I encounter students every day who yearn for integrity. It’s their number one desire for themselves,” says Amy McCreath, MIT’s Episcopal chaplain, who, as coordinator of MIT’s Technology and Culture Forum, is helping to create an environment for students and others to uphold ethical behavior.
The forum is a lecture series that examines the ethical and societal implications of science and technology, and strives to bring positive change into the world. The forum was launched 41 years ago and is the only ongoing, Institute-wide arena for ethical issues to be discussed. About 16 lectures are held each year, which are open not only to the MIT community but also to the general public. From 50 to 1,000 attend each session.
“We look for topics that other groups aren’t discussing, either because it’s too controversial or because they haven’t thought of it,” McCreath says, adding that recent popular subjects include: weapons development and military policy, sustainable development, and bioethics.
A 19-member committee of faculty, students, and alumni plan each lecture. The team chooses current topics that affect people’s lives, and also chooses ones that fall across departmental lines.
One recent forum featured Jeff Hawkins, who invented the Palm Pilot. Hawkins explained his theory of how a new understanding of the brain will lead to the creation of truly intelligent machines, and he discussed why he believes this has significant, positive implications for education and society.
Another session brought together a panel of journalists and political scientists to examine the Media and the Election, asking the question: Is Our Democracy Working? Some say that the emergence of the Internet and the multiplication of TV channels — because of cable and satellite technology — have fundamentally changed American politics. This panel examined the 2004 presidential election and how new technologies enable new forms of fundraising and political activism.
Upcoming this spring is a three-part program on the future of food, which will include events on new models for agricultural production, food scarcity, and innovations in food production. Also in the works is a four-part series on religion in the 21st century, which will explore Islam and women’s rights, the meaning of religious terrorism, the rise of fundamentalism, and religion and the American media. Also planned for the upcoming calendar are events focused on civil rights on campus and the future of water.
McCreath believes deeply in the value of the project.
“It’s important because in order for us to make progress — to enact laws that are just and to move towards a sustainable peace — there needs to be personal transformation on behalf of the people and their institutions,” she says. “The real transformation requires not just a change of policies but also a change of heart. People in leadership positions need to rethink what they do.
“The forums get a conversation going about the ethical issues happening in the world and allows scientists and technologists to think about how they want to do that work, and to commit to it in a way that will bring positive changes into our lives.”
REASON TO HOPE
McCreath’s dream for the program, which is funded mainly by donations, is to reach more people, especially more undergraduates; to further develop the website as an educational resource (http://web.mit.edu/tac/); and to use the talks as a vehicle to promote justice, peace, and human dignity.
Already, one spin-off of the project is Just Desserts, a program being developed jointly by the Technology and Culture Forum and MIT’s Public Service Center. The goal is to bring together 30 students at each session to reflect on their learning experiences and to create a forum for them to articulate their values and commitments.
“People are aware that there’s a real crisis in the world because of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and greater awareness of AIDS and poverty,” McCreath says. “They know that the predominant paradigm of the 90s isn’t working.
“Sometimes students say, ‘Why be a moral person when the problems are so big?’ The forum tells them, you have reason to hope. By offering to them mentors and role models who are doing good work, it is telling them important stories of what’s possible for a better future.”