Photograph by Juan Miche Rosales

Adam Novak Spent 100 Hours in Meditative Silence. From This, Shift SC Was Born.

USC Viterbi student cofounded the student club to explore technology in all its dimensions, including ethics.

The 4 a.m. gong roused Adam Novak from a deep sleep. After quickly dressing in drab, loose-fitting, gray cotton pants, a black T-shirt and sandals, he made his way to breakfast, eating some oatmeal and fruit – one of only two meals he would eat that day.

The place: a Buddhist monastery in Tiaong, Philippines. The time: January 2020. The purpose: to live as a monk on a 10-day silent meditation retreat to achieve deeper self-understanding and move closer toward contentment, clarity and inner peace.

As Novak slipped deeper into himself at the monastery, his mind turned to technology and his long-standing ambivalence toward it. During his first year at USC, the computer science and East Asian languages and cultures double major concluded that he and his classmates focused far too much on creating technology’s next big thing, but not enough considering its potential downsides, such as political divisions fueled by social media algorithms.

Now, at the monastery, Novak’s recurring goal of reducing his time on social media was fully realized in an environment where no personal devices were allowed. Ten days without smartphones and filled with meditation left him feeling less anxious and better overall, challenging his perspectives on tech. “How do our devices and apps not just add to our quality of life, but also take away from it?” he wondered.

Over the course of his meditation retreat, Novak promised himself that he would one day create an organization at USC for students to think critically about the unintended consequences of technology on society and take action to mitigate them. The thought, which had come first to him during his freshman year, now solidified in his mind.

“I felt this responsibility to help start this type of movement, to create this space for others,” Novak said.

In fall 2021, Novak and USC Viterbi computer engineering student John Heo cofounded Shift SC, which bills itself as “USC’s student-led platform for human-centered and socially responsible technology.” Its goal: “promote interdisciplinary conversation and action at USC around the social implications and ethical issues of tech.”

Since then, Shift SC has held weekly meetings and “digital well-being workshops” addressing topics such as our relationship with social media and personal devices; established a fund for student researchers to examine the social impacts of technology; and hosted a major Tech4Good symposium — USC’s first-ever, student-led annual conference for tech and social good — that attracted 150 students.

“We’re incredibly proud of what Shift SC has become, and we expect it will keep growing as we continue to launch innovative initiatives on campus and around LA,” said Heo, Shift SC now a senior adviser. “There wouldn’t be Shift SC without Adam because he is the human manifestation of the club.”

Novak, who also serves as a Shift SC senior adviser, started USC in fall 2018. Although he loved the campus, his classmates and studying computer science, he felt a bit unworldly and lost. After studying Korean during his second semester, Novak decided to take a year off and embark on a “journey into the unknown.”

His first stop was South Korea, where Novak spent three months working on a farm and intensely studying the language. Coming home to Tennessee for a few months to intern for a sustainability consulting firm and save money, he returned to Asia in early 2020, first to the Philippines to silently mediate and then to Malaysia and Japan to teach English.

“I would say that my biggest takeaways were how beautiful it is to live in a new culture, learn a new language and see the world from other people’s eyes,” he said. “I also realized how much potential I have to make a positive impact in the world with this incredible USC education.”

Novak said he plans to move to South Korea after graduation. He wants to master the language, earn a master’s degree in tech policy, and to again live in a monastery, something he did in the summer of 2021 at Dhamma Pubbananda in Claymont, Delaware.

Whatever path he ends up pursuing, Novak said he wants to leave an indelible impression.

“I would like to be remembered as somebody who spent their life working to improve the lives of others,” he said.