JURIST guest columnist Xiaoli Jin draws on her experience developing the IOS app NewsElect to explain why individuals and society will benefit when more of us combine the study of technology with fields like law and political science…
When I tell my friends that I developed an IOS app, they usually respond with a surprised, “I thought you were studying law and politics! Did you change to computer science?” When I explain that I did not switch but instead decided to study both, they often find the combination interesting but wonder how and if the two fields work together.
In a world of big data and social media, technology has unquestionably entangled itself in law and politics. Yet, as a society, we still tend to see fields like law and politics as the inverse of STEM. We think of entrepreneurs and software engineers driving society forward and of lawyers and policymakers slamming on the brakes. While people in tech seem to embrace innovation, lawyers and policymakers appear to cling to caution, prudence, and precedent.
From an early age, society nudges us to categorize ourselves. We relentlessly ask ourselves “am I more similar to an entrepreneur who likes numbers and innovation or a lawyer who enjoys reading and writing?” Our choices usually end up being self-fulfilling prophecies. The longer we travel our chosen paths, the more going down a new one feels like taking a dangerous mountain pass; you may never get where you want to go and, if you do, it will certainly take longer.
But the views you get on that less taken road make it worthwhile. I want to use my experience developing an app to show why fields like law and politics can offer unique insights into tech and vice versa.
People apply technology to where they see problems, and the problems they see depend on their experiences. For example, Logan Green, the CEO of the ride-sharing company Lyft, served on the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District’s board in college. John Zimmer, the other co-founder of Lyft, was also involved in the carpooling businesses in college. While gridlock best explains certain parts of the tech-highway, the intersection of law, politics, and technology stands wide open. Social media, e-commerce, biotechnology, and logistics applications proliferate, but few technology practitioners have experience in law or policy and opportunities abound for people in these areas to apply technology to the problems they experience.
In 2016, I worked as a free-lance journalist covering the presidential election. Through conversations at campaign rallies, I discovered that people, even those passionate about politics, did not have time to research candidates’ platforms. This problem motivated me to develop NewsElect, an IOS app that makes it easy for voters to compare candidates in the 2020 election. Voters simply pick a candidate and an issue, and NewsElect puts relevant articles from a range of news sources at their fingertips.
When I first conceived of the idea behind NewsElect, I worried that my political science background would put me at a disadvantage compared to people who had devoted more time to studying computer science and software engineering, but as I worked this seeming disadvantage morphed into an advantage. My coursework in politics helped me to identify policy areas voters care about; it also enabled me to compile a list of keywords that capture a comprehensive range of articles within each policy area.
In today’s “move-fast-and-break-things” environment, where we rush to bring digital applications to the market, people with political science and legal backgrounds can help us to consider social good. Many app creators care only about increasing business utilities like user engagement rates and retention rates without considering how their products might detrimentally affect society. For example, while social media platforms have done a fantastic job of predicting what people like, they have been slow to find value in showing people ideas and arguments that challenge their beliefs. As the like-minded stick together, they create echo chambers and an ever-more polarized political environment. The tech industry urgently needs the prudence and long-term thinking that fields like law and political science teach.
My coursework in political science and experience in journalism made me particularly concerned about political polarization. In designing NewsElect, I deliberately made it hard for users to read articles that only reinforce their views. NewsElect’s algorithm aggregates articles from liberal and conservative-leaning media so that users are bound to see different narratives on the candidate they choose. In a competitive industry, designing an application that goes against the conventional wisdom of “always pleasing your users” requires level-headedness, professionalism, and conviction. Law and political science cultivate and encourage these traits.
People with legal and political science backgrounds can help not just to theorize about social impact but also to better craft the details of digital applications. For example, many people have run a search in an application only for no result to appear. Usually, the application replies, “no result has been found,” or “no information available.” While seemingly harmless, in the context of an app like NewsElect, standard responses like these could lead a user to believe that the candidate does not have a view on the issue. When I developed NewsElect, my humanities background encouraged me to pay close attention to cases like this where a user could be misled or misinformed. So, when a NewsElect user’s search does not yield a result, NewsElect reminds the user that this does not necessarily mean the candidate has no stance on the issue searched for and asks if she or he would like to be redirected to Google to read more.
Skills learned in computer science can also contribute to the betterment of fields like law and politics. Algorithms have gradually replaced humans in making important decisions that affect millions of lives. For example, some courts use algorithms to determine whether to release an individual on bail. With innovations like this, courts may shift to judging the actions of algorithms rather than people. With computer science backgrounds, lawyers and policymakers could truly understand how an algorithm works and form cogent arguments about the details of an algorithm, rather than relying solely on the opinions of tech professionals.
When I first started studying computer science alongside political science, I was curious about how the two disciplines could interact, but now I see a social responsibility to study them together. Society needs people proficient in technology, law, and politics to ensure that digital applications and technology more broadly is designed with social good in mind. Society also needs people to bring judicial oversight up to speed with rapidly developing technology. The challenge and responsibility are on us.
Xiaoli Jin graduated from Middlebury College in 2019 with majors in political science and computer science. She currently works as an associate at Keystone Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in technology, law, and economics. She received admission to Harvard Law School while an undergraduate, and plans to soon begin her legal studies.
Suggested citation: Xiaoli Jin, NewsElect Developer Makes Case for Studying Law and Tech Together, JURIST – Student Commentary, October 4, 2019, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2019/10/studying-law-and-tech-together/
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