It’s hard to keep up with society’s ever growing digital networks.

Christopher Harris sees this every day in his work for MITRE Corp., a nonprofit IT and engineering firm that works with government agencies to build and advise on technology. Harris leads a project to crowdsource evidence of war crimes

Take the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Because of social media, the world has a front row seat to the conflict, with Ukrainians taking to Twitter and YouTube to show the globe what is happening. That information has the power to sway governments and change policies. It also reveals humanity at its core.

“There aren’t a lot of really good governance and principles around what to do with that content,” Harris said. “The social media companies are not set up for that. They are not in the war crimes space. You have a lot of these urgent governance questions, like what gets preserved, under what circumstances, when do you cooperate with authorities, who gets access to that content? It’s a systems engineering problem and an ecosystem of law and technology competing.”

Harris and more than 60 other leaders in technology, government, nonprofits, and academia  discussed these kinds of issues and grappled with questions during a one-day Tech for Humanity Summit, held at the Virginia Tech Research Center — Arlington on June 29.

The purpose of the inaugural summit, led by Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities and co-hosted by New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank, was to invite professionals across the country to discuss issues and offer ideas for change related to ways that technology, including social media, influences society. The summit was sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation.

“There is something about the human side of technology that is at the center of debate and concern,” said Sylvester Johnson, director of the Center for Humanities and associate vice provost for public interest technology at Virginia Tech. “We are advancing the urgency for technology to benefit public interest and to emphasize the accountability of things, like human rights and human interest, not just for some communities but for all communities.”

Shannon Raj Singh, an attorney and former human rights counsel at Twitter, was the summit’s keynote speaker. Photo by Luke Hayes for Virginia Tech.

Summit speakers ranged from Michael Zelenko, executive editor of Rest of World, a publication that covers the impact of technology globally, to Lili Gangas, chief technology community officer for Kapor Center, which is focused on creating an inclusive technology ecosystem. The topics included promoting equity and dignity in the workforce in the automation age to strengthening human rights in the face of the way technological innovation shapes a nation's security, economics, and stability.

Also, Jen Pahlka, founder of Code for America, received the first Tech for Humanity Award. Pahlka is author of “Recoding America” and formerly was the deputy chief technology officer for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She was recognized for her work in the world of technology and government.

Shannon Raj Singh, an attorney and former human rights counsel at Twitter, was the summit’s keynote speaker. She led her speech with lessons learned during a 2005 car bombing in Beirut at which the country’s former prime minister was killed, along with others in the explosion. The prosecutors’ case was developed using cellphone metadata that tracked the movement of criminal activity.

This example highlights human’s individual digital footprint and brings up concerns about using it for these kinds of cases, Singh said.

“Our phones are not us,” she said. “We are not our tech. Each of us makes our own decisions about our use of technology.”

Rishi Jaitly, a distinguished humanities fellow with the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech, moderates a panel discussion during the Tech for Humanity Summit. Photo by Luke Hayes for Virginia Tech.

The conversations at the summit were new and helpful for Megan Leverage, a participant who is a consultant and a part time instructor of comparative religion at Western Michigan University.

“These are real issues, and they affect real people,” she said.

Similarly, Harris said conversations surrounding technology and how it impacts humans are rare.

“I like the idea that we can be deliberate about the human role and the human toll of technology,” Harris said. “For 10 years, we have been on autopilot. The tech industry has a role to play.”

The summit successfully set the stage for future events like it, said Rishi Jaitly, one of the event’s leaders and a distinguished humanities fellow with the Center for Humanities.

“The tech ecosystem has not had a stage around the role we play in humans flourishing,” he said. “This is kind of our new North Star.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone