Addicted To Strangelove
Rush is nearly over. Next week classes start and the work begins. Has orientation prepared you for MIT? You’ll find out, I guess. Of all the things I was told during orientation -- or for that matter, during my four years as an undergrad -- I would have liked to learn about MIT’s real-world function. If we as students are going to be a part of this institution, we should have some sense of MIT’s history, its relations with the government and industry, and the end products of all our research and hard work.
But I was never told any of this; I have a suspicion that you weren’t told either. Apart from the occasional billboard on the walls that recollects some great discovery at MIT or a distinguished faculty member, it’s hard for an MIT student to step back and get a sense of MIT’s true function. There are no required classes about MIT for incoming freshmen. The Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program may have such classes, but they are certainly not as well promoted as they could be.
Indeed, there is a “good” reason why MIT’s extensive ties to the military-industrial complex are never fully discussed. Enrollment might dip a little if on the admissions applications it were written, “MIT: Where the smart kids make smarter bombs.” Alumni donations might suffer, too, if MIT were still known as “The Second Pentagon.” Yet this is the truth, and nobody needs security clearance to discover this. It’s simply not self-preserving for an institution like MIT to talk about such things.
Students should understand the ultimate purposes of their education and research. MIT has historically been the leading university recipient of DOD funding in the nation. During the Vietnam War, MIT research included work on MIRVs (warheads), guidance systems, helicopters, and ABMs. As the anti-war movement grew, student protest at MIT focused on the elimination of all war-related research at the Institute. A favorite target of protest was Draper Laboratories, a military research facility run by MIT and located just two blocks from campus. MIT has relinquished formal control over Draper since then, though the Institute and lab have maintained close ties. Lincoln Laboratories is another MIT-run research facility for DOD. It draws in a tremendous amount of money for the Institute. Needless to say, the administration is keen on keeping Lincoln Laboratories.
Earlier this summer, the U.S. government threatened to take control of Lincoln Labs away from MIT if the administration did not pressure a certain professor into taking de-classified information off of the Internet. Whether or not the administration caves in, this is but one example of how our dependency on military funding can impede research.
Overt demands on a university are not the only ways to influence what can and can’t be done here. The very nature of the funding sources themselves also limits the scope of research. It’s not likely that DOD will fund research it can’t use for military purposes. Faculty must necessarily change the focus of their research if they want the DOD contracts. When the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) first reared its ugly head under Reagan, concerned professors and scientists signed a petition to protest the idiocy. Some universities got as much as 90% of their faculty to sign. Only 50% of MIT faculty signed the petition. Professors said they couldn’t sign because of the government funding they were receiving.
Another problem with the military research conducted at MIT is the amount of separation we have from the end product. Research is separated from the manufacture and operation of the technology developed here. Engineers, after all, don’t push the button, they simply give the button its devastating capabilities. What’s more, only parts of the system are researched by a group.
Students and faculty don’t develop bombs and fighter jets, they develop guidance programs and radar systems. The pieces come together only at a Raytheon or a Honeywell and are employed many miles away from campus.
Right now I’m thinking of the Bob Dylan song “Who killed Davy Moore?” Throughout the song, people are explaining why they aren’t responsible for the death of Davy Moore, a boxer. The referee, the manager, the fans -- no one is to blame. By the end of the song you get a feeling that everyone is to blame. So it is with the global political system, too. You can’t lay it all on one wacky nutjob in the White House, or even on the corporate interests controlling him. As one of the government’s prime sources of brain power, we are just as complicit in the current state of the world, if not more so. We are the beginning of technology. It comes out of our heads, it’s produced by the corporations, it’s utilized by the military and it rains down upon the developing nations of the world. Be it napalm, missile systems, or genetically modified foodstuffs, we, in the intellectual community sense, have a large hand in world destruction.
Our job is not yet done. Bush’s campaign for a missile defense system will likely provide more DOD money to MIT in the coming years. Lincoln Labs is already hard at work on making the impossible possible. If we are focused solely on bringing money to the Institute, well then missile defense it is.
If, however, we can question what MIT’s purpose is, if we can debate the merits of military research at MIT, and decide as a community that some technology is just wrong, then the government will probably just take Lincoln Labs away from MIT and give it to some university that will agree to develop the technology. They’ll probably give it to Harvard.
I have left out many things, including the influence of corporations on academia. That will have to wait for another time. In the meantime, here are some simple things you can do to make your community and the world a safer place while you’re at MIT. Find out who is funding your research, and who is writing and publishing the books you’re made to read. What kind of corporate or military ties does your professor have? Find out the ends to which your work will be applied. Will your research be used to kill or to preserve life?
And decide for yourself whether those applications are acceptable.