Though we’ve called it the “Change” issue, this edition of the magazine is really about two things: reflection and empowerment.
For far too many of us, the pandemic has been a study in feeling powerless, and we’ve had little time to reflect as we focus on keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe, employed, and as mentally sound as possible. We’ve been forced to cope almost constantly with the twisting, morphing uncertainties that life has thrown at us.
And yet in this unprecedented environment incredible stories of hope and empowerment have emerged. We see people finding ways to respond to suffering and injustice with positive change. Take the stories Abby Ohlheiser has collected, including those of Carlisa Johnson, who turned a Google Doc into a nexus of power for the Black Lives Matter movement, and Fiona Lowenstein, who nurtured an online community of thousands into a place where those suffering from covid-19 can get vital information. Sarah Jaffe writes that a failed vote to unionize Amazon workers at a facility in Alabama may be discouraging, but around the US, workers in the increasingly expansive tech sector are waking up to their power to organize, and to demand dignity.
In an essay on the arc of progress, Sheila Jasanoff harks back to West Bengal in India, where she was born, and tells how under British rule the region’s thriving industry of woven textiles was crushed by the Industrial Revolution. The lesson isn’t that technological advancement is bad—it’s that we must take care not to assume that all such change is for the best, or that it comes without costs.
As Jasanoff writes, the good news is that we are not bystanders in the process. We are the ones who create technology, after all; we have the power to choose what gets built and how it is used.
Nowhere is this agency on fuller display than in this year’s list of 35 Innovators Under 35. I hope you’ll take time to sit with this list. I find it impossible not to come away inspired by their accomplishments—from swarms of French-toast size satellites to new research into fusion power to a pair of budding companies racing to bring optical computing to market. These innovators are literally creating the future before our eyes.
As we know, each of them stands on the achievements of those who have come before. And yet the tech world is replete with narratives about single-minded mavericks bucking orthodoxy to realize their vision of the future. Those stories can be dangerously misleading, if for no other reason than that they can be interpreted to justify individualism at all costs. In the US, this attitude has been corrosive to support for government funding of important high-tech industries like chip fabrication, which, as Jeremy Hsu writes, is one reason America is racing to catch up to manufacturers overseas. We have similar work to do in the rapidly evolving field of clean energy, where—as Gernot Wagner writes—the price of solar panels has tumbled over the last few decades. With a bit of a boost from further R&D funding and favorable policies, solar stands a real chance of helping decarbonize the planet.
Reflection can lead to positive change, but it needs to come with empowerment. As Karen Hao notes in her feature, a group of marginalized AI workers suffered indignities for years in the white-male-dominated field before finding one other. With that sense of community, they realized they had the power to challenge the biggest companies in the world to be better and more inclusive.
If nothing else, I hope when you’re through with this issue, you’ll have given yourself time to reflect, feel your own power, and just maybe find that you’re a little bit changed.