A friend recently sent an email to our house list asking if someone majoring in computer science would talk with a high school senior who was interested in programming. Now I don’t major in computer science, and I have a limited knowledge of its course offerings, but I sent a serious email back saying that I could give at least one reason why he should not come to Stanford if he is genuinely interested in computer science.
Yes, I know we have one of the best, if not the best, computer science programs in the world. The classes are rigorous and seemingly rewarding, the professors are knowledgeable and passionate, and the support is tremendous. Why should any aspiring computer scientist in their right mind turn Stanford down?
I have a theory, which could be completely wrong, that the presence of Silicon Valley has a negative influence on the quality of programming work generally undertaken by Stanford students. By quality I do not mean how the code itself is written, but rather the “who” said code is intended to serve and the “why” that justifies its existence in the first place. In Silicon Valley, programmers and entrepreneurs often get a skewed sense of what is needed in the world. A particular smartphone application, for instance, may be “essential” for people addicted to their devices, but is it helpful for a more average user? Even many endeavors that are intended to benefit inhabitants of developing nations are ultimately funded by Silicon Valley venture capital firms. What gets funded is not necessarily what the foreign citizens want or need, but what a relatively homogenous set of investors think these people want or need.
Perhaps this world needs more technology. Perhaps it is good that machines allow individuals to become more efficient and live longer lives. Or perhaps technology underlies many budding societal problems. Perhaps inefficiencies and death are what make us human. In the end, and as I have argued before, it’s probably a bit of both sides. But are Stanford’s budding entrepreneurs hearing that message, or are they constantly being told that technology is the solution, that within technology lurks the answers to the world’s problems? Many top Silicon Valley executives participate in a yearly conference that discusses the proper role of technology in society, but are Stanford’s aspiring entrepreneurs having these conversations?
Which brings me back to the prospective student. Maybe other universities more removed from Silicon Valley offer more balanced environments for an aspiring computer scientist. Of course, entrepreneurs do not come exclusively from computer science- people from a variety of academic backgrounds pursue or are involved in some aspect of entrepreneurship. I think, then, we should all ask ourselves some broader questions. How does the existence of Silicon Valley affect my major? Does it have implications for what I am taught in class? Does it limit or expand the career opportunities I am told about? Does the Silicon Valley culture align with my intellectual and extracurricular interests?
The answers to these questions won’t be the same for everyone. But once we begin to explicitly answer them, we will have a richer discourse on how certain classes should be taught, how certain majors should be designed, and how Stanford as a whole should proceed into the future given its location in the heart of Silicon Valley.
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