Tech activism: Booker says sector can play big role in creating more equitable future

File photo U.S. senator Cory Boooker helped create the Opportunity Zones program.

Think your online platforms are too small to have impact? U.S. Sen. Cory Booker challenged viewers to think again Monday on a virtual TechUnited New Jersey Town Hall.

“If you have more than seven people following you, according to a Stanford study, you actually influence the thoughts of people in your circles,” Booker (D-N.J.) said.

Aaron Price.

In a conversation with TechUnited N.J. CEO Aaron Price, Booker emphasized the importance of tech’s influence in creating a more equitable future society, starting at an individual’s actions online.

“We are all sources of energy, and that energy is especially charged in a digital era,” he said. “So, we have to mind our own practices. Are you posting trivialities all the time? Are you posting anger all the time? Are you posting attacks that attack not just the policies of a person, but their very human dignity?”

Here are more of Booker’s thoughts on how technology can play a role moving forward:

On health care and public safety

The difference between us in the United States versus Taiwan and the number of cases we have — it’s just stunning. They have a card that you swipe when you go to the doctor; that’s their national health care system. I think they have eight deaths from their entire nation. The ability for us to fast forward in technology could literally be saving lives.

The fact that we are a nation that is not more productive and doesn’t use predictive analytics to intervene when people are in moments of fragility, whether it’s people who are facing addiction problems or mental health problems … there’s so much we could do to make ourselves safer as a country that doesn’t involve police and prisons.

On the power of going viral

When things go viral, and we have that momentum, that’s how the movements are started. And, you know, the Freedom Riders or the Montgomery Bus Boycotters, they didn’t have the tools that we have now.

I have watched how literally (online) movements can go after dictators globally or mount millions of dollars to help someone. We have these platforms that can do it. So, the question is, are we going to get justice fatigue?

On racist algorithms and biased tech opportunities 

I know this personally because, when my parents tried to move into a house in 1969, they were steered away from places in New Jersey that were white communities. And it was just very active real estate steering. The problem is that you could find that happening online now.

The problem is that you could find that happening online through algorithms that have it look like, right now, I live in an inner-city community, a low-income neighborhood here in Newark. People could be using my ZIP code to deny me certain loan conditions or showing me certain housing.

I remember fighting in the Senate against people using predictive analytics about who would recidivate, and a lot of them were just very based on very racist things that end up becoming baked into algorithms that then really hurt everything from financing of homes to job applications, to even the things you might order online.

And then there’s other layers beyond just algorithm accountability. I remember years ago, when I was still mayor, I went to a black hackathon in Brooklyn. I was blown away by the conversations I had just about, even where our (venture capital) money goes, in terms of the massive gender biases and racial biases in angel investing and more.

On the U.S. digital divide

I think we take things for granted in New Jersey, because we are nationally so far behind our competitors. I mean, South Korea has virtually 100% broadband penetration, and we’re still struggling with millions of families that just don’t have it. And, even in communities around the state of New Jersey, there are homes that might have one device and four kids and a parent that needs to work from home.

When you ask, ‘What can I do?’ it’s just to be a part of a large chorus. It’s demanding that we as a nation, just like we did for the Eisenhower Highway Act, that we need a 21st century Eisenhower Super Technology Highway Act to make sure every student in America has the tools necessary not just to survive or get by, but to thrive in a digital era.

On inspiring action online

Ask yourself, so, what journey are you on right now? And how do your social media accounts reflect that? We are so much more powerful than we realize. Go through a self-audit of what you posted in the last month. And then say to yourself, does this reflect my sense of urgency for justice? Does this reflect me as an activist? If it doesn’t, then begin to do things that do link people to important information. Link people to ways that they can be activated. Link people onto the history of injustices in this country.

And, just by taking small actions, they reverberate into our circles and make changes in consciousness and therefore, changes in action and ultimately, that leads to changes in the justice that we have in our nation.