‘The Daily Show’ host Trevor Noah, Microsoft president Brad Smith ’81 discuss technology in society| September 30, 2019
Hours before the Frist Campus Center ticket office opened on Tues., Sept. 24, a line of students surrounded by laptops, notebooks, and coffee cups began to form on the Frist first floor. By noon — the official beginning of ticket distribution — the line had extended to the third floor. Tickets were gone by 12:15 p.m.
The event that caused such hustle and bustle in Frist was none other than the highly-anticipated conversation between “The Daily Show” host and comedian Trevor Noah and Microsoft president and University trustee Brad Smith ’81. The conversation oriented itself around Smith’s 2019 book, “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age,” as well as Noah’s 2017 memoir, “Born a Crime.”
At the event’s start, University president Christopher Eisgruber ’83 gave a brief introduction to the duo, praising their “shared interest in how technology is changing the world.”
This shared interest, Eisgruber explained, brought the two together, despite widely varying backgrounds and upbringings.
“Each generation has been on a journey that the previous generation hadn’t been on,” Noah said about his South African family.
“For me, I didn’t dream about [this future]. But I’m eternally grateful to my mother because she had the ability to think about what was possible at the time, and she lived in a state of thinking about what could be possible in the future,” Noah elaborated. “So, being someone who thinks about the future is something that I inherited from my mother.”
Noah and Smith focused a significant part of the conversation on discussing the digital divide that has affected “populism, income inequality, and immigration” throughout the world and within the United States.
“People in rural America feel left behind because they are being left behind,” Smith asserted after discussing an eastern Washington community particularly affected by a lack of internet access. “If you can’t bring broadband to these communities, you can’t bring jobs. And if you can’t bring jobs, you can’t bring hope.”
On the topic of accessibility, Noah recounted his difficult experiences growing up in South African apartheid, particularly the ways in which systematic and systemic discrimination affected his family’s prospects at success and social acceptance. Noah used his personal story to explain the importance of standardizing opportunities and access for marginalized groups within the technology industry.
“Look at diversity through its lens,” Noah said. “Where power goes, abuse of power follows, so what we can do is ask the right questions.”
Following the conversation, Smith and Noah responded to questions from the audience about their perspectives on the globalization of tech as well as racial biases within software.
At the end of the event, Noah expressed his gratitude for the activism that has largely been led by students and other young people across the globe.
“Young people are making their voices heard, and young people are existing in a place where they no longer abide by the rules,” Noah said. “These young people are growing up with this technology, and I think they’ll do things with it that we haven’t even begun to imagine.”
Students expressed overwhelming approval and enjoyment following the conversation. Many also conveyed surprise at the impact that the conversation left on them.
“I think the majority of the people went for Trevor Noah, given our age and interests, but I think both speakers were equally impactful in their own ways, and they definitely had shared interests which helped to facilitate the conversation,” Christina Xu ’21 said. “I definitely would say worth the hype especially since such a nice flowing conversation might not have been expected.”
However, not all attendants who spoke to The Daily Princetonian were impressed by the level of intellectual discourse that took place during the event.
“I think people’s response to the show largely depends on why they went,” Justin Curl ’22 said.
“If you went for entertainment or because you love Trevor Noah, like me, then you were not disappointed,” Curl said. “If, however, you went for more technical reasons, like to learn about Microsoft's future and how they hope to ‘keep the humanity in the technology,’ it’s certainly possible you were disappointed by the show.”
Despite concerns that the conversation was not tech-oriented enough, because of Noah’s primary notoriety for his role as host for “The Daily Show,” numerous students also came away with a better understanding of Noah’s background in tech.
“I didn’t expect a conversation between Trevor Noah and Brad Smith to be that insightful, but it definitely was,” Wendy Ho ’21 remarked. “I was surprised by how much Trevor Noah knew about technologies today and how much he thought about its impacts, since he’s not in tech.”
“The Future of Technology and the Tale of Two Books: A Conversation with Microsoft’s Brad Smith and the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah” took place at 8 p.m. on Fri., Sept. 27 in Richardson Auditorium.