Campus Life

Considering the implications of our inventions

Spending the summer before MIT working in politics

My last summer of high school — before I enter the heavenly gates of MIT (thanks to a certain St. Peter called Stu Schmill and the admissions committee) — has been one gigantic conglomeration of everything I have wanted to do but have otherwise slipped up on during the previous eighteen years of my life.

I worked on my chess game, my philosophy books, and built some neat stuff, but the majority of my summer was spent doing something many would consider very un-MITlike: experiencing the world of politics in order to discover what kind of society we live in. This voyage is particularly important to me, as I should know what kind of people I benefit with the technology I introduce — am I upholding a society that I believe in, or one that holds principles contrary to my own?

This question mainly stems from a comment I made in our MIT Class of 2016 Facebook group, which ran along the lines of: “Well, you all can continue your political debate, I’ll just build new things that will help you have these discussions.”

I still can’t believe I stated that! But to some extent, it’s pretty reflective of the field of science — we do not like to get involved in politics. Our partner school, CalTech, has had only one protest in its history, when NBC threatened to cancel the original Star Trek series.

As for myself, I have spent my life exploring knowledge for knowledge’s sake, collaborating with other people on projects and happily going on my merry way without having to consider the consequences of what I am building or the knowledge I am dispersing, mainly because I was never building a nuclear reactor in my garage (see: Radioactive Boy Scout). However, as my life advances and I am now attending one of the world’s best — if not the best — engineering schools, it is high time that I paused to consider the ramifications of what I could potentially create.

My search for understanding how society functions took me back into the world of my textbooks, my friends and family, my community and my world, researching various aspects of economics, value theory, public policy and who the big players are and why they are so huge. This line of research resulted in my political work; I interned at a local state Republican legislator’s office, where, in addition to putting postage stamps on envelopes and writing the congressman’s name on letters, I researched new legislation or the appropriate stance on various issues. This led to me getting involved in a campaign, where I started volunteering and then became a Junior Field Organizer.

This summer, I have learned a few golden nuggets about why we have an imperfect world. In the end, it all boils down to this: we claim to believe in certain ideals while we live our lives in a different fashion.

One example of this can be found in educational policy. Americans believe, for the most part, that everyone is entitled to a free, public education through the twelfth grade. If everyone goes through public schooling, then every child in a public school should be treated equally in regards to opportunities and funding. Theoretically, public dollars are used to guarantee that every child is being given the same opportunity, and no one student has a leg up on another through the public education system.

In reality, however, schools are funded in drastically different ways; more money and better teachers go to certain schools, while others are left to rot in the dust. Schools in areas with higher minority populations tend to have less funding and do worse overall when it comes to academics than schools in affluent areas with largely white populations. A real-life scenario is my own school district, the Manatee County School District. The local newspaper, the Bradenton Herald, stores school grades going back thirteen years, as well as some vital statistics.

In the high school category, Palmetto, Bayshore, and Southeast are located in largely minority areas that are considered “economically depressed” by our local standards — the rate of students who get free lunches as well as the percentage of minority students are significantly higher than other schools. Braden River, Lakewood Ranch and Manatee are located in very affluent, white areas of the district, with a lower rate of free lunches and a smaller percentage of minority students. You can see the connection to school quality – Palmetto, Bayshore and Southeast have a history of lower grades than the other three schools. There are many factors that contribute to this – greater parental involvement drives greater pressure on the school district to give more to certain schools, the children of big political donors attend certain institutions, etcetera. So, again, while we profess in believing in a free, public education for everyone, this education is not equal on a per-student basis.

Another great example of the gap between idealism and realism is censorship. People generally agree that free speech is a fundamental human right; however, when people hold an opinion which is different from an accepted view, this opinion tends to be stifled.

The concept of content-based censorship has surfaced recently in the Chick-fil-A scandal. The President of Chick-fil-A, Dan Cathy, supported his restaurant’s previously mentioned stance on gay marriage, that marriage should be between a man and a woman. This is controversial for LGBTQ rights groups primarily because Chick-fil-A contributes money to organizations that promote this stance in political arenas. I, personally, do not support their stance and I will never eat at a Chick-fil-A again, regardless of how delicious the chicken is.

This is perfectly fine — if an individual chooses not to support a certain establishment, it is their right to choose to give it their support or deny it. In the case of Chick-fil-A, though, we have mayors of cities (notably Boston and Chicago) banning the establishment from expanding within their areas. In this case, the government is banning a corporation because of their views on an issue. This takes the aspect of choice out of the hands of individuals, and into the hands of government. Is it right for the government to censor Chick-fil-A by banning the spread of their business? In Florida, we still have Ku Klux Klan groups that have meetings, and we are obligated by law not to prevent their organization from, well, organizing.

In essence, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco have told Chick-fil-A that they have no right to incorporate at all in their cities, practically stifling the opposition through force. Where I live, we have a place called the Prism Youth Initiative, where LGBTQ youth can meet and feel safe — what if my city had banned such an organization from even existing within our limits, because it did not agree with the LGBTQ lifestyle? These problems arise when government chooses to stifle opinions. Is it right for the government to choose which groups can meet and which groups cannot? Or is it better for each individual to decide?

So, back to my original question. In essence, we live in a world where borders are, in one sense, rapidly decaying, and in another sense, intensifying. It is important for us, as engineers, to examine the society in which our technologies are being introduced and who can potentially use them for their own gain or to harm others in some way. The term for this line of questioning is commonly known as “The Oppenheimer Question.” J. Robert Oppenheimer lived the rest of his life trying to work for the destruction of what he created — the atomic bomb. He neglected to fully consider the worldwide implications of his creation.

What we develop will help certain groups of people and potentially hurt others. When we develop something new, we could potentially be upholding something that we do not agree with. After all, during World War 2, many of the world’s most brilliant scientists lived in Germany! Regardless of whether they agreed with what was happening or not, their advances in technologies contributed to Germany’s successes. It is necessary for us to examine what we believe in and how to work to reinforce those ideals.

1 Comment
Rob Goodspeed over 10 years ago

Matthew, welcome to MIT and thanks for a thoughtful article. Just a small correction -- no city has banned Chick-fil-A, and legally probably wouldn't be able to. Come check out Course 11 to learn all about the intricacies of local land use regulation!