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ACM: Shifting Culture through Technology Research & Policy

When I worked as a systems and network administrator (translation: IT wrangler) back in the nineties, I learned an important lesson that the people in tech only get noticed when things break. If they work well, everyone’s happy. If they don’t work well, suddenly you’re in demand. Technology is a tool and it’s neutral. We use it to help us in our lives and our work. Startups gain notoriety because they might solve problems and make things more interesting for a while, but the technologists rarely receive recognition outside the community and most people don’t notice how much technology has changed our lives until major political or cultural implications come into play. As a result, there’s a constant need for the technology community to keep tabs on these things. Enter ACM.

ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery. While the name may be somewhat antiquated, the organization has moved with the times and now represents more than 100,000 computing technology professionals and academics around the world. I first joined ACM in 1993 as a student at the University of Michigan. I was introduced through friends to the fledgling student chapter and became their program chair, helping organize interesting events with notable computer scientists. It was a big deal when Donald Knuth came to campus, and we packed the house when I invited Shari Steele to speak. I drank ACM’s cool-aid and became an advocate for their work. Little did I know I would still be involved today.

Over the past two months, I had the opportunity to see ACM’s work in greater detail than ever before. At our May USACM Council meeting (USACM is the U.S. Public Policy Council where I’m an elected at-large member) in Washington, D.C., not only did we have the usual group of volunteer technology policy geek-wonks in the room, but we also had ACM’s CEO and its President. We received an intimate look at how the organization works, what makes it tick and why it’s important to continue on our mission.

In a nutshell, while ACM provides a multitude of opportunities for computer scientists to share their research and ideas, they also provide a global platform for analyzing and imparting technical knowledge for future generations. ACM’s publications cover every topic in computing, from artificial intelligence to database systems. ACM’s conferences span the globe and bring experts in a wide range of fields together. And it’s all done without fanfare because these are computer scientists, not marketers. So I thought I’d toot their horn a bit.

What originally drew me to ACM was not that it was a club for techies, but that it had a Code of Ethics that represented not only a view of current an past technologies but a look at the potential for the future. In a way, it reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s work and that of other science fiction authors diving into technology’s role in shaping our culture.

USACM is nonpartisan, totally focused on doing what’s right respective to technology.  Each year we work on a variety of issues related to innovation, privacy, governance, security, voting, accessibility, and intellectual property. Often we find ourselves repeating some of the work we’ve done in the past to educate new policymakers on the trouble with trying to create policies around certain technologies. Our role is to explain why certain policy ideas are good or bad based on the technology. No more, no less. It’s humbling and extremely educational to be in a group of such experienced professionals diving deep into the issues.

ACM also gives awards. I had the rare privilege to attend their annual awards banquet in June. The collective IQ in the room approached infinity. I was proud that ACM awarded so many women technology experts and researchers with prizes and that their recent history has been diverse and inclusive. The most prestigious prize, the Alan Turing Award, also known as the “Nobel Prize in Computing” was given to Michael Stonebraker of MIT for his database research. Oh, and it includes $1Million in financial support from Google. How’s that for putting your money where your mouth is?

Over the years, I’ve met many of the amazing men and women of ACM and recipients of ACM’s support through various avenues and while they’re clearly united in their passion for technology, I’ve also found that they are genuinely committed to using technology for the greater good. We do alter our culture through our innovations and the policy decisions we make respective of that technology can have enormous impact. That’s why I continue to give my time and ideas to ACM and USACM. So next time you use your computer, think about the people that made it possible, not just the technology itself. It’s the people who make change possible.