Students working in Jacobs Hall

Students working on a prototyping exercise for the course. (Photo by Daniel McGlynn)

Countering extremism with technology

Every Thursday afternoon, students gather in a light-filled teaching studio of Jacobs Hall to develop technology-based solutions to a very tangible problem: ideologically motivated violence in the United States.

This one-of-a-kind class, called “Designing Technology to Counter Violent Extremism,” was assembled from scratch before the start of the semester by two uniquely qualified instructors. Björn Hartmann is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and faculty director of the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, which hosts the course. Zvika Krieger, an expert in design thinking and foreign policy, is a former U.S. Department of State representative to Silicon Valley and senior advisor for technology and innovation.

The two first met in late 2015, around the time the Jacobs Institute opened, and began brainstorming ideas for a new course that could teach students to use design and technology to tackle global challenges. The topic of violent extremism, Krieger recalls, seemed not only relevant, engaging and sufficiently broad, but also “something where students could actually make a difference.”

Students during a brainstorming session.Students during an early brainstorming session. (Photo courtesy Björn Hartmann)

Roughly a year and a half later, the two find themselves before 18 students seeking first to understand the roots of violent extremism, then to begin conceiving of a technology antidote, be it a new mobile application, interactive product, or social-media widget. “The Internet — from viral videos to hijacked hashtags to bot networks — has emerged as a key arena in which violent extremists engage with the public,” the course description reads. “But technology is also a key tool in the fight against extremism.”

On a sunny Thursday in mid-February, newly formed student teams take turns hashing out their goals: breaking down news bubbles and “echo chambers,” generating local support for recent immigrants, promoting community-focused content producers. Early in the semester, many presentations still come across as vague, even floundering, which could result in poor marks in most classes — but not this one. Krieger, who recently left the State Department for the World Economic Forum’s new San Francisco Center, reminds students that this is to be expected early in the design process, when problems, let alone solutions, are not easily grasped.

“One of the skills that’s really important to learn is to deal with that ambiguity, to get over your discomfort with it and inhabit it, and then make your way through that to clarify what your project is,” explained Hartmann in an interview before class. “If that is a skill that the students come out of this course with, that’s enormously helpful.”

Collectively, the students are already as distinctive as the course itself, a mix of undergraduates and graduates representing electrical engineering and computer science, cognitive science, information science and business administration.

But few have much background in politics or foreign affairs, let alone the intricacies of combating violent extremism. To learn, they’ll benefit from Krieger’s connections and meet representatives of the Department of State, Homeland Security and the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as of companies like Facebook and Twitter. They’ll also conduct interviews with stakeholders and other experts including journalists, activists, educators and ex-extremists — to the tune of 10 per week.

Given its reliance on student initiative to find suitable readings and define project goals, the class could fairly be described as a prototype in and of itself, even an experiment, say Krieger and Hartmann. But far from being a liability, this seems to be exactly what the instructors value most about it and what attracted many students in the first place.

“I took this class is because it’s different and very interdisciplinary,” says computer science student Lily Nguyen (Class of ’18). “I wanted to really home in on the intersection of design, technology and social science.” She’s now part of a team examining how narratives on violent extremism are constructed and disseminated through the news and social media.

Cognitive science student Stacy Kellner (Class of ’17), whose team is studying media echo chambers, says she hopes to bring to the class a broad perspective rooted in the “big picture” and its inherent complexity. “I think the theme in this class and in my Berkeley education in general has been the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know,” she says. “It’s been very humbling and motivating.”

By the end of the semester, students will aim to produce an alpha version of a software product that can be evaluated by potential target users. If the idea seems promising, teams or individuals can then take their blueprint into another course for further development, bring it to a start-up for commercialization or even work with government designers and engineers to scale it up.

Kellner says she maintains a healthy skepticism toward the Silicon Valley ethos of using technology to cure all ills, and both professors stress that in the end, the course is geared more toward process than product. Nonetheless, Krieger embraces the belief that some students may be able to “design something that could actually have an impact.”