Many Tufts students have taken their unique passions and used innovation to create new organizations, and The Lantern is no exception. The think tank, which developed out of a discussion group started by two like-minded students, aims to provide the Tufts community with greater knowledge and awareness of how science and technology intersect with society.
The group was founded this semester by juniors Nayun Eom and Johnny Lai with the goal of making scientific knowledge more accessible to all people. Eom explained the reason behind the student group’s name.
“Light represents knowledge traditionally, and a lot of knowledge is held in an ivory tower, like in academia, and it’s not accessible to the people who are being impacted by that knowledge,” Eom said. “Rather than this light being from an ivory tower, we want to redistribute the source of light to everybody, kind of like a lantern.”
The founders became friends during Tufts Wilderness Orientation. Eom, a sociology and economics major and Lai, a computer science and film and media studies major, combined their disciplines and perspectives to create The Lantern and look at the social implications of science and technology. They aimed to create a base where students could come to talk about these issues.
Eom and Lai began work on The Lantern this February, and they held discussion groups with some of their friends over the summer. These discussions developed into what would become the student group; however, the organization launched this September. They chose to make the organization an unofficial Tufts club, so they could keep working on the group after they graduate. Though being unaffiliated with the university causes challenges, like being unable to advertise at the club fair or reserve rooms as a club, the current setup allows for freedom and growth in the future.
The Lantern operates with the help of an executive board. Parker Rule, a junior who was part of the original discussion groups that led to the founding of The Lantern, acts as the head of curriculum. His primary role is to generate topics for club members to research and discuss.
The Lantern is set up with teams, so that club members each participate in one project per semester. Within these smaller teams, members research their topic that relates to science, technology and society. They then pass this information on to a team of The Lantern’s graphic designers who condense this information into a readable, accessible graphic that the organization can disseminate to spread awareness.
This semester the group has broken up into three project teams.
The first group is focusing on technology and climate change, specifically researching the environmental and social implications of lithium-ion batteries that are used in electric cars. The second team is critically examining Silicon Valley. They are looking into how huge tech companies like Facebook and Google create an Office of Ethics and use marketing schemes to appear ethical. The last group, focusing on the future of work, has honed in on gig workers who work remotely and have a flexible schedule.
One team member is sophomore Kayla Fang, who heard about The Lantern because Eom was her first-year pre-orientation leader. As a potential future tech worker, she likes being a part of The Lantern so that she can reflect on the current practices in tech. Fang is a part of the project team that researches humane and ethical technological development.
“Because I pursue math as a major, and I will probably settle myself in a tech company after my graduation, I don’t want to be someone that just follows the rules and does all the coding and follows what the upper classes say and do something that is irresponsible to society,” Fang said.
Analyzing the intersections between technology and society makes The Lantern extremely important in exposing the massive power tech companies hold over society and the economy, according to Eom.
“I don’t think the people who are building these tools are necessarily equipped to handle the social and philosophical and economic consequences of the things that they’re building,” Eom said. “I think we need social scientists and philosophers and artists and just all different sorts of people from different disciplines to engage in the discussion of, ‘What do we do with this technology?’”
Rule noted how important these conversations will be in the tech workplace.
“The hope would be that we can chip away in some small part at creating the next generation of tech workers … who are slightly more informed about the consequences of what they’re making,” Rule said.
In the future, The Lantern also hopes to hold conferences with other schools and work with nonprofits in the responsible technology field.
“In the more long run … we want to have more of an advocacy role and directly collaborate with tech startups and policymakers, so have more of an action element to the think tank,” Eom said.
Before college Eom thought very little about technology and was always more interested in social issues, but she realized during her sophomore year that these two subjects deeply intersect. Eom was inspired by science fiction author Ted Chiang, and she credits him with her thoughts regarding the intersection of technology and capitalism.
“When I started applying issues related to technology in the context of capitalism … everything started to click for me. And I started to see how the fears and anxieties that we have about technology are actually fears and anxieties about capitalism,” Eom said. “Because technology is just a tool, but it’s the way that it’s used in our current society’s social context, which is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities and then creating new inequalities.”
When Eom started The Lantern, she thought that no one else would be interested in this subject. However, she has found that the more she tells people about the group’s projects, the more interest she gets in the organization. Each of these people can then contribute to The Lantern from the perspectives of their particular major and unique background. To Eom, the future of technology is up to these types of students.
So long as science and technology continue to intersect with capitalism and societal inequities, think tanks like The Lantern will continue to be not only relevant, but essential for creating technological progress.
“The way technology is shifting [and] changing our society is something that is only going to become more and more relevant in the future,” Eom said. “It’s affecting more and more people’s lives, so that’s how I know that it’s important.”