Joi Ito: First of all, there’s seats inside if peo­ple are hang­ing out out­side, please come up.

Ethan Zuckerman: Seriously, come on up. There’s a bunch over here. We’d love to have you inside, don’t wor­ry about mak­ing noise. Move inwards. Comply, com­ply. Don’t be disobedient.

Ito: Obey! So as you can imag­ine I’m Joi Ito, Director of the Media Lab.

Zuckerman: And I’m Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media. 

Ito: And so I think you’ve seen from the intro this is going to be a pret­ty inter­est­ing day. At the Media Lab we often talk about being anti-disciplinary. And part of being anti-disciplinary is all of the amaz­ing con­nec­tions that get made through serendip­i­ty and oth­er things. And so as we were putting togeth­er the pro­gram, we start­ed invit­ing all kinds of peo­ple that might be rel­e­vant to this dis­cus­sion. But as they start­ed to come togeth­er these amaz­ing con­nec­tions started. 

And so I’ll give you one arc that I have, but I think as you watch the pre­sen­ta­tions through the day, I would chal­lenge you to try to see how these things are con­nect­ed. And some of you might have missed the first video, but it was about the let­ters from Albert Einstein to Gene Sharp that Jamila found. And I brought the let­ters to Gerald Holton, who you saw on the video who’s here in the front row, and he told me this inter­est­ing sto­ry, which was that when Pope John Paul II— He had a sci­ence com­mit­tee which, they were look­ing at Einstein, a non-believer. And so the ques­tion was, this non-believer seems to be say­ing all these amaz­ing things and seems to be say­ing smart things. And could a non-believer actu­al­ly be a thing? 

And so the Pope cre­ates a com­mit­tee which includes a Jewish per­son, a Protestant, and a Catholic. And they go out and they come back and they say to the Pope, Actually you know, this non-believer actually…he’s a thing.” And so then what hap­pens, and this actu­al­ly kicks off Pope John Paul the II’s more famous ini­tia­tive, which was to inves­ti­gate Galileo and to look at this long-running argu­ment about the role and the val­ue of Galileo’s work. Which leads to the 1999 October exon­er­a­tion of Galileo. And then we have Father Eric and Maria Zuber lat­er today talk­ing about the rela­tion­ship between faith and sci­ence. And so they’ll talk about Galileo. But it’s inter­est­ing to see this arc from Einstein to Galileo.

And also, this was in the video, but Einstein was a huge fan of Gandhi. He was a paci­fist. And this is a con­ver­sa­tion that Reid and I had when we were talk­ing about whether to put non­vi­o­lence as one of the key cri­te­ria of the award. Because many stu­dents and many peo­ple say no you— This is always thing thing. It’s the Hitler thing. It’s like well, non­vi­o­lence worked against the British because they would come up and have tea, but it would not have worked against Nazi Germany. And I think that’s what Einstein felt at the time, even though he was a strict believ­er in paci­fism he threw him­self behind the war effort and helped devel­op the atom bomb. And then, as we know, and this gets very close to MIT, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists come out and a lot of peo­ple feel ter­ri­ble for hav­ing helped cre­ate the atom bomb. 

And so there’s this inter­est­ing soul-searching, and we have Gregory Pascal com­ing up, who is the lead­ing biog­ra­ph­er of Vannevar Bush. So even at MIT we have sort of the war effort, we have peo­ple like Norbert Wiener after the war writ­ing let­ters say­ing, You know, if you’re going to use my cyber­net­ics to con­trol mis­siles, screw you. I’m not send­ing you my paper. I know you can get it else­where but I’m just going to cre­ate fric­tion.” So there’s this kind of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence by the sci­en­tists. And so MIT’s always had this inter­est­ing strug­gle between do we do work for the war, but the dual-use of this tech­nol­o­gy is going to help the war any­way, and should sci­en­tists be respon­si­ble for the work or should they not? So this has been a very long, ongo­ing conversation.

But the inter­est­ing thing is that now we have cli­mate. We have biol­o­gy. It’s not just the war effort. And is your work con­tribut­ing to the prob­lem or is it con­tribut­ing to the solu­tion? And in com­plex envi­ron­ments it’s some­times hard to tell. So we have for instance, today we have Ed You from the FBI, whose job is to pro­tect the world from bio­log­i­cal acci­dents. But he’s reach­ing out to the bio­hack­ers and bring­ing them togeth­er. So sort of how do we deal with the role of sci­en­tists in this?

During the Inquisition— I feel bad because Friar Eric looks like an inquisi­tor here. But dur­ing the Inquisition, being a sci­en­tist was kind of a lethal thing if you said the wrong thing. And so in a lot of nom­i­na­tions, where peo­ple who were lit­er­al­ly at risk of death being dis­obe­di­ent, it seems like being dis­obe­di­ent today as a sci­en­tist isn’t as risky. But, instead of the Inquisition what we have is…government. We have the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, We have things like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, that can take legit­i­mate researchers and throw them in jail for near­ly for­ev­er, and treat them as crim­i­nals even though what they’re doing is a thought­ful, sci­en­tif­ic inquiry. And we have Julia Reda, who is one of the youngest mem­bers of the Pirate Party, who is fight­ing for copy­right by try­ing to elim­i­nate these hor­ri­ble laws that are being devel­oped in Germany that impede on sci­en­tif­ic research.

So it’s still a lit­tle safer now than it prob­a­bly was dur­ing the Inquisition to be a sci­en­tist, but it’s still not safe. And so I think what’s inter­est­ing about this this day is we’re talk­ing about defi­ance but we’re also talk­ing about all of the dif­fer­ent things that are con­nect­ed togeth­er. And I’m going to hand it off to Ethan, who who can maybe talk a lit­tle bit more about how he thinks about this.

Zuckerman: Sure. Well, first wel­come every­body. We’re so hap­py to have you here and I just want to encour­age more peo­ple at the back to come in and fill in. There’s a lot of space over there.

One of the big ques­tions we’ve both been receiv­ing sort of lead­ing up to this event is about the tim­ing. And I actu­al­ly just want to be very clear that we were defi­ant before being defi­ant was cool. This con­fer­ence is not in fact a reac­tion to the elec­tion of Donald Trump. We were work­ing on this con­fer­ence as soon as we put on last year’s con­fer­ence on for­bid­den research last July. And we start­ed think­ing about this ques­tion of what are oth­er forms of defi­ance and dis­obe­di­ence where we real­ly want to think deeply about when does it make sense to push against the rules and the stric­tures and the oth­er things that pro­hib­it us from tak­ing cer­tain behav­iors for soci­etal good. And what are the moments where we actu­al­ly want to push back and try to do some­thing very different.

That said, these are some inter­est­ing times. And it has real­ly forced us to think about this con­cept of dis­obe­di­ence with the Prize, this con­cept of defi­ance, while look­ing at a real­ly inter­est­ing moment in American his­to­ry and in world his­to­ry. So my work these days real­ly focus­es on this ques­tion of what does it mean to be a cit­i­zen? What does it mean to be engaged in civic action, whether or not you have cit­i­zen­ship? What does it mean to be a mem­ber of soci­ety try­ing to make effec­tive change? 

And part of what’s real­ly inter­est­ing about this at the moment is that most peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly young peo­ple, don’t have a lot of faith in insti­tu­tions. They’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly excit­ed about this idea that we go to the polls, we elect rep­re­sen­ta­tives, those rep­re­sen­ta­tives speak for us and that is how change hap­pens. And in fact what’s sort of going on instead is we’re liv­ing in a world where there’s a lot of very vocal and pow­er­ful insur­rec­tion­ists. People who are basi­cal­ly say­ing the sys­tems that we have are not fair, they’re not work­ing well, we need to find a way of get­ting out of those sys­tems. And a lot of my research has been about activists. Has been about peo­ple try­ing to say the way things aren’t work­ing isn’t work­ing very well, it’s time for a rad­i­cal change.

But then some­thing real­ly inter­est­ing hap­pened. We had a rad­i­cal change. Not just in the United States. We also a rad­i­cal change in the UK with Brexit. We’ve had a num­ber of peo­ple stand­ing up and say­ing, Alright, it’s time for the insur­rec­tion­ists to real­ly take pow­er. It’s time for a change of sorts.” And now you have peo­ple essen­tial­ly say­ing, Wait, wait. Is this actu­al­ly what we want­ed?” My favorite tweet of the last year is a friend of mine, a life­time activist, who tweet­ed out, Me in 2016: Smash every­thing. Me in 2017: No no no no no, not like that.” Not like that. 

And so we find our­selves look­ing at this idea of change and this idea of insur­rec­tion, and real­iz­ing at the same time that we des­per­ate­ly need insti­tu­tions. That insti­tu­tions are what hold us togeth­er, that make it pos­si­ble to have a func­tion­ing soci­ety. And this set of ten­sions between insti­tu­tion­al­ism and insur­rec­tion­ism has real­ly chal­lenged us to sort of think about who is it that we want to hon­or here on stage. And we want to hon­or the peo­ple both who found ways to say, Look, these sys­tems aren’t work­ing for us. We real­ly need to step out­side of them and do some­thing rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent.” But also to hon­or the peo­ple who have stayed with­in insti­tu­tions and tak­en real­ly brave steps and actions to make sure that those insti­tu­tions live up to their val­ues and to their high­er pur­pose, not just to the rules behind them.

And for Joi and me think­ing about how we build our labs, how we build the Media Lab, how we affect the MIT com­mu­ni­ty, we also find our­selves thing about this ques­tion of what does it mean to build insti­tu­tions that are disobedience-resilient. How do you build an insti­tu­tion that makes it pos­si­ble for peo­ple to stand up and make the argu­ment that what they’re doing is fight­ing for val­ues, not just fight­ing for the rule set.

So you’re going to meet some amaz­ing peo­ple today who are find­ing ways to be defi­ant both inside and out­side of sys­tems. You going to meet my friend Adam Foss, who is tak­ing on I think one of the most bro­ken insti­tu­tions in American soci­ety, which is the role of the pros­e­cu­tor. And as a for­mer Suffolk County pros­e­cu­tor, Adam is inter­est­ed in this idea that this can be a role that’s not about increas­ing incar­cer­a­tion, but it can be a role that’s about increas­ing jus­tice and look­ing for ways to help peo­ple find just out­comes, not just increase the num­ber of peo­ple are who are going to be in prison.

You going to meet some tru­ly extra­or­di­nary peo­ple who are the win­ners and the runners-up for the Disobedience Prize, whose work is some­times out­side the sys­tem, some­times with­in the sys­tem, some­times with­in very pow­er­ful institutions. 

And when you meet with these incred­i­bly inspir­ing women—and most of them are women. But some men. There’s some inspir­ing men as well but it just hap­pens that we’ve end­ed up rec­og­niz­ing some extra­or­di­nary women in the prize— I want to chal­lenge you to think about both the roles of extra­or­di­nary and ordi­nary indi­vid­u­als. When we think about social change, we tend to think about a fig­ure like Gandhi. We tend to think about a fig­ure like Martin Luther King, Jr. But in many ways we’re sim­pli­fy­ing his­to­ry. We’re going back and tak­ing giant, com­pli­cat­ed, messy move­ments and we’re bring­ing them down to the sto­ries of one or two peo­ple who we remem­ber. And in almost every change, defi­ance doesn’t hap­pen alone. It hap­pens with­in a com­mu­ni­ty, it hap­pens with­in sys­tems of sup­port. And it hap­pens not just from the peo­ple whose names we remem­ber and rec­og­nize, it hap­pens from lots of ordi­nary peo­ple get­ting togeth­er and say­ing, We think this is wrong and we have to do it differently.”

Our friend Megan Smith gave every­one a copy of the Declaration of Sentiments, the 1848 doc­u­ment which is prob­a­bly the sem­i­nal doc­u­ment in the women’s rights move­ment. And this is a doc­u­ment that we remem­ber because it’s authored by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We remem­ber that Frederick Douglass was the first to print it. You may have heard of Frederick Douglass, he’s a guy who’s get­ting a lot of atten­tion these days in recog­ni­tion for what he’s done.

But it was also a doc­u­ment signed by a hun­dred peo­ple, signed by sixty-seven women, thirty-three men, whose names we may not remem­ber but who were part of that act of dis­obe­di­ence and defi­ance of declar­ing that women were peo­ple and enti­tled to the equal rights asso­ci­at­ed with it.

And so what we want to chal­lenge you to think about today is ordi­nary and extra­or­di­nary. To think about where in your life, where in the insti­tu­tions, the sys­tems, the issues that you work on, you’re com­pelled to think about dis­obe­di­ence and com­pelled to think about the defiance. 

So I’m so glad that you joined us today. It should be an absolute­ly won­der­ful day. We’re thrilled to have you here.

Ito: And could I just say one last thing?

Zuckerman: Absolutely.

Ito: To riff on your point about insti­tu­tions. The video start­ed out with images of the McCarthy days. And I won’t say we’re there yet, but you have to remem­ber that in the 40s and 50s it was a dec­la­ra­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic free­doms. It was when tenure… The rea­son why— (I see some of our tenured fac­ul­ty here.) The rea­son why you have tenure was because aca­d­e­mics want­ed to pro­tect free speech and the abil­i­ty to say what they want­ed with­out fear of ret­ri­bu­tion. And that’s one of the rea­sons why we have aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions and the protections.

Maria Zuber, who you’ll meet on a pan­el lat­er, she’s the Vice President of research. She’s a Trump-appointed head of the sci­ence com­mit­tee. And so she’s part of the sys­tem as you can get in sci­ence, but the fact that MIT pro­vides us the abil­i­ty to have this con­ver­sa­tion is a tremen­dous asset that we need to use prop­er­ly and that I think on both sides is tremen­dous­ly important.

So I think that in the good days we for­get that the rea­son that aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions are designed the way they are is to be able to have these kinds of con­ver­sa­tions in a safe” envi­ron­ment, and to be able to say what we think with­out fear. And so hope­ful­ly that will be very evi­dent through the con­ver­sa­tions that we have today.

Zuckerman: And we’re going to get off stage and bring Farai back before we remem­ber the oth­er nine things we want to tell you about today’s events and the peo­ple that we want to see. Thanks so much.

Farai Chideya: Thank you, gen­tle­men. Thank you Ethan and Joi. And now we’re going to move onto a theme of rebel sci­en­tist. And we’ve got G. Pascal Zachary, a man who I got to spend some time with last night who has a very wry sense of humor as well as a sharp mind. And he is the author Endless Frontier a biog­ra­phy of Vannevar Bush, who was an orga­niz­er of the Manhattan Project. He’s a pro­fes­sor of prac­tice in the School for the Future of Innovation and Society at Arizona State University. Welcome. 

Further Reference

Defiance video archive


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