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Infinitely Different

A Look Back at Eight Years at MIT

Kevin R. Lang

The Infinite Corridor looked decidedly finite the other day. Countless times since I first arrived in the fall of ’98 have I walked the Infinite, but last week for the first time I thought it rather short after all. This realization was surely fostered by my recent tendency toward reminiscence and reflection; I am graduating today, for the third and final time – may I be struck down from on high if I return for an MBA. Since turning in the final, acid-free copies of my Ph.D. thesis I have had plenty of time to look back on my eight years here.

MIT was changing fast before I arrived; a year prior, the Institute’s about-face on its attitude toward alcohol forever changed the campus culture. No more Work Hard, Party Harder. Almost the moment I arrived for Rush, the housing system was thrown into turmoil that is only now settling down. Nearly every administrator from my early years here is long gone. The Stata Center, Simmons Hall (my home for four years as a GRT), the Z Center, the new BCS building (whatever it is called – who can keep track of its several names), the Warehouse, Sidney-Pacific – all these were conceived and built in my time here. I thought as an undergrad, “It will be really nice to come back in a few years and see everything when it is finished.” Today I realize I will return to an orderly, intact campus only at some grey-haired reunion, if then.

Not that the world outside MIT has stagnated; the changes here seem trivial at best in comparison to those beyond the campus.

My first two years here were such a remarkable time of hope and optimism: America was at peace, terrorism was something that happened in other countries, the economy was booming, graduates were deciding between multiple job offers with obscene signing bonuses, and all seemed right with the world. It was a great time to be young, a time of limitless possibility, like much of the ’90s. So what happened? That is, aside from the 2000 election, the imploding bubble, 9/11, the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, global warming, the impending world energy crisis, and the outsourcing/downsizing of millions of high-paying, skilled U.S. jobs. After growing up in the ’90s, living in a world that seemed to be headed in the right direction, it’s a strange feeling to lie awake at night genuinely worried about what the future might hold.

And that, my fellow graduates, is where we come in. The Greatest Generation is living it up in Palm Beach; they did their part. The Baby Boomers (our parents) have really made a fine mess of things – don’t believe me? Look who is running the country; look who is driving all those SUVs; look who decided to ship all those high-tech, formerly-high-paying jobs to China and India. As for Generation X, can we really count on a generation of slackers?

No, my fellow Gen-Yers, or Echo Boomers, or Millennials, or whatever the hell we are called, it is up to us. We are the ones who must be smart enough and tough enough to solve the world’s energy problems, tackle global climate change, put some life back in the U.S. economy (record corporate profits at the expense of jobs and wages does not constitute life), and generally make things right again. Call me selfish, but I want that same wonderful feeling I last had at the start of the millennium.

I know my time here is through because all too often I find myself saying fogey-ish things, sentences that begin with, “Back when I was an undergrad,” or “That’s not the way things used to be.” I always hated That Guy when I was an undergrad, and I really don’t want to become That Guy any more than I already have. Sometimes, though, I wonder if That Guy was right all along. I wonder if the people and culture that turned the Massachusetts Institute of Technology into MIT still exist – this is not the MIT of five years ago, let alone twenty-five years ago. Even in my geologically-insignificant time here, this place has gotten much, much cooler. Where are all the nerds? Certainly they must still exist, somewhere, but if MIT is getting less nerdy, what hope is there for the world?

Please, my fellow graduates, I beg of you, prove me wrong. Tell me you’ve been acting cool, putting on airs, but deep down you’re as nerdy as they come, and you can’t wait to take on the huge problems facing the future – our future.

Kevin R. Lang was editor-in-chief of The Tech in 2002.