Radius: Bringing Ethics to the Center of Science and Technology
“We are at the point of being overwhelmed by the very bulk of our accumulated information, bewildered by the diversity of our manufactures. And we are failing today to assess clearly the implications of these developments for tomorrow.” Julius Stratton, President of MIT, Commencement Address, 1964
How would automation affect the workplace? How would access to computers shape our minds and our social life? Would we be able to keep up with the rapid changes caused by new technologies? In 1964, as now, MIT faculty were concerned about the effects of their discoveries on the world.
The anxieties seem very modern. Their response seems very 1964. Over 40 faculty members and administrators from across the Institute came together for a monthly seminar on Technology and Culture, convened by the Episcopal Chaplain, Myron B. (Mike) Bloy, Jr. It was a leisurely affair in the Faculty Club: cocktails at 6:30, dinner at 7:00, followed by a presentation and discussion. The first lecture offered a historical example, describing the U.S. Navy’s resistance to using steam-powered ships in the years after the Civil War. Over the next two years, the faculty explored the effects of current technology on politics, markets, the natural environment, art, human values, and the personalities of MIT students.
Chaplain Mike Bloy thought the seminar was a great first step, but he wanted MIT to go further and create a research center devoted to the study of technology and culture. He was not alone. One of the founding members of the Seminar, Professor Jerome Wiesner, Dean of the School of Science, went on to become the President of MIT in 1971. Five years later, he invited Kenneth Keniston to come to MIT and lead a new program in Science, Technology, and Society.
The Technology and Culture Seminar continued to play an active role in bringing the MIT community together to reflect on ethical questions. It became the Technology and Culture Forum in the 1970s, opening up meaningful conversations with students in the midst of the protests against MIT’s role in developing military technology. It responded to emerging questions, including environmental sustainability, economic justice, new biotechnologies, and threats to privacy, by creating public programs and mentoring student activists.
At its 50th anniversary in 2014, the program was rebranded as Radius, with the motto “Bringing ethics to the center of science and technology.” Radius is coordinated by Thea Keith-Lucas, now Interim Chaplain to the Institute and Associate Dean of the Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life. Chaplain Keith-Lucas says, “Radius is one of the key ways that our department lives up to its name as a home for ethical life at MIT.”
Since 2009, Patricia-Maria (Trish) Weinmann, Associate Coordinator of Radius, has partnered with the Department of Philosophy to offer applied ethics courses for undergraduates. With an exciting lineup of guest speakers and discussions over dinner, these William R. and Betsy P. Leitch Ethics Seminars reflect the warm hospitality and lively conversation of those first faculty meetings. Sally Haslanger (Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies) says: “Radius has given me an opportunity to connect with students who are keen to critically examine their own values and to think hard about how to integrate them in their lives. It is especially exciting to see the students engage with professionals – academics and non-academics – who, themselves, are similarly committed, and although a few steps ahead on the journey, are nevertheless open to exploring with us how to live meaningfully.”
For all that is new with Radius, the program still creates a space for MIT faculty to engage with questions about technology and culture.
Professor Jonathan King (Biology, Emeritus) says, “MIT students, staff, and faculty are constantly confronted by pressing national issues that are outside the relatively narrow compass of academic departments. For decades MIT Radius has explored these issues in public forums: patenting human genes, the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon budget, the demise of democracy, fossil fuel divestment, and the need for nuclear disarmament, to name but a few. This contribution to the civic and intellectual life of the Institute community is essential to our efforts to maintain MIT as an environment supporting scientific, social, and economic progress.” Ruth Perry (Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities, Emeritus) adds, “Radius can always be counted on to offer serious factual analyses of the critical issues of the day.”
Professors Haslanger, King, and Perry are three of the nine faculty members who join MIT alumni, students, and administrators on the Radius Steering Committee. The Radius team welcomes new ideas for partnerships and programs with faculty from across the Institute.