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?
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.