MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXII No. 3
January / February 2020
I. The Goodwin Procter Report and Faculty Views on the Jeffrey Epstein Case; II. No War on Iran; III. Professor Aron Bernstein;
IV. FNL Officers Elected
MIT: Where Now?
Straighten Up & Fly Right
Epstein and MIT:
The Unanswered Questions
Aron Bernstein
Catalyzing a Conversation
Statement from the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Guidelines for
Outside Engagements
A New Center for MIT
MIT 2020 Quality of Life Survey Launches
Improving on the Probability
of Alumni Connections
Save the Date for MacVicar Day 2020
The Coop and the MIT Press Bookstore
Budget of the United States Government:
2018 Discretionary Outlays
Budget of the United States Government:
Comparative Defense Spending
Printable Version

A New Center for MIT

Sherry Turkle and Caroline A. Jones
(in consultation with faculty from SHASS and SA+P)

MIT is in a unique position to establish an Institute-wide center with the capacity to address recurring problems provoked by rapid technological change. Our world-renowned faculty have existing expertise in the challenges we face in such areas as race, gender, and the social, psychological, and ecological impacts of technology. And MIT holds a special place in the national and international conversation on such matters. Just as we have been the source for tremendous innovation, we are also positioned to engage constructively and critically with the difficult issues that always accompany profound change.
This new unit could be an MIT Center for Critical Thought or Critical Studies, an MIT Center for Technology and Society Studies, MIT Center for the Humanities, or simply, MIT Center for Change. Reporting to the President and Provost, the center would be Institute-wide and independent of any single School, headed by members of our faculty who have been professionally engaged with critical research about technology for decades.

Our students should also be brought into the planning for the center, since they will occupy the future we create. As envisioned, the center would constitute a bold, symbolic, and substantive move for this institution, which has often looked for engineering-led solutions to human problems. Here in contrast, we envisage a center that looks at technology, in history and at present, as a human endeavor. Because technology is human, social forces and inequalities are expressed in and through it, and new social relations are created by it. These human-technology relations need to be elevated as important subjects of study and proposed action at MIT.

This center will support distinguished and emerging scholars from here and elsewhere whose research interrogates the social and cultural effects of scientific and technological innovation as well as technology transfer. It will study the present, but also encourage historical scholarship. From Gutenberg to the deployment of cybernetics, technologies of innovation have brought waves of social change with important lessons for the present. In order to create a better, more equitable future, the new center will take up these lessons. It will build on MIT’s expertise across fields such as history, science and technology studies, anthropology, literature, media studies, architecture, urban planning, and the arts, domains in which scholars have grappled with how technologies have shaped and been shaped by social and economic forces in different parts of the world. The center will be a space for rigorous research, education, and critical reflection on the historical and future role of technology as part of our planetary condition. This means that it will also encourage the arts that MIT has always welcomed as forms of expression and intelligence that produce their own kinds of knowledge and reckoning with technological change.

The proposed center will be a place of scholarly reflection, of course, but it will also set agendas for change both within the Institute and in the world at large, as overarching themes are established, and scholars are mobilized to work together on the knotty and often unanticipated problems that human technologies bring in their wake.

The center would focus on computing only as one aspect of the interface of technology and humanity; it would address the advances as well as grave social and ecological challenges technology creates, such as climate change and environmental pollution. The work of the center’s fellows will inform policy discussions and national conversations. Our own scholars would help choose others to join them: thinkers who work on the historical, psychological, anthropological, sociological, economic, cultural, artistic, philosophical, and political components of how we change in relation to our tools, and with specific attention to the ethical dimensions of these changes.

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Below we offer some bullet points to facilitate further discussion. Some are thoughts about possible organization. Some are examples of possible first projects.

    Peer Institutions Interdisciplinary Centers
    Peer Institutions Interdisciplinary Centers
    (click on image to enlarge)

    • Several of MIT’s peer institutions already have interdisciplinary centers that have served them to great effect. Harvard has several (the Radcliffe, Mahindra Humanities Center, Berkman Center, Society of Fellows, to name a few); the Stanford Humanities Center is now decades old, as is the Stanford-based Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Perhaps a useful model is provided by the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, in which individual fellows working on their own projects are paralleled by three- to five-year working groups focused collaboratively on specific themes or research problems. These working groups are led by a convening faculty member (in this case, across various German universities) joined by visiting fellows to enrich the approach to problem areas year by year. The mission for MIT in designing our center is to find the formula that builds on our strengths and most enriches us – to find the kind of center where we can be most enhanced and where we can make the greatest impact.

  • The center should have a director and a steering committee comprised of faculty members from various Schools. Their charge would be to oversee the research initiatives of the center, and select and engage with fellows and postdocs following a competitive review process. Members could serve for two- to three-year terms and help to identify or lead and support research initiatives. A Board appointed by the President and Provost in consultation with the director would help support the center’s activities and advocate for its work in the world.
  • The center would also play a role in retention and maintaining diversity in our faculty, since a group of fellowships could be set aside for MIT’s own tenure-track scholars.  Junior faculty could compete for these designated fellowships, so as to have support for a leave prior to tenure, without having to relocate or leave the MIT support systems for their family and research. (This model is followed by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.)
  • The center’s research initiatives should bring scholars together across fields, emphasizing the arts, social sciences, and humanities but including scientists who want to engage urgent interdisciplinary research from social or humanist perspectives. Working groups could focus on, for example, the politics and materiality of climate change; psychological impacts of automation and AI; technologies of contemporary authoritarianism; race/ethnicity and technological innovation; cultural responses to extinction; the developmental effects of screen life; guns and school violence in the U.S.; rare earth politics and e-waste; democracies and social media. Research initiatives could change every one to two years or have overlapping and reinforcing agendas, as guided by the steering committee.
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