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Objective Assessment, Optimistic Will

Joel M. Rosenberg

So I finally read the Unabomber’s Manifesto the other day, and it turns out he’s not a huge fan of technology. In fact, he believes that “if the revolutionaries have any other goal than the destruction of technology, they will be tempted to use technology as a tool for reaching that other goal.” Didn’t this guy use postal technology to deliver bomb technology to people who work in education technology in order to get published by news technology? “It would be hopeless for revolutionaries to try to attack the system without using SOME modern technology,” he acknowledges two paragraphs later in poetic irony.

I finally read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and it turns out that modern or not, it’s pretty tough to avoid using SOME technology. Speech is technology, since it allows us to communicate our senses to one another. Letters and numbers are technology, since they let people record and transmit thoughts independent of time and space. Clocks and money are technology, since they set a baseline for how to value things. But we don’t usually think of technology this way. A definition of “technology” as “the practical application of science to commerce” is not designed to cover human advancement prior to the concepts of “science” or “commerce.”

Yet here we are at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We have a linguistics department which studies speech, yet we also train students extremely well in science and commerce, which is why MIT grads are sought after. So which technology, “new” or “old,” does Technology refer to? After 4 years here, my answer to the $120,000 Question is: Systems.

A system is a bunch of independent yet interrelated things that all work together. Linguistics is the system of languages and sounds, science is the system of accepted truths about the universe, and commerce is the system of buying and selling things. A car is a mechanical system whose gas-powered engine turns the wheels, a computer is an electrical system which regulates the flow of electricity to perform calculations, and a human is a biological system which converts food to usable energy and expels what it can’t use. Once you can break a system down into its independent components, you can see the problems that arise in their interactions, and then you can fix the problems. It’s not really hard, MIT just gives you lots of practice.

One of my favorite systems is the MIT housing system, comprised of over 40 independent dorms and living groups which until Scott Krueger’s death were not particularly “interrelated.” To fix this problem, MIT didn’t encourage more inter-house interaction, but instead recommended housing all freshmen on campus, primarily in a freshman dorm, which now threatens to displace other undergraduate and graduate communities. In a Boston Phoenix article last week about our housing system ( index.html/archive/features/99/05/27/ MIT.html), Ed Golaski ’99 said, “I never had any sense of class identity foisted on me before this year.” Perhaps if it were encouraged all along, class identity would be genuine. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be encouraged by radically altering the system to house all freshmen together.

Another system I have become interested in is the government, which everyone seems to hate. Amusing, considering half of those governed don’t even register for the option to fix it, and half of those that do don’t option that option. One need not look very far to see many broken parts in that system, and where some engineering mentality could easily fix things up.

Finally, let’s look at the Unabomber’s industrial-technological system, which he claims has destabilized society, made life unfulfilling, and threatens to deprive people of dignity and autonomy. It would appear his Manifesto is as scared a cry against a Brave New World as that of the Georgia student who shot six classmates a month after the Littleton shootings and then broke down. They’re right -- it’s a scary world we live in. That doesn’t give them the right to kill other people, though. Nor does it mean we should scrap this system and revert back to primitive life. We know what has happened before, but we don’t know what will happen next -- there’s no point going backwards.

The graduating seniors have each been given a green ribbon to wear in support of a Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility, which reads, “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider or any organization for which I work.” I think that this Graduation Pledge should be an Incoming Freshman Pledge, and should read, “I pledge to understand as fully as possible the social and environmental effects of any system I am a part of, voluntarily or not, in order to know how I can influence those effects.” This school generates some pretty good thinkers. Might as well get them asking the right questions early.

“Why not nurture objective assessment coupled with optimistic will, rather than subjective assessment coupled to pessimistic will?” This quote, from Michael Albert ’69, has helped fill my glass. Albert, expelled for “disruption and insolence” while Undergraduate Association President here, understands that systems, no matter how big or small, are created by humans, and can be changed by them as well. My fraternity pledge trainer once told me, “Make your own traditions.” As far as I can tell, that is the MIT way.

Scientists, while perhaps not the most socially responsible people, are the most rational, and must rationally be in favor of continuing the human experiment as long as possible. Bombs and spaceships do the same thing in different systems, but one’s a better long-term plan.

Maybe that’s what Technology’s all about.