Celebrities Implore Engineers to Join Their Causes at Collision Conference

Al Gore, Sophia Bush, and others advocate for the environment and the #TimesUp movement

17 May 2018

This year’s Collision conference was a star-studded event, where several celebrities talked about causes they’re passionate about, such as the need for more renewable energy sources and for tech companies to be held accountable for their actions.

Nearly 25,000 people attended the conference, held from 1 to 3 May in New Orleans. The annual event brings together engineers, entrepreneurs, and CEOs of high-tech companies to discuss emerging technology.

The speakers at this year’s Collision noted that everyone attending can improve the world. Here are a few highlights from their talks.

  • PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT

    Keynote speaker Al Gore, former U.S. vice president, made it clear he was at the conference to recruit people to his cause. Gore received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary on global warming.

    “We need your help to solve the climate crisis,” he said. “The world that you will grow into, and where you will pursue your careers, will be shaped by the decisions made today.”

    Technology that can help the environment is already available, he noted, including solar and wind power, electric vehicles, and low-power batteries. “Wind energy alone could supply 40 times the electricity than what the entire world uses,” he said.

    He noted that China is moving toward electric buses, and said every car manufacturer is transitioning to electric vehicles. Better management of power-hungry data servers has helped to reduce the energy consumed by large companies, he said, but more needs to be done.

    “The tech community, keenly aware of what’s at stake and knowledgeable about new tools that can be used, can play a crucial role in solving the climate crisis,” Gore said.

  • #TIMESUP

    Actress Sophia Bush didn’t hold back on her thoughts about the lack of women in the tech industry. She is a spokeswoman for the #TimesUp movement, a campaign that is addressing inequality and injustice in the workplace.

    Panelists pointed to some alarming statistics, such as that 60 percent of women in tech report having been sexually harassed—higher than other industries. And about 70 percent of those who experience sexual harassment do not report it. Women who file lawsuits win their case about 2 percent of the time.

    Some men have reported they have not hired women because they fear they’ll be accused of harassment. Beyond the legal ramifications, such prejudice can hurt the company’s bottom line, Bush said. “When you take 50 percent of the population out of the creative process,” she said, “your products are going to be one of many that hit the market that are tone-deaf.”

    Several large companies have wasted millions of dollars on advertising they’ve pulled because of complaints that the ads are offensive, Bush noted. “If you’re one of those guys who thinks you can’t work with women,” she said, “look in the mirror. You’re part of the problem. Deal with your own issues. Don’t punish us.”

    Moreover, she said, companies with women in leadership positions have fewer sexual harassment cases—which saves them legal costs and harm to their reputation.

    One way technology is helping address the problem is developing websites that compile data about harassment claims. At AllVoices, which is scheduled to launch this year, workers will be able to anonymously report harassment incidents, and the complaints will be sent directly to the CEO and the board of directors to alert them of the issues so they can take action.

  • DEFENDING DEMOCRACY

    Susan Herman spoke about technology and how it could uphold civil rights. Herman is president of the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonpartisan organization that defends individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the U.S.  Constitution and the country’s laws. She was joined by Andrew Yang, who plans to enter the Democratic primary for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Yang founded Venture for America, a national entrepreneurship fellowship program that helps create jobs in big cities.

    Herman said tech companies are not doing enough to prevent election interference on social media and on the Internet or to fix algorithms that have been used to establish gerrymandered voting districts.

    Herman and Yang said they believe that when companies and organizations make large contributions to political parties, it amounts to “legalized bribery.” Yang is optimistic that crowdfunding platforms will help disrupt that model and lessen politicians’ reliance on large campaign contributions. Crowdfunding allowed Bernie Sanders to fund his 2016 presidential campaign. Sanders raised $26.2 million—the average contribution was US $27—about $3 million short of his main opponent, Hillary Clinton.

    “This is what it means to be in a democracy,” Yang said.

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