and to prove to people that you’re smart.”
Stanford’s computer science department has long been revered for its graduate programs—Google was famously built as a research project by Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin—but the intense interest among undergrads is relatively new. In 2007, the school conferred more bachelor’s degrees in English (92) than computer science (70). The next year, though, Stanford revamped its CS curriculum from a one-size-fits-all education to a more flexible framework that funneled students along specialized tracks such as graphics, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence. “We needed to make the major more attractive, to show that computer science isn’t just sitting in a cube all day,” Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor who once worked at Google, said later.
The change in curriculum coincided with an explosion of wealth and perceived self-importance in the Valley. The iPhone opened up the potential for thousands of new businesses built around apps, and when its creator died he earned rapturous comparisons to Thomas Edison. Facebook emerged as the fastest-growing internet company of all time, and the Arab Spring made its influence seem benign rather than ominous. As the economy recovered from the recession, investors decided to park their money in startups like Uber and Airbnb that might one day become the next Google or Amazon. A 2013 video by the nonprofit Code.org featured CEOs, Chris Bosh, and will.i.am comparing computer programmers to wizards, superheroes, and rock stars.
Stanford and its students eagerly embraced this cultural shift. John Hennessy, a computer science professor who became president of the university from 2000 to 2016, served on Google’s board of directors and is now the executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet. LinkedIn founder and Stanford alum Reid Hoffman introduced a new computer science course called Blitzscaling and brought in high-profile entrepreneurs to teach students how to “build massive organizations, user bases, and businesses, and to do so at a dizzyingly rapid pace.” (Elizabeth Holmes was among the speakers.) Mark Zuckerberg became an annual guest in Sahami’s popular introductory computer science class. “It just continued to emphasize how privileged Stanford students are in so many ways, that we have the CEO of Facebook taking time out of his day to come talk to us,” says Vinamrata Singal, a 2016 graduate who had Zuckerberg visit her class freshman year. “It felt really surreal and it did make me excited to want to continue studying computer science.”
In 2013, Stanford began directly investing in students’ companies, much like a venture capital firm. Even without direct Stanford funding, the school’s proximity to wealth helped plenty of big ideas get off the ground. Evan Spiegel, who was a junior at Stanford in 2011 when he started working on Snapchat, connected with his first investor via a Stanford alumni network on Facebook. “Instead of starting a band or trying to make an independent movie or blogging, people would get into code,” says Billy Gallagher, a 2014 graduate who was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. “It was a similar idea to, ‘Here’s our band’s vinyl or our band’s tape. Come see us play.’”
..But it’s not just that coding was a creative outlet, as is often depicted in tech origin stories. Working at a big Silicon Valley company also became a path to a specific kind of upper-crust success that students at top schools are groomed for. “Why do so many really bright young kids go into consulting and banking?” asks Gallagher. “They’re prestigious so your parents can be proud of you, they pay really well, and they put you on a career path to open up new doors. Now we’re seeing that’s happening a lot with Google and Facebook.”
By the time Niu arrived in 2014, computer science had become the most popular major on campus and 90 percent of undergrads were taking at least one CS course. As a high schooler, her knowledge of Silicon Valley didn’t extend much further than The Internship, a Vince Vaughn–Owen Wilson comedy about working at Google that doubled as a promotional tool for the search giant. She soon came to realize that landing a job at one of the revered tech giants or striking it rich with an app were Stanford’s primary markers of success. Her coursework was largely technical, focusing on the process of coding and not so much on the outcomes. And in the rare instances when Niu heard ethics discussed in class, it was often framed around the concerns of tech’s super-elite, like killer robots destroying humanity in the future. “In my computer science classes and just talking to other people who were interested in technology, it didn’t seem like anybody really cared about social impact,” she says. “Or if they did, they weren’t talking about it.”
In the spring of her freshman year, Niu and two other students hosted a meeting to gauge interest in a new group focused on socially beneficial uses of technology. The computer science department provided funding for red curry and pad thai. Niu was shocked when the food ran out, as more than 100 students showed up for the event. “Everybody had the same experience: ‘I’m a computer science student. I’m doing this because I want to create an impact. I feel like I’m alone.’”
From this meeting sprang the student organization CS + Social Good. It aimed to expose students to professional opportunities that existed outside the tech giants and the hyperaggressive startups that aspired to their stature. In its first year, the group developed new courses about social-impact work, brought in speakers to discuss positive uses of technology, and offered summer fellowships to get students interning at nonprofits instead of Apple or Google. Hundreds of students and faculty engaged with the organization’s programming.
In Niu’s mind, “social good” referred mainly to the positive applications of technology. But stopping bad uses of tech is just as important as promoting good ones. That’s a lesson the entire Valley has been forced to reckon with as its benevolent reputation has unraveled. “Most of our programming had been, ‘Look at these great ways you can use technology to help kids learn math,’” Niu says. “There was this real need to not only talk about that, but to also be like, ‘It’s not just that technology is neutral. It can actually be really harmful.’”
Many students find it difficult to pinpoint a specific transgression that flipped their perception of Silicon Valley, simply because there have been so many.
- For Facebook it was not only the Russian meddling, but also last year’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, which showed the company’s carelessness with user data.
- At Uber a 2017 blog post by Susan Fowler detailed a workplace rife with sexual harassment, which only compounded growing criticism of the way the company treated drivers and local governments.
- Studies investigated how Apple’s iPhone was becoming addictive among children, causing increased risks of depression and suicide.
- Amazon’s facial recognition software was pitched for government surveillance in 2018, and at
- Microsoft, employees signed a petition protesting the company’s contract with ICE.
- At Google, 20,000 workers walked off the job last November because of the unsavory manner in which the company paid off an executive accused of sexual harassment.
The torrid pace of bad news has been jarring for students who entered school with optimistic views of tech. Nichelle Hall, a senior majoring in computer science, viewed Google as the ideal landing spot for an aspiring software engineer when she started college. “I associated it so much with success,” she says. “It’s the first thing I thought about when I thought about technology.” But when she was offered an on-site interview for a potential job at the search giant in the fall, she declined. Project Dragonfly, Google’s (reportedly abandoned) effort to bring a censored search engine to China, gave her pause. It wasn’t just that she objected to the idea on principle. She sensed that working for such a large corporation would likely put her personal morals and corporate directives in conflict. “They say don’t do evil and then they do things like that,” she says. “I wasn’t really into the big-company idea for that reason. … You don’t necessarily know what the intentions of your executives are.”
- ..Google has hardly been the most damaged brand during the techlash. (The company says it has not seen a year-over-year decline in Stanford recruits to this point.)
- Students repeatedly bring up Facebook as a company that’s fallen out of favor.
- Uber, with its cascade of controversies, now has to “fight to try and get people in,” according to junior Jose Giron.
- And Palantir, the secretive data-mining company started by Stanford alum Peter Thiel, has also lost traction due to Thiel’s ties to Trump and worries that the company could help the president develop tech to advance his draconian immigration policies. “There’s a growing concern over your personal decision where to work after graduation,” Sun says.
“There’s a lot of personal guilt around pursuing CS. If you do that, people call you a sellout or you might view yourself as a sellout. If you take a high-paying job, people might say, ‘Oh, you’re just going to work for a big tech company. All you care about is yourself.’”
Landing a job at a major tech firm is often as much about prestige as passion, which is one reason the CS major has expanded so dramatically. But a company’s tarnished reputation can transfer to its employees. Students debate whether fewer of their peers are actually taking gigs at Facebook, or whether they’re just less vocal in bragging about it. At lunch at a Burmese restaurant on campus, Hall and Sun summed up the transition succinctly. “No one’s like, ‘I got an internship at Uber!’” Sun says. Hall follows up: “They’re like, ‘I got an internship … at Uber …’”
The concerns are bigger than which companies rise or fall in the estimation of up-and-coming engineers. Stanford and computer science programs across the country may not be adequately equipped to wade through the ethical minefield that is expanding along with tech’s influence. Sahami acknowledges that many computer science classes are designed to teach students how to solve technical problems rather than to think about the real-world issues that a solution might create. Part of the challenge comes from computer science being a young discipline compared to other engineering fields, meaning that practical examples of malpractice are emerging in real time from today’s headlines.
Vik Pattabi, a senior majoring in computer science, originally studied mechanical engineering. In those classes, students are constantly reminded of the 1940 collapse of Tacoma Narrows Bridge: A modern marvel was destroyed because its highly educated engineers did not foresee all the possible threats to their creation (in that case, the wind). Pattabi’s CS coursework hasn’t yet included a comparable example. “A lot of the second- and third-order effects that we see [in] Silicon Valley have happened in the last two or three years,” Pattabi says. “The department is trying to react as fast as it can, but they don’t have 30 years of case studies to work with.”
Another issue is the longstanding divide on campus between the engineering types—known as “techies”—and the humanities or social sciences majors, known as “fuzzies.” Though the school has focused more on interdisciplinary studies in recent years, there remains a gap in understanding that’s often filled in by stereotype. This sort of divide is a common aspect of college life, but the stakes feel higher when some of the students will one day be programming the algorithms that govern the digital world. “There’s things [said] like, ‘You can’t spell fascist without CS.’ People will tell you things like that,” Hall says. “I think people may feel antagonized.”
The school’s deep ties to the Bay Area’s corporate giants, long a much-touted recruitment tool, suddenly look different in light of the problems that the industry has created. At the January career fair, members of Students for the Liberation of All Peoples (SLAP), an activist group on campus that aims to disrupt Stanford’s “culture of apathy,” handed out flyers that urged students not to work at Amazon and Salesforce because of their commercial ties to ICE and the United States Border Patrol. (Employees at the companies have raised similar concerns.) “REFUSE to be part of the Stanford → racist tech pipeline,” the flyer reads, in part.
Two students in the group said they were asked to leave the career fair by Computer Forum officials. When the students refused to comply, they say they were escorted out by campus police under threat of arrest for disrupting a private event. A Stanford spokesperson confirmed the incident. “The protesting students were disruptive and asked by police to leave,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The students were given the option to protest outside the event or in White Plaza. They chose to leave.”
For members of SLAP, the exchange reinforced the ways in which Stanford institutionally and culturally cuts itself off from the issues occurring in the real world. “You might hear this idea of the ‘Stanford bubble,’ where Stanford students kind of just stay on campus and they just do what they need to do for their classes and their jobs,” says Kimiko Hirota, a SLAP member and junior majoring in sociology and comparative studies in race and ethnicity, who participated in the career fair protest. She said many of the students she talked to had no idea about the tech firms’ government contracts. “To me the amount of students on campus that are politically engaged and are actively using their Stanford privilege for a greater good is extremely small.”
The computer science major includes a “technology in society” course requirement that can be fulfilled by a number of ethics classes, and teaching students about their ethical responsibilities is a component of the department’s accreditation process. CS + Social Good has expanded its footprint on campus, teaching more classes and organizing more events like the Theranos talk starring the whistleblowers. Yet the flexibility of the CS major cuts both ways. It means that students who care to take a holistic approach to the discipline can combine rigorous training in code with an education in ethics; it also means that it remains all too easy for some students to avoid engaging with the practical ramifications of their work. “You can very much come to Stanford feeling very apathetic about the impact of the technology and leave just that way without any effort,” Hall says. “I don’t feel as though we are forced to encounter the impact.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, students spill into a lobby in front of a standing-room-only auditorium in the School of Education, where Jeremy Weinstein is talking about the promise and perils of using algorithms in criminal justice. Next year Californians will vote on a bill that would replace cash bail with a computerized risk-assessment system that calculates an arrested person’s likelihood of returning for a court appearance. The idea is to give people who can’t afford to make bail another way to get out of jail through a fairer policy. But such algorithms have been found to reinforce racial biases in the criminal justice system, according to a ProPublicainvestigation. Instead of being a solution to an unfair process, poorly implemented software could create an entirely new form of systemic discrimination. Students were asked to vote on whether they supported cash bail or the algorithm. The class was evenly split. Unlike in most CS classes, Weinstein could not offer students the comfort of a “correct” answer. “We need to deconstruct these algorithms in order to help people see that technology is not just something to be trusted,” he says. “It’s not just something that’s objective and fair because it’s numerical, but it actually reflects a set of choices that people make.”
Though Weinstein is a political science professor, he’s one of three educators leading the new version of the CS department’s flagship ethics course, CS181. Teaching with him are Sahami, the computer science professor, and Rob Reich, a political science professor and philosopher. The trio devised the course structure over a series of coffee-fueled meetings as the tech backlash unfolded during the past year and a half. After discussing algorithmic bias, the class will explore privacy in the age of facial recognition, the social impacts of autonomous technology, and the responsibilities of private platforms in regard to free speech. The coursework is meant to be hands-on. During the current unit, students must build their own risk-assessment algorithm using an actual criminal history data set, then assess it for fairness. “We run it like a talk show,” Weinstein says. “There’s a lot of call-and-response, asking questions, getting people to talk in small groups.”
While Stanford’s computer science program has had an ethics component for decades, this course marks the first time that experts in other fields are so directly involved in the curriculum. About 300 students have enrolled in the course, including majors in history, philosophy, and biology. It provides an opportunity for the techies and fuzzies to learn from one another, and for professors removed from the Valley’s tech culture to contextualize the industry’s societal impacts. In the course overview materials, the moral reckoning occurring in the tech sector today is compared to the advent of the nuclear bomb.
The course’s popularity is a sign that the gravity of the moment is weighing on many Stanford minds. Antigone Xenopoulos, a junior majoring in symbolic systems (a techie-fuzzie hybrid major that incorporates computer science, linguistics, and philosophy), is a research assistant for CS181. She wasn’t the only student who quoted a line from Spider-Man to me—with great power comes great responsibility—when referencing the current landscape. “If they’re going to give students the tools to have such immense influence and capabilities, [Stanford] should also guide those students in developing ethical compasses,” she says...While the early years of the decade saw prominent tech executives like Holmes and Zuckerberg teaching students how to lifehack their way to success, the new ethics course will bring in guest speakers from WhatsApp, Facebook, and the NSA to answer “hard questions,” Sahami says “I wouldn’t say industry is influencing Stanford,” he says. “I would say the relationship with industry allows us to have more authentic conversations where we’re really bringing in people who are decision-makers in these areas.”.. Some of the more critical voices from within the industry are also taking on more permanent roles at Stanford. Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook, taught a “hack lab” for non-CS majors last fall, helping them understand cybersecurity threats. He’s now developing a more advanced computer science course, to be piloted later this year, that explores trust and safety issues in the era of misinformation and widespread online harassment. Stamos led Facebook’s internal investigation into Russian political interference on the platform and clashed with top executives over how much of that information should be made public. He left the company in August to join Stanford, where he hopes to impart lessons from his time battling a digital attack that was waged not through hacking, but through ad purchases, incendiary memes, and politically charged Facebook events. “One of the things we don’t teach computer science students is all of the non-technically advanced abuses of technology that cause real harm,” Stamos says. “I want to expose students to [things like], ‘These are the mistakes that were made before, these are the kinds of problems that existed, and these are the company’s reactions to those mistakes.’”
Stamos rejects the idea that ethics is the correct framework to think about addressing tech’s most pressing issues. “The problem here is not that people are making decisions that are straight-up evil,” he says. “The problem is that people are not foreseeing the outcomes of their actions. Part of that is a lack of paranoia. One of our problems in Silicon Valley is we build products to be used the right way. … It’s hard to envision all the misuses unless you understand all the things that have come before.”
While he says that Stanford bears some responsibility for the Valley’s tunnel vision, he praises the school for welcoming tech leaders with recent, relevant experiences to help students prepare for emerging threats. “When I was going to school, computers were important, but we weren’t talking about building companies that might change history,” Stamos says. “The students who come to me are really interested in the impact of what they do on society.”
Stamos regularly fields questions from students about whether to work at Facebook or Google. He tells them that they should, not in spite of the companies’ mounting issues, but because of them. “If you actually care about making communication technologies compatible with democracy, then the place to be is at one of the companies that actually has the problems,” he says. “Not working at the big places that could actually solve it does not make things better.”
The tech giants continue to consolidate power even as they face withering criticism. Facebook’s user base growth accelerated last quarter despite its scandals. Uber will go public this year at a valuation as high as $120 billion. Apple, Amazon, and Google are all planning to open large new offices around the country in the near future. And for all the optimistic talk of working at ethically minded startups among students, creation of nascent businesses is at roughly a 40-year low in the United States. Small firms that enter the terrain of the Frightful Five are typically acquired or destroyed.
It is hard to find a Stanford computer science student, even among the ethically minded set CS + Social Good has helped cultivate, who will publicly proclaim that they’ll never work for one of these dominant companies, as all of them offer opportunities for high pay, engaging individual work, and comforting job security. International students have to worry about securing work visas however they can; students on financial aid may need to make enough money to support other family members. And for many others, it’s not clear that anything that’s happened in the Valley is truly beyond the pale. In that sense, the engineers are just like us, aghast at the headlines but still clicking away inside a system that’s come to feel inescapable. “These events feel too big for most students to take into account,” says Jason He, a master’s student in electrical engineering. “At the end of the day, I think for a lot of students who have been paying a lot of money for their education, if the six-figure salary is offered, it’s pretty hard for students to turn down.”
There is still an opportunity, the thinking at Stanford goes, for every company to do good. Nichelle Hall, the senior who declined the Google interview, landed a job working on Medium’s trust and safety team. But she recognizes that she may have set her qualms aside if Google had been her only employment option. “Some of the feedback that CS + Social Good gets is, ‘Oh, the members end up working for Facebook, they end up working for Google,’” says Hall, who’s been involved with the organization since 2017. “People who care about this intersection of social impact and computer science will go to these companies and do a better job than if they weren’t interested in this stuff.”
Impact is the word that I heard more than any other while on campus. It’s how students framed their decision to go to Stanford, to pursue a career in computer science, to do good in the world after graduating. It’s a word that Hoffman used to describe his Blitzscaling class, and one Holmes used to explain to students why she dropped out of school. “I had the tools that I needed to be able to go out and begin making this impact,” she said. It’s the currency of Silicon Valley, that people spend for good and for ill.
The ability to create impact with a few lines of code has long been what separated software engineers from the rest of us, and turned the Valley into a self-proclaimed utopia of young rebels using technology to save the world from its older, antiquated self. But that’s not the image anymore. Now aspiring engineers draw a comparison between their chosen profession and investment banking. The finance industry wrecked the world a decade ago because of its misunderstanding of complex, automated systems that spun out of control—and its confidence that someone else would ultimately pay the price if things went wrong. You see this confidence in Zuckerberg’s incredulous response when anyone suggests that he resign, and in Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s initial refusal to testify before Congress. And you can see it at Stanford, where the endowment has never been higher, the fundraising has never been easier, and the career fair is still filled with slogans vowing to make the world a better place.
Perhaps this entire strip of land known as the Valley will fully calcify into a West Coast Wall Street, where the people with all the insider knowledge profit off the muppets who can’t stop using their products. If today’s young tech skeptics turn to cynics when they enter the working world, such a future is easy to imagine. But—and this is the hopeful, intoxicating, dangerous thing about technology—there’s always bright minds out there who think they can build a solution that just might fix this mess we’ve made. And people, especially young people, will always be enthralled by the romance of a new idea. “We’re creating things that haven’t necessarily existed before, and so we won’t be able to anticipate all the challenges that we have,” says Hall, who graduates in just four months. “But once we do, it’s important that we can reconcile them with grace and humility. I’m sure it will be a hard job, but it’s important that it’s hard. I’m up for the challenge.”
If the caravan proceeds by foot, during the period of its journey 16,800 Americans will die from drugs.
In the period of the caravan’s journey, perhaps 690,000 Americans will become homeless, including 267,000 children.
In the period of the caravan’s journey, 8,850 Americans will die from guns, including suicides and murders.
In the period of the caravan’s journey, perhaps 9,000 Americans will die from lack of health insurance (people die at higher rates when they’re uninsured, although there’s disagreement about how much higher).
Maybe the real “National Emergy” is drugs, homelessness, gun deaths and lack of health insurance?
.. the issue isn’t really even immigration. Rather, it’s fearmongering. Scholars have found that reminding people of dangers makes them temporarily more conservative, so this kind of manipulation can be an effective campaign tactic.
Remember the 2014 midterm elections? This is a replay. In the run-up to voting, Republicans ratcheted up fears of a “border crisis” with terrorists sneaking in from Mexico to attack us, plus alarm about Ebola and the risk that the outbreak in West Africa could reach America.
.. Trump also tweeted then that if a New York physician who returned from West Africa developed Ebola (as he later did), “then Obama should apologize to the American people & resign.”
In the 2014 elections, Republican candidates ran hundreds of ads denouncing the Obama administration’s handling of Ebola. News organizations chronicled this “debate,” but in retrospect they were manipulated into becoming a channel to spread fear — and win Republican votes.
.. Yet Ebola, like the Central American caravan, is a reminder of the distinction between grandstanding and governing.
.. Obama’s technocratic Ebola program — working with France and Britain, plus private aid groups — may have worried voters, but it was effective.
.. the Ebola virus was contained and eventually burned out. Good governance often turns out to be bad politics, and vice versa.
.. Perhaps the approach with the best record is aid programs to curb gang violence in countries like Honduras, to reduce the factors that lead people to attempt the dangerous journey to the United States. Yet it’s not tangible and doesn’t impress voters. So Trump instead is talking about an expensive wall and about cutting aid to Central America, even though this would magnify the crisis there and probably lead more people to flee north.
.. I fear that we in the media have become Trump’s puppets, letting him manipulate us to project issues like the caravan onto the agenda.
.. Trump is right that, although there’s no evidence of it, “there could very well be” Middle Easterners hiding in the caravan. It’s equally true that the Easter Bunny “could very well be” in the caravan. Speaking of Easter, Jesus Christ “could very well be” in the caravan.
.. So let’s stop freaking out about what “could very well be” and focus on facts. Here are two:
- First, the Caravan won’t make a bit of difference to America.
- Second, we have other problems to focus on, from drugs to homelessness to health care, that genuinely constitute a “National Emergy.”