The techlash has come to Stanford.
Palantir is about a 15-minute walk from Stanford University. That stone’s-throw convenience helped one morning in June when a group of Stanford students perched on the third story of a parking garage across the street from the data-analytics company’s entrance and unfurled a banner to greet employees as they walked into work: “OUR SOFTWARE IS SO POWERFUL IT SEPARATES FAMILIES.”
The students were protesting Palantir software that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to log information on asylum-seekers, helping the agency make arrests of undocumented family members who come to pick them up. The activists are members of a campus group called SLAP—Students for the Liberation of All People—that was founded by Stanford freshmen the winter after Donald Trump was elected president. At first, the group focused on concerns shared by leftist activists around the country: On the day of Trump’s inauguration, for example, members blocked the doors of a Wells Fargo near campus to protest the bank’s funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline and its history of racist lending practices. These days, though, SLAP has turned its attention to the industry in its backyard: Big Tech.
This might all sound like standard campus activism. But many of SLAP’s peers don’t see the group—and another, softer-edged student organization called CS+Social Good—as marginal or a nuisance. Even computer science students whom I interviewed told me they were grateful SLAP is making noise about Silicon Valley, and that their concerns reflect a growing campus skepticism of the technology industry, even among students training to join it.
Many of the computer science students at Stanford I talked to oscillated as they described how they feel about companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google. Some told me they would never work for one of these companies. Others would but hope to push for change from within. Some students don’t care at all, but even the ones who would never think twice about taking a job at Facebook aren’t blind to how the company is perceived. “It probably varies person to person, but I’m at least hopeful that more of the Stanford CS community is thoughtful and critical of the morality of choosing a place to work these days, rather than just chasing prestige,” Neel Rao, a computer science undergrad at Stanford, told me in an online chat. “And that a lot of this is due to increasing coverage of major tech scandals, and its effect on mainstream public sentiment and distrust.”
But unlike Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility—and in contrast with the current direct-action approach of SLAP—CS+Social Good is primarily focused on changing computer science higher education from the inside. The organization has worked with the university to create new electives in Stanford’s CS department, like “A.I. for Social Good” and studio classes that allow students to partner with nonprofits on tech projects and get credits. And CS+Social Good has expanded to other campuses too—there are now more than a dozen chapters at campuses across the country. At Stanford, CS+Social Good counts more than 70 core members, though well over 1,000 students have attended its events or are enrolled in the classes it’s helped design.