President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation John G. Palfrey ’94 spoke to Harvard Law School students about the intersections of technology and the public interest — a topic he said is increasingly relevant as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — on Monday.
The lecture also featured three first-year law students who took “Technology and the Public Interest,” a course Palfrey taught earlier this academic year as the Law School’s Steven and Maureen Klinsky Visiting Professor of Practice for Leadership and Progress.
Palfrey explained that he and the students enrolled in his course, whom he described as “an intrepid group,” shifted their focus after the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“Smack in the middle of our class, a group of largely white people took up arms against our country’s congressional leadership,” Palfrey said. “While this insurrection mattered to everyone, it has special meaning in the context of our course.”
Palfrey said he and his students adjusted their class discussions to focus on the insurrection and discuss its technological and public-interest implications.
“We threw out the carefully planned syllabus for a few days to talk about what the introduction meant to us as people devoted to the study and the practice of law and as human beings,” he said. “These terrifying events unfolding in front of us held out the chance to talk about race, power, injustice and social class among many other things.”
Now was the time, Palfrey argued, to construct new technological systems designed with the public interest in mind and created with the help of “dynamic, more diverse” groups of young people.
“It is time in my view for us to reimagine the knowledge and information needs in a democracy before it is too late,” he said. “We should imagine and build new digital infrastructure for the public good — this is the progress and leadership I’d love to see in our field.”
Following Palfrey’s lecture, the three students offered their opinions on the intersection of technology and public interest.
Madeleine V. Matsui, a law student taking classes from Hong Kong, said the course offered her the opportunity to consider relevant questions about how best to restructure existing technological systems to assist all digital citizens — not just a select few.
“As we discussed in class, so many crucial questions surrounding technology and innovation are in flux,” Matsui said. “Many of our existing mechanisms and institutions are struggling to respond adequately to ensure that digital technologies benefit everyone.”
Isabella J. Berkley addressed the University’s approach to online learning. Though Harvard attempted to “equalize the playing field” by offering a technology grant to students, she said there are other, more “creative” steps the University can take to support its students during a pandemic.
“Some might need more ongoing support or a larger initial input of financial capital,” Berkley said. “Thinking creatively here would also include grants for other resources offered on campus that might not be available virtually, such as a health and wellness grant.”
Jess I. Valenzuela Ramirez added that certain students’ struggles to adjust to remote learning is emblematic of systemic issues of inequality that transcend Harvard.
“We see that all of these challenges are compounded by other issues that already plagued higher education,” Valenzuela Ramirez said.
University Professor Martha L. Minow concluded the event by commending Palfrey for adjusting his course to accommodate events unfolding beyond the ivory tower.
“We have to be resilient and we have to be nimble as the modification of your well-planned course after January 6 indicates,” she said. “That is itself an inspiring act — the way you and the class responded quickly and immediately to deal with the real world.”
—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at email@example.com.