STS 25th anniversary event celebrates diverse research


The Program in Science, Technology and Society celebrated its 25th anniversary with an Oct. 31 symposium that displayed the depth and innovativeness of its faculty research.

"STS represents the very best of what MIT is all about. As an experiment in how to integrate knowledge across the great learning cultures of science and engineering and the humanities and social sciences, STS was animated from the very start by questions such as: How do we foster true interdisciplinary learning? And how do we treat the ethical issues that surround the production of science and technology?" said Philip S. Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

The celebration featured seven different STS presenters in two sessions. Together they proved that the mandate given to the program a quarter-century ago--to investigate the humanistic aspects of technological society--continues to inspire.

Leo Marx, the Kenan Professor of American Cultural History emeritus, chaired the first session, "Science, Technology and Democracy." Michael M.J. Fischer, professor of anthropology and science and technology studies, chaired the second, "New Directions in STS Studies."

David Kaiser, the Leo Marx Career Development Assistant Professor of the History of Science, charted the birth and development of "big science," a term coined in 1961 for the strategic buildup of physics between the Korean War and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. This buildup, he said, arose from a popular image of physicists as the heroes of World War II and a Cold War strategy to "keep physicists on tap for future generations."

Three "exponential curves" fattened Big Science until its bubble burst in the early 1970s, Kaiser said: post-World War II military and federal funding; a new scale of operation featuring "factory-scale, gargantuan" accelerators and other grand machinery; and a booming graduate student population to inhabit the new labs and run the new machines. Emphasis toward a fast pace of discoveries and away from philosophical concerns were symptoms felt particularly in universities, he said.

Hugh Gusterson, associate professor of anthropology and science and technology studies, underscored the importance of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in public and governmental debates on nuclear technology and nuclear weapons.

"In the construction of vibrant, vital civil society in the United States, NGOs that are focused on the construction of science policy, especially in areas where government secrecy is a real concern, play a vital role," Gusterson said in his talk, "Science, Democracy and Nuclear Weapons."

Joe Dumit, assistant professor of anthropology and science and technology, portrayed the mercurial relations among venture capitalists, corporations, research scientists, doctors, nurses and patients in his talk, "Biopolitics: Participation in Biomedicine."

"In the new venture science, universities are venture capitalists, researchers are professors and owner-founders, and most importantly, good science is good business and good business [is] good science," Dumit said. In addition, a new contractual view of informed consent has created a new entity, the "patient/consumer activist entrepreneur," he said.

Dumit also discussed the ways language itself has been altered through the blurring of scientific and business interests. For example, the word "naturally," as in "the products of research funded by business are naturally their property," has added an "aura of fate" to ownership of research by corporate investors--a relationship in fact far removed from the world of nature or ethics, he noted.

Referring to debates on cost and availability of "biomedicines" for anthrax treatment, Dumit said, "Even the US government treats that ownership relation as 'natural'; even they treat biovaccines as something one has to negotiate with corporations for."


Evelyn Hammonds, associate professor of the history of science and director of the new Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology and Medicine, explored patterns of education and employment of minorities and women in fields once entirely the province of white, native-born males.

"Diversity is a lens through which to study the culture of science, technology and of opportunity itself," she said.

Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze professor of the sociology of science, spoke about the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self, using her own Powerpoint presentation as an example of the evolving relationships between people and technology.

Her research focuses "not on what technology can do for us, but on what it does to us," she said. She explores changing ideas of the self through study of human relations with all genres of technology, including prosthetic devices, robo-pets, brain scans and psychopharmacological drugs.

In "Rationalizing the Countryside," Deborah Fitzgerald, associate professor of the history of technology, discussed her studies of the impact of technology on all the relationships comprising rural life. It was enlivened by slides of American farms in the 1930s and 1940s as well as current high-tech "confinement methods" of hog-raising contrasted with traditional ones in which hogs "lounge around, socialize and wallow together."

Fitzgerald also raised questions for further research into the changing nature of food itself, noting that food has been increasingly medicalized on the one hand ("a banana is not a banana. It's so many units of potassium") and increasingly made into highly processed "ersatz foods" such as Hamburger Helper, macaroni and cheese, and potato buds.

"Ersatz foods" represent an "interesting shift from general industrial to food-processing use of machines, expertise and management systems, as well as from an oversupply of grains and other farm products that can be used as filler," she said.

David Mindell, speaking on "Technology, Archeology and the Deep Sea," used slides of shipwrecks and autonomous underwater vehicles to communicate the excitement of discovery he enjoys. Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, said this excitement is contagious.

"MIT students are always involved in these projects. Whenever I've brought one along, though, they change. One switched majors. The intellectual excitement trumped career uncertainty," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 7, 2001.

Topics: Technology and society, Program in STS

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