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