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Q&A with Sylvester Johnson, Faculty Fellow, Public Interest Technology University Network

Photo credit: Ray Meese

Sylvester A. Johnson is  Associate Vice Provost for Public Interest Technology and Executive Director of the “Tech for Humanity” initiative advancing human-centered approaches to technology at Virginia Tech. He is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities, which is supporting human-centered research across multiple disciplines. Sylvester’s research has examined religion, race, and empire in the Atlantic world; religion and sexuality; national security practices; and the impact of intelligent machines and human enhancement on human identity and race. He is a Professor in the Department of Religion and Culture. In addition to having co-facilitated a national working group on religion and US empire, he co-leads a project with Bill Ingram (Assistant Dean of Libraries at VT), supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to develop ethically designed, public-interest Artificial Intelligence that can benefit public knowledge institutions in an innovation-driven society.

Sylvester is the author of The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity (Palgrave 2004), a study of race and religious hatred that won the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book award; and African American Religions, 1500-2000 (Cambridge 2015), an award-winning interpretation of five centuries of democracy, colonialism, and freedom in the Atlantic world. Johnson has also co-edited The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 (University of California 2017) and Religion and US Empire (NYU Press 2022). He is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Africana Religions. Sylvester is writing a book on human identity in an age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis. 

He currently leads “Future Humans, Human Futures” at Virginia Tech, a series of research institutes and symposia funded by the Henry Luce foundation that focus on technology, ethics, and religion. He is also directing the creation of a university-wide “Tech for Humanity” undergraduate minor, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to prepare future talent at the intersection of humanities, social justice, and technology.

Q. How has PIT-UN helped support your work in the field thus far?

I’m especially excited that the consortium provided funding for Virginia Tech to host a public interest technology summer speaker series in 2022 that successfully engaged hundreds of attendees on a digital platform and introduced them to foundational concepts and practices of PIT. This collaborative effort emerged because several PIT-UN institutions participated in creating content for the speaker series. Their topics ranged from smart cities to AI ethics to human-centered design. [LIST PARTICIPATING INSTITUTIONS]

The PIT consortium constitutes a major intervention in the effort to advance human-centered approaches and outcomes for technology and innovation. It has taken what felt disparate and ethereal in earlier stages and made it more concrete. At Virginia Tech, we launched a “Tech for Humanity” initiative in 2019 to elevate and further human-centered approaches to teaching, research, and public engagement related to technology. The following year we were accepted into PIT-UN, which immediately created a host of relationships and opportunities for collaboration with other academic institutions.

Q. How will this faculty fellow role allow the Network to achieve its immediate and future goals?

One objective of this faculty fellow role is to deepen and enhance opportunities for collaboration across the Network at a time the Network has enjoyed robust growth. Equally important is the opportunity horizon for translating PIT beyond academic domains. The consortium has achieved great success by cultivating a robust network of academic institutions that are creating new curricula (including one graduate certificate program in PIT) and new research, and are nurturing new talent at both the undergrad and graduate levels. We have invested in priming the talent pipeline pump. We now have the opportunity to build on that success to engage more directly beyond academic institutions. Governmental and civic organizations, as well as private industry, are essential to the larger ecosystem for making technology truly accountable to public interest and democratic outcomes. 

Q. What are your first priorities?

Shaping a more robust context for communicating PIT objectives and aims is a key priority. For instance, most of us have learned a lot about the power of digital platforms for communication within our own institutions during the early stages of the pandemic. So one priority will be exploring new digital media to enrich our ability for communicating and engaging across the PIT consortium. 

A second priority is supporting New America’s leadership as they activate capacity across the Network for engagement with private industry, governmental, and civic institutions.

Q. Where do you see the broader field of PIT in three years?

This is a great question. The public legibility of public interest as an urgent technology issue continues to grow from year to year. The reasons for this growing legibility are disturbing: Progress from innovations in technology has brought challenging and, at times, harmful consequences that affect our entire society. The next few years will create new opportunities for public interest technology to be implemented at a growing scale. This will add to our analysis of technology problems a greater capacity to harness and lead technology through human-centered approaches that are accountable to social justice and equity.

If we do our work well, we will see the PIT field maturing to the point of structuring new and different instruments and institutions for technology outcomes that advance justice and democracy through inclusive approaches that value diversity. I also think PIT will play a chief role in turning some critics of technology into agents for transforming and leading technology. We need more critical practitioners in multiple facets of society, and PIT will be central to this new trajectory.