After my sophomore year at UC Berkeley studying computer science, I dropped out to join a startup in San Francisco. I was very happy about the offer: I was working on what I was interested in (NLP), I had strong personal motivations (complicated, but something to do with the health of my girlfriend), and I emotionally connected with the CTO (who would be my boss).
This was right before Thanksgiving, and when I got the offer call, I was about to board a plane leaving to Atlanta, Georgia. I went to public boarding high school in the middle of nowhere in Georgia, and I was visiting Keith’s family in Summerville, Georgia, a landlocked rural village with about five thousand people.
I accepted the offer, got on the plane, and was soon reunited with Keith and his mom. Keith and I hopped in the back of her car and started chatting it up. At some point I mentioned to him the exciting startup I had just decided to work at. I explained that there is this job in the medical industry that is very time-consuming, called medical coding, and that we were using machine learning to automate it. Then he said,
“Dude, my mom does that.”
I thought I had heard him wrong.
I didn’t know what to think. Keith just gave me a look, and told his mom, somehow amused, that I was going to automate her job.
Keith just gave me a look, and told his mom, perversely amused, that I was going to automate her job.
Thanksgiving week passed, I returned to San Francisco, and soon started my job. It was exciting, at first. After all, this was my first job, and I was, by all accounts, living the dream: dropping out of school to join an exciting startup in “Silicon Valley”, with the fancy title “software engineer”, “changing the world”, “disrupting an industry”, “making the world a better place” and so on and so forth. Then a week, a month passed, and I realized I had been thinking about Mrs. Adamson. One weekend night I drunkenly explained my dilemma to a friend, who also dropped out of Berkeley to work at a startup, and he said,
“Don’t stop solving problems. There’s always going to be a million reasons to not do something. If it’s a job that can be done by a machine, it’s a stupid job. It’s a job that shouldn’t be done by a human. Do you think anyone’s having fun doing that job?”
I thought about this. I rationalized: certainly, I was “solving a problem”. The process I was automating was a bottleneck in the healthcare industry, and the automation stood to benefit hundreds of millions of people who might enjoy a faster, more efficient healthcare experience. Automation was the future, anyway. Even if I didn’t do it, somebody else was going to do it. Besides, Mrs. Adamson’s job was a menial one, a job I couldn’t imagine anyone enjoying; if we got rid of all these “inefficiencies”, if we got rid of all these unfulfilling jobs, then somehow, sometime, Universal Basic Income would be a thing, and maybe people like Mrs. Adamson could enjoy a more creative, satisfying life without being chained to some menial, meaningless job.
I rationalized: certainly, I was “solving a problem”… Automation was the future, anyway. Even if I didn’t do it, somebody else was going to do it.
Standing in the overcrowded BART for my commute each morning, I argued with myself like such. I tried to maintain a positive vibe at work, but thoughts of Mrs. Adamson kept creeping up. At one point, I heard the CEO talking over the phone to someone I presume was a potential investor, “This is a multi-billion-dollar industry… Three hundred thousand people in the United States are working on it… It’s an industry riddled with inefficiencies…” My fellow engineers simply typed away, nonchalant. During a team social at a hip ping-pong bar, I gathered the courage to bring up to my boss, the CTO, my dilemma. For some reason, I felt compelled to act as nonchalant as possible, as casually as possible, as I said,
“You know, my friend’s mom does this job.”
He grunted, and said, matter-of-factly,
“Lotsa people do it.”
And that was the end of the conversation.
Weeks passed, and each time I overheard the CEO or CTO talk about these workers — which was not often at all — it struck me that they did not consider the workers as full human beings. Though I do not want to make assumptions, it is hard to think that they, the crème de la crème of society, who had attended prestigious private universities, who met each other at a prestigious private MBA program, personally knew anyone who had the job, or had any idea what it was like to have the job. Increasingly, it seemed to me, that the three hundred thousand workers with this lower-middle-class job were, to them, just some “inefficiencies”, a financial burden of forty thousand dollars per head, financial burden which, if computed away, would enable some hospital to make more money and, perhaps, offer a million-dollar bonus to hire a more prestigious doctor, or whatever. Increasingly, it seemed to me, that the proposition I was working for was not “make the world a better place”, nor “move fast and break things”, nor “solve big problems “, but “make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.”
Increasingly, it seemed to me, that the proposition I was working for was not “make the world a better place”, nor “move fast and break things”, nor “solve big problems “, but “make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.”
Two months after I joined the startup, I resigned. I started Philosophy of Computation at Berkeley, a student organization dedicated to bringing more self-awareness to Berkeley’s CS culture, to critically analyzing what it is that we are doing through a philosophical lens, to detoxifying those of us choking on the incessant Kool-Aid of Silicon Valley. This is not to say that Silicon Valley is an evil force that is destroying the world. Far from it: I believe technology, like any sort of power, can in fact make the world a better place if wielded correctly. I still believe that, in the long run, automation of most jobs is inevitable and that, in the long run, humanity will be better off from it. It will free us from toil, letting us focus on what makes life worthwhile: a distant dream of Aristotle and Confucius alike, on the verge of being realized.
Technology has never been this powerful. Never in the history of humanity has six people (the headcount of the startup) been plausibly able to threaten the livelihood of three hundred thousand families. But great power must be accompanied by great responsibility, which responsibility, it seems, is largely absent among engineers in Silicon Valley. As I will explain in a future post, the dominating philosophy of Silicon Valley is nihilism, a profoundly dangerous philosophy for a profoundly powerful group, a philosophy that, if not understood correctly, leads to a total extinguishment of a sense of responsibility. The Valley’s fantastical vision of a techno-utopian future where robots do all the jobs nobody wants to do, Universal Basic Income is firmly in place, and everyone can freely pursue their creative endeavors, is just that: a fantasy. Between that fantasy Disneyworld and now is a gap into which real families, with real mortgages to pay and real mouths to feed, are falling into.
Between that fantasy Disneyworld and now is a gap into which real families, with real mortgages to pay and real mouths to feed, are falling into.
In the car on the way to Summerville, when Keith told his mom that I was going to automate her job, Mrs. Adamson said, in her comforting southern drawl, “Whatever you’re working on, I’m sure you’re getting paid way more than I am”, and just kept driving.
I have since tried to understand her reaction. Did she not understand what was going on? Was she resigned? Was she proud of me? Or was there a note of hidden contempt? I don’t know. There’s some personal comfort in the fact that Keith happens to be a computer science major at a top university, and thus his family will weather the AI revolution with relative grace. Then again, Keith is a very special case: few rural families are lucky enough to have a child studying computer science at a top university. What are these less fortunate people thinking, and what are they going to do?
I looked out the car window and, below the night sky, saw an illuminated Trump billboard. It read: “God Has Blessed America Again!!!”.
For the first time, I understood what had happened in this election; and I was responsible.
A version of this article was published in the Daily Californian.