Study Materials

Included in this section are e-mails from the instructor to the students in STS.092 Current Events from an STS Perspective, which help to provide insight into class discussions. Also included is one e-mail from a guest instructor to the instructor, summarizing activities from one class meeting.

Wednesday, February 5, 2003 (Rosalind Williams)

As you know, the theme of the seminar is "Current Events from an STS Perspective." I told you to expect a lot of significant events this spring, but I never would have imagined that first one would be the catastrophic loss of the space shuttle Columbia. So it is with a heavy heart that I outline our first discussions and assignments for the class:

Read relevant stories in The New York Times today, and keep reading between now and Wednesday.

Be thinking about: the context of this disaster (its significance coming as it does at this time in history).

Be thinking about: the connections between this event and other events or sociotechnical systems (connections that might illuminate our understanding of what has happened).

In class this coming week I would like each of you to take five minutes (no more, less is OK) to express one idea about the context or connections of the loss of the Columbia. We all have many thoughts and feelings about this; you need to focus on one point that seems especially significant to you.

I will ask each member of the seminar to do some fact-finding during the first week of class on some context or connection of the loss of the Columbia. Here are some suggestions:

  • NASA as a sociotechnical system: how is it managed? what are the main issues in its management?
  • doing science research in space: what are the costs and the benefits?
  • media coverage (TV, on-line, etc.): how did it shape our experience of the event? (note MIT's role in this coverage)
  • the symbolic dimensions of the way the tragedy occurred (debris raining from the sky)
  • the myth of Icarus/Daedalus: do ancient myths help us understand current events?
  • the evolution of astronauts from the "cowboy ethos" of Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" to the suburban ethos of today - have motivations changed? training? who are these people?
  • who was Ron McNair and why does he matter?
  • analogies with the Challenger disaster: what has changed in the context, how is media coverage different this time, how is the meaning of these two events different (and how is it similar)?
  • how do we find "the cause" of this accident? (those of you who read Galison's article last fall should reread it: it's still on the website for STS.069)
  • what are the interesting technical systems questions raised by the space shuttle program? how do we see geopolitics and American policy built into the design of that program?

There are many more connections and contexts to think about but this will give you a start. There will be a brief oral and written report due in the second class based on your fact-finding. This will be the rhythm of the class: reviewing current events to choose the most significant ones, and then reflecting upon them from a "science, technology, and society" interdisciplinary perspective. I hope subsequent events are not so painful to contemplate.

Thursday, February 6, 2003 (Rosalind Williams to Michael Feld)

I left a message with your secretary this morning asking you to contact me at your convenience about the possibility of your coming to my class this coming Tuesday evening. This is a small reading seminar on "Current Events from an STS Perspective." In the first class we talked about the Columbia disaster, and I asked if they knew who Ronald McNair was. No one had heard of him. This bothers me (though of course they were babes when the Challenger was lost). I was hoping I could find someone at MIT who knew Ron personally to come and say a few words about him at the start of the class.

Friday, February 21, 2003 (Rosalind Williams)

Feb. 25. You will have two assignments due:

  1. two-page comment on your dinnertime conversation this past week: one point that especially intrigued you in your discussion

    If you didn't attend the dinner, then just write two pages on some conversation you have had in the past week about current events (in class, out of class, with friends, with faculty, with staff, with the folks back home, whatever): what was said and why it seems important to you.

  2. the usual weekly assignment: two-page comment on some news item you read in the newspaper this past week (bring along a clipping or hard copy of that item)

This time I will have each student read in class the second assignment (the general comment on the news) rather than speaking more or less off the cuff. This will set a de facto time limit on each student and it is also useful for improving your writing (it is amazing how you find things in your own writing, for better or for worse, when you read your work out loud).

It may not be possible to have each student read each week, because we want to reserve class time for other topics and for general discussion. But let's try--

Wednesday, March 12, 2003 (Rosalind Williams)

I forgot to tell you last night that at next week's class (March 18) Tom Hughes will be our guest. He is in town this weekend for a conference on the history of innovation and invention (sponsored by the Lemelson-MIT Program). He will be staying on for a dinner in his honor on Monday night: Tom has just been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the first historian of technology to be named to the NAE, so we are celebrating this happy event. (There will be a story about it in the next issue of Tech Talk.) I asked him to stay over one more night so we could have him back as a guest in class. (Jina, Tom was one of quite a few visitors in the "Technology in a Dangerous World" class this past fall.) This doesn't change your assignments (five two-pagers, plus the title of a book you intend to read and report on) nor will it change the rhythm of the class. I just wanted to alert you so you wouldn't be surprised on Tuesday.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003 (Rosalind Willaims)

I have been thinking more about Matt's two-pager last night and its conclusion (to paraphrase) that "since we have stirred up the hornet's nest we have no choice now but to go to war." In other words Matt argues for historical inevitability based on an argument of technological determinism, i.e. if you have the military "megamachine" (people and weapons) in place, at some point you will have to use it.

What kept me thinking about Matt's argument is Mary McGrory's op-ed in today's New York Times ("First Person Perpendicular," I think it's titled). She contends that all along Cheney in particular has been intent on creating technological "facts on the ground" (as they say in Israel in another context) by building up the military presence in the region just so war would become inevitable. She also contends that all the diplomatic maneuvering we have been watching has been an irrelevant side-show when the real action has been the inexorable build-up of military forces. In other words, we have been following the wrong story--the diplomatic story--when the one that really mattered all along is the military one. Therefore Matt's conclusion ("we have no choice") is based on a conscious human decision to *create* a sense of historical inevitability, through technological means.

Please think some more about technological determinism and historical inevitability as events unfold. Please think also about a rather different interpretation of how history works: this is the one advanced by Leo Tolstoy at the end of his massive novel War and Peace. The main historical event in that novel is Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 as part of Napoleon's years of effort to conquer Europe. Napoleon is the classic "great man of history" but Tolstoy argues that he was swept along by deeper historical forces, that everyone was during the Napoleonic epoch, and that the appearance of human decision-making in these grand events is illusory and deceptive. If anyone among you has read War and Peace recently, so much the better. (I haven't read it for years but mean to take a look at it again soon.)

Tom Hughes and I wanted to discuss this last night but we ran out of time. Let's try to discuss it when we reconvene after spring vacation--as well as much else. Keep taking notes in the meantime--nothing fancy, just enough to store some thoughts that might inspire future writing for this class, not to mention being of interest to your grandchildren.

Have a great time over spring vacation, remembering that springtime and good friends and family ties are enduring values in life whatever happens in history.

Thursday, April 10, 2003 (Robert Crease to Rosalind Williams) (Courtesy of Robert Crease. Used with permission.)

Dear Rosalind:

The class went very well: one paper on depleted uranium, two on the war, two on SARS, one on milk, and one on TDP. Only one person seemed to have read my paper, so we didn't discuss that, but the conversation on their papers was lively. Some things I forgot to mention which you might want to bring up:

  1. SARS, of course, is a subject raising many STS issues. One set which they didn't at first mention but which I did has to do with the laboratories where contagious diseases are studied. It seems important, even a moral duty, to study such diseases--but the neighbors are understandably nervous and frequently try to say it is important, even a moral duty, NOT to study such diseases in their back yards. This will be, I'm convinced, one of the most important STS issues of the 21st century. Somebody--Matt or Dave, I think--mentioned an effort to open a CDC facility in Galveston which was blocked by the mayor, and I mentioned Plum Island's perennial problems. But what I forgot to do was mention Cambridge's own similar struggles, in 1976, with recombinant DNA research-- and the fact that the city council voted to ban such research. You may have already mentioned this close-to-home episode in this class or in last semester's, but I thought you might want to draw the connection.

  2. Several of the papers mentioned risk issues. I'm not sure I stressed as much as I should have the fact that risk is not simply a technical issue, where the answer is out there someplace (hidden or not), but a social issue that is frequently exploited for political reasons. "A risk statement is a godsend to anyone with an agenda," write Gregory and Miller in SCIENCE IN PUBLIC. You may have already made this point.

  3. Gina's paper included an image of a cow tethered to a Jeep. We all laughed good-naturedly at this at the time. I should have pointed out, though, that--a week later--we would all still remember that cow and Jeep. It was a fine image, and a great one to include.

I envy you your intelligent and lively class. Thanks again for the opportunity to participate. And I hope you had a good trip!

Tuesday, April 22, 2003 (Rosalind Williams)

I am going to have to cancel this evening's make-up class because I have still not recovered from the flu. I thought I would be over it by now but it is taking a while to clear up (though fortunately it is a mild case and certainly not SARS!).

If any of you have written a two-pager already for this evening, that's just fine: please turn it into me electronically and it will count as one of the ten two-pagers you need for this class. We will get around to discussing it sometime. Our class next week will follow the usual format, but we also need to discuss end-of-term activities and where-do-we-go-from here.

Please note the quote from Jay Garner in today's Times and Globe: "What we need to do from this day forward is to give birth to a new system in Iraq." "From this day forward" has Lincoln-ian cadences, as does the birth metaphor, but a new system? not a new government or new society? what does this mean and what does it suggest in terms of an STS perspective on the news (is the US into promoting democracy, or systems-building, or what? what is the connection between technology and society implied by Garner's pronouncement?).

I'd also call your attention to the op-ed by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in today's Times. Wolfgang is one of the best cultural historians of technology around these days and is especially interested in the culture of defeat in an age of great disparities in military technologies. He lives a couple blocks from Ground Zero, not incidentally. We'll talk more about this too.