The lives of two Stanford-students-turned-founders reveal tech’s misplaced priorities

 
By Rob Reich, Jeremy Weinstein, and Mehran Sahami
 

Joshua Browder entered Stanford as a young, brilliant undergraduate in 2015. His Wikipedia page describes him as a “British- American entrepreneur,” and he’s already been named to Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list. As a freshman at Stanford—after no more than three months there, he says—he programmed a chatbot to help people overturn their parking tickets. He’d thought of the start-up when he was living in the United Kingdom before college: “I got thirty parking tickets in the UK when I was in high school at about eighteen years old, the driving age. I couldn’t pay for any of the tickets. I probably deserved them, but because I couldn’t afford them, I created software for myself and my friends to get out of them.” Seems simple enough for a side project during your first year of college, but of course Browder discovered that “everyone in the world hates parking tickets.”

Fast-forward a few years, and Browder was on leave from Stanford as the CEO of a tech company called DoNotPay, which provides a free and automated mechanism for challenging parking tickets issued in big cities, including London and New York. According to a glowing profile of his work, as of June 2016, the company had successfully challenged more than 160,000 parking tickets, sparing people $4 million.

The service is pretty straightforward. Browder worked with a group of pro bono traffic lawyers to identify the most common reasons for parking tickets to be overturned. A chatbot asks users a few questions that enables it to make a judgment about whether the user can file an effective appeal. The chatbot then guides the user through the process of filing an appeal, at no charge. The chatbot has little capacity to determine whether a ticket was issued legitimately or not; it simply provides the user with the optimal grievance procedure. Obviously, users are thrilled to get out of paying annoying and often expensive parking tickets, and the only people who lose are lawyers and the government. In Browder’s words, “parking tickets are a sort of tax on the vulnerable. It’s so wrong that the government is taxing the group they should be protecting.” Browder has accordingly been celebrated as a “wunderkind” in magazines and websites such as Wired, Business Insider, and Newsweek, as well as at Stanford itself. And he’s secured the support of one of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capital firms, Andreessen Horowitz, which led the seed round of funding for Browder’s company in 2017.

But this is exactly the type of story—and there are hundreds of them at Stanford and in Silicon Valley—that gives us pause. From our perspective, it’s essential to reflect on why parking tickets exist in the first place. Annoying as they might be, they serve many important, legitimate purposes.

They deter people from parking by fire hydrants, blocking driveways, or occupying spaces reserved for the disabled. In large cities, they motivate people to move their cars for street cleaners. Enhanced parking enforcement can also be used to achieve broader community priorities, such as reducing traffic and congestion. And parking tickets constitute a meaningful source of municipal revenue necessary to support a city and its citizens.

Browder may have been responding to a zeitgeist in the conservative London tabloids that slammed local governments’ efforts to raise revenues through parking tickets, something that coincided with other city initiatives to reduce traffic and congestion for reasons of both convenience and environmental health. But reducing traffic is something that a lot of people just might value. In London, local councils must spend the revenue from parking tickets on local transport projects, including the 9 billion backlog in national road repairs. Infrastructure is a classic example of a public good—difficult for the market to supply because, in the absence of government intervention, consumers will take advantage of the infrastructure without paying the costs of using it. Hence there is a role for taxes, fines, and, yes, parking tickets. As for whether parking tickets are a tax on the vulnerable, there actually aren’t any good data that reveal who pays parking tickets. But in a city with as efficient and affordable public transportation system as London’s, it’s fair to assume that low-income families are much more likely than the upper class to ride buses and the Tube. Once one digs a little beneath the surface, the argument that parking tickets are a tax on the vulnerable doesn’t sound too convincing.

The story becomes even more worrisome when one asks Browder about his broader ambitions. After all, in Silicon Valley, the CEO of a successful startup is always considering how to further scale up the company. “I would like to hopefully replace lawyers with technology,” he says, “starting with very simple things like arguing against parking tickets and then moving toward things like pressing a button and suing someone or pressing a button and getting a divorce.” Browder’s long-term vision is that you’ll never need a trained, human lawyer again and that “consumers won’t even know what the word lawyer means.”

This is probably music to the ears of many who detest the legal profession, bemoan our society’s litigiousness, and are envious of lawyers’ salaries, which might seem outsized relative to their societal role and contribution. But do we really want to live in a society where people can sue at the push of a button? Would divorce be less painful if algorithms and automated systems were making decisions about who should have custody of the kids and how shared property should be divided?

We don’t want to single out Browder’s pursuit as particularly malignant. He is not a bad person. He just lives in a world where it is normal not to think twice about how new technology companies could create harmful effects. Browder is just one recent example of the start-up mindset birthed at Stanford and in Silicon Valley at large. He’s been encouraged by his professors, his peers, and his investors to think bigger and be ambitious. But too rarely do people stop and ask: Whose problem are you solving? Is it a problem actually worth solving? And is the solution proposed one that would be good for human beings and for society?

A different kind of founder

Back in 2004, just as Silicon Valley was reemerging from the “dot-com bust,” a young man named Aaron Swartz enrolled at Stanford University. Like Browder, he had been fascinated by computer programming from an early age. He’d won a national prize at the age of 13 for his creation of an online collaborative library, theinfo.org. At 14, he helped create the Really Simple Syndication (RSS) specification, a widely used internet protocol that permitted automatic access to updates on websites anywhere. The goal was to create open standards that would allow anyone to share and update information on the internet.

Swartz enrolled straightaway in an accelerated course on computer programming while also taking introductory classes in sociology, a seminar on Noam Chomsky, and a required first-year humanities class on freedom, equality, and difference. He found Stanford to be alienating, however. In an online daily journal he kept for a few weeks, he recorded his dissatisfaction with his fellow students—too shallow—and his courses. The humanities lecture, he wrote, “turns out to consist mostly of the three professors arguing with each other about what a paragraph really means…Is this what the humanities is like? Even the RSS debates were better than this.”

Swartz spent much of his time coding on his own. During his freshman year, he applied to join Y Combinator, a newly created tech incubator, to start a company called Infogami that would help manage content on websites. He was selected for the very first cohort of Y Combinator’s Summer Founders Program. By the end of the summer, he decided to continue working on the company, which would soon merge with another Y Combinator startup, Reddit. Two years later Reddit was sold to Condé Nast, reportedly for between $10 million and $20 million, and Swartz became a young millionaire. Reddit is today one of the most popular sites on the internet and is valued at $3 billion.

A brilliant young coder goes to college, then drops out to pursue his start-up dreams. Sounds like the same kind of dropout story that was told about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and would be told again about Mark Zuckerberg and Elizabeth Holmes; the same story that Joshua Browder is currently living out.

But Aaron Swartz was different. He was less interested in making money than in using technology to change how human beings access and interact with information. “Information is power,” he wrote in a “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto” in 2008, “but like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves…But you need not—indeed morally you cannot—keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world.”

Swartz viewed technology as inextricably bound up with politics and saw the effort to control information as a way to control people. He wanted a liberatory technology because he thought it would help bring about a liberatory politics.

In 2006, Swartz attended an international gathering of the Wikipedia community, the people who administer and contribute to the famous open-access, nonprofit, user-generated internet encyclopedia. “At most ‘technology’ conferences I’ve been to, the participants generally talk about technology for its own sake. If use ever gets discussed, it’s only about using it to make vast sums of money.” At the Wikipedia conference, however, “the primary concern was doing the most good for the world, with technology as the tool to help us get there. It was an incredible gust of fresh air, one that knocked me off my feet.”

One of his other efforts was to press for open access to knowledge produced by scholars. It irritated him that in order to read the contents of online journals you either had to be a student or an employee of a university, or you had to pay considerable fees—and this despite the fact that public funds actually financed the work of scholars at both public and private universities. Why should journal articles be copyrighted, with the financial benefits flowing not to the authors of the articles but to the large corporations that owned the scientific journals? In 2010, he began downloading thousands of academic articles from a scholarly repository called JSTOR. He did so by using the computer network at MIT, where a long-standing policy of maintaining an open campus gave permission to anyone on campus, visitors included, to access its network. He wrote a program on his laptop that would automate the downloading process rather than accessing articles one by one, which was the requirement under JSTOR’s terms of service. After several visits to a computer closet, where he connected his laptop to the MIT network, Swartz had downloaded millions of articles, violating JSTOR’s policy and implicating MIT’s network in the violation.

MIT traced the downloads to Swartz’s laptop and the closet from which his computer had accessed the network, and when he came back for another round of downloads in early 2011, he was arrested by MIT police and charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony. JSTOR decided to drop the charges against him after Swartz returned the data files, but MIT elected to continue with its prosecution. In 2012, federal prosecutors added nine felony counts to the charges against him, with a maximum sentence of 50 years in jail. Swartz sank into a depression, and in the midst of multiple efforts at plea bargaining and preparing to go to trial, he committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment in early 2013. He was 26 years old.

It was a devastating end to a life of enormous promise, a life that had already reached celebrity status in tech circles. In the month following his death, the hackers known as Anonymous infiltrated the websites of MIT and the US State Department and declared, “Aaron Swartz, this is for you.” Leading tech intellectual Lawrence Lessig eulogized Swartz as someone he had mentored but who, in the end, had really mentored him. Memorials sprang up around the world.

Misplaced priorities

It’s impossible to know what Swartz was thinking when he repeatedly violated JSTOR’s terms of service. Or what prosecutors were thinking when they pressed their case even after JSTOR withdrew. And of course it’s impossible to peer into the mind of a person struggling with depression and wonder what might have brought him to contemplate suicide and then to take his own life. For us, however, Aaron Swartz’s death is a hinge event in the evolution of the politics and ethics of technology. His life, and what became of the world of technology after his death, illustrate broader lessons about what a technologist might bring to the world. For Swartz, learning how to code was part of amassing a toolkit for civic and political change. He was the dropout who saw technology not as a means of becoming rich but as a lever for the pursuit of justice.

While Swartz was alive, he was a hero to many and a celebrity in the world of technology: the kid who helped develop Creative Commons, the tech activist who led a movement to protect net neutrality and beat back the US Congress, the evangelist for open access to knowledge. He was the latest in successive generations of technologists who felt that technology was a tool for human empowerment and espoused unapologetically utopian and radically democratic visions of a technological future, a vision with deep roots in the creation of the internet and the culture of Silicon Valley.

Today, fewer than 10 years after his death, virtually nobody talks about Aaron Swartz. He is mostly forgotten in Silicon Valley, and he is unknown to the wider public. At Stanford University, we rarely meet students who know Swartz’s name or can describe what he did. They do know the names of Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and former Stanford students such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin (the cofounders of Google), Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy (the cofounders of Snapchat), Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (the cofounders of Instagram), and Elon Musk (the founder of SpaceX). And many students on campus today know the name Joshua Browder. If they haven’t heard of his successfully funded startup, they know of his work because he spammed the entire student body in early 2019 to offer them a chance, by using his service DoNotPay, to get out of fees that support a wide array of student groups on campus.

Today, the heroic figures are the disruptive and instantly wealthy innovators. Whereas once technologists brought with them countercultural visions of enhancing human capabilities, promoting liberty and equality, and serving democratic peoples, today the culture of Silicon Valley is about founder worship and the celebration of apolitical coders. This was a profound shift that technologists didn’t notice or didn’t want to acknowledge until they had to in the wake of the social and political fallout from technology’s role in Brexit, the election of Trump, and the siege of the U.S. Capitol.

The rise of the Joshua Browders and the decline of the Aaron Swartzes encapsulate the challenge the world confronts with Silicon Valley. One of the most far-reaching transformations of our age is the wave of digital technologies rolling over and upending nearly every aspect of life. Work and leisure, family and friendship, community and citizenship—all have been reshaped by our now-ubiquitous digital tools and platforms. We know that we are at a turning point. How to think about what should be done, and why, is what we need to grapple with.


From SYSTEM ERROR. Copyright © 2021 By Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, Jeremy Weinstein. Reprinted here with permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Rob Reich is a philosopher who directs Stanford University’s Center for Ethics in Society and is associate director of its new Institute for Human-­Centered Artificial Intelligence. Mehran Sahami is a computer science professor at Stanford and a limited partner in several VC funds.Jeremy M. Weinstein worked at the Obama White House and is now a professor of political science at Stanford.

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