Do we bridge the divide?

In the recently published book, Educated, Tara Westover writes about her experience of how education exposed to her immensity of the world after having grown up in an isolated community with her family. As a child growing up in Idaho, she never saw a doctor and didn’t learn about the Holocaust or the civil rights movement until college. Our perception of the world is filtered by what (we think) we know. Besides formal education, our knowledge can come from observation, experience, friends, family, and media. Of those, media is what private individuals and organizations can control. The power to control what we think is the reason that Maggie Hughes, a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, believes “media has an immense amount of power”.

That power has been twisted and abused worldwide, leading to the popularly used term fake news. Although still rampant, knowledge of its prevalence is spreading through stories about Russia, China, climate change, the alt-right, online advertisements, and much more. One way to defend against misinformation is to know who publishes it. An analysis from 2018 by ad fontes media plots news source by partisanship and factfulness. Although one may disagree on exactly what source is considered neutral, it shows that as partisanship increases, so does fabricated information.

Source: ad fontes media

Another way to blunt the effects of disinformation is to encourage self-reflection of biases. Maggie works in the Laboratory for Social Machines which has the mission to “conduct analyses and build tools that promote deeper learning and understanding in human networks”. This results in projects such as the Electome, which analyzed Twitter for the popularity of campaign issues during the 2016 election, and Social Mirror, an interactive visualization to help twitter users identify the political polarization of their network. A third way to fight fake news is to change how news is made. Maggie has been working on a project to enable communities to create their own news and take control of their portrayal in the media. She hopes that this will build empathy between social groups that might be suspicious of each other.

At the same time, she’s “skeptical about the desire to bridge or to bring people together [because] … what’s the halfway point between moral and immoral”. Maggie clarified that statement, “not to say everyone on the right is immoral”, which was reminiscent of Hilary Clinton’s comment describing Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. The sentiment of finding the halfway point echoes the concept of journalistic objectivity. It’s important to show both sides of the story, but if one is clearly wrong, it doesn’t deserve equal credibility.

When thinking about the oft-discussed social divisions in the United States today, one question to ask is, what are we fundamentally divided on? Is it something irreconcilable like slavery was in the 19th century, which was one cause for the American Civil War? Or, is it a litany of issues including immigration, equal rights for women/minorities/LGBTQ, taxes, economic opportunity, and anti-establishmentism? Are our dividing issues something that we could discuss and work together towards an agreeable outcome? If not, what’s next?

Asking ethical and moral questions in bio-inspired design

The young woman on the subway holds a pair of tweezers. She looks at the seat next to her at a wad of chewed up gum. She glances furtively, then grabs the gum with the tweezers, which she drops with her gloved hands into a small plastic bag.

Once off of the train, she stops at a trash can in the subway station. She collects a hair from the rim of the can, placing it in another bag. She grabs a cigarette butt off the street.

Later, in a lab, she extracts DNA from the samples and analyzes the genetic material for traits. Caucasian, female. She uses the information to create a three-dimensional model of the stranger. Soon the wide blue eyes and slightly amused expression of a woman’s face is staring back at her from the computer screen.

This biologically inspired art by Heather Dewey-Hagborg highlights the ethical and moral concerns in using genetic material to surveil, and profile people. Two years after “Stranger Visions’ was completed, the Toronto police used DNA technology to try and solve cold cases, and another company started marketing genetic identification tools to police in the U.S.

Do we have dominion over nature, or it over us? This is a question fundamental to those working in bio-inspired design projects, said Wakanene Sebastian Kamau , an artist and scientist working at MIT’s MediaLab.

“I think that we, as humans, forget that nature is an integral part of our experience on earth, not something just to have dominion over,” Sebastian said.

Should we make leather goods from human tissue grown from biological samples?  It’s legal currently to do so, a fact exposed in Pure Human by artist Tina Gorjanc.

Designers like Gorjanc push our understanding of the dilemmas associated with biotechnology. For a biochemist like Sebastian, Gorjanc’s and Dewey-Hagborg are asking vital questions. “(It’s) a speculative project that explores the future of fashion and the frank unpreparedness of our current legal infrastructure to handle the current and future suite of biotechnology products,” Sebastian said.

Synthetic biology — the human engineering of biological processes — will likely shape the future of design. The microbiome, the vast community of microbes that inhabit our bodies and world, is influencing design of building materials, our homes and cosmetics.

“Collaborative engagement with biology through design is an on-going recalibration of our status as species within nature,”  Sebastian said.

How do we choose to live?

Mechanical engineering student Seiji Engelkemier has faced many choices of what projects to work on, but since 2011 the influence of climate change predictions on his decisions seems ever-growing. Such considerations do not leave those decisions any easier to make. On the contrary: Seiji, like many of his generation, is caught between paradoxical ideals, and at each step of shaping his life has to ask: is it possible for my work to focus on societal needs without losing its transformative vision? As international order erodes into the rising seas, is it possible to balance the potential of a project with its feasibility in the world, or the potential of a career with its suitability for me?

Where do you decide to make a survivable world?

Seiji first encountered reports of global warming while in middle school, watching An Inconvenient Truth on pay-per-view; at the time he was surprised he hadn’t heard of global warming on the news, and did not imagine then the extent to which it would guide his later interests. He found more to read on the topic and discussed climate change with a father interested in the technical challenges and novel technologies more than in the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Seiji then went to a residential private high school where he accelerated his readings on climate change but didn’t find many conversations on campus addressing it at a global scope; the school’s sustainability group, for example, was concerned mostly with local recycling.

Who can make a survivable world?

As a student at MIT, however, Seiji did find those global conversations, and followed some of them along branches that left the realm of technological solutions. In looking to the environmental consequences of diet he decided to become mostly (“like 95%”) vegetarian. In labs and internships he helped develop new technologies: he used optical fibers to grow algae more quickly (turning atmospheric CO2 into food), and made mushroom-grown materials to replace styrofoam, leather, and rubber foam. In groups of students, including the organization pressuring MIT’s endowment to divest from fossil fuel companies, Seiji joined discussions of how political decisions made by public institutions could determine feasibility or infeasibility of a technically perfect solution. This awareness that perhaps more of the problems underpinning climate change were political than were technical led Seiji to design visualizations of MIT’s funding sources, and to build a database of power plants for evaluating policy impacts.

What need you do to make a survivable world?

But while he recognizes the necessity of politics, Seiji feels that his next job will stay on the technological side because that’s where his skills and patiences are. (“I’m not the type of person for that [policy] work.”) He’s considering startups but also applying to graduate schools this semester, so I ask him how he’s evaluating the projects he visits: is he really comparing the environmental consequences he could have in each one? In a haha-but-serious tone Seiji says he prioritizes short-term impacts over long-term ones, proposing “a Net Present Value model of carbon abated”. But, I ask, it’s not like you’re going in sequence through Project Drawdown’s sorted list of impactful solutions and sending out job applications, right? It turns out he had a class project on refrigeration because it was at the top of that list – but no, he generally feels he’s read enough he can trust his gut to make informed decisions rather than doing the calculations by hand. How much does he value finding projects through which to express this internalized insight over those (like refrigeration) with a potentially larger effect but not much room for transformative creativity? For incremental technologies like refrigeration, Seiji says, more people besides him can and are working on it; for him it always comes back to “how good I think I could be at [these projects], how good I think everyone else is at them” and how many others are already working on them.

How do you start making a survivable world?

Seiji, like many of his generation, expects himself to do the analysis of what everyone else is already doing and balance it against his potential contribution to an overarching societal goal. This analysis can be a burden; Seiji’s plan to invest 5-6 years in graduate school is informed by being “pretty sure we’re gonna overshoot 2 degrees” of global warming (the temperature rise at which, among other things, 98% of the world’s coral is expected to die). “My generation and the next generation are responsible for whether humans can make it; and we probably will, but as to whether that is a bleak future or a kind of better future, I think my generation will be largely responsible.” He says that sometimes that’s pretty depressing, but laughs and adds that the depression “is also motivating: ‘Oh, things aren’t going well’ means there’s all the more incentive to work harder and try to make it less bad.” Of course, this “sense of urgency/worry/stress pushes you, gives you drive, but it’s not necessarily sustainable mentally.”

When can we start making a survivable world?

Reflecting after our conversation, it seems to me that Seiji’s “from each according to their ability”-style choices have been made in a life where his understanding of and orientation towards climate change are seen always as a personal duty, where it is considered each individual’s responsibility to understand the entire world and change it despite the malices and negligences of our political institutions. This trap of individual responsibility and collective impotence is, I feel, a precise target of the Green New Deal. It asks of us “When can we start making a survivable world and how?”, then answers itself with a loud and public “Now, here’s how.” Whether or not it passes in any useful form, acting on the realization we can say such things powerfully, clearly, and together could transform some of these impossible ideals imposed on our individual decisions into a collective analytical ability to make a better world, or at least a survivable one.

Love Thy Neighbor? The Politics of Hydropower in New England

Thanks to Jason Dearen for his guidance and expertise in researching this post!

In 2016, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker passed signature energy diversity legislation to increase the state’s reliance on renewables, specifically hydro and wind power. The law requires Massachusetts to solicit long-term contracts, 15 or 20 years, to procure 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power and another 1,200 megawatts of hydropower or other renewable resources. Massachusetts regulators began a RFP process in 2017, collecting 5 bids from utility companies hoping to bring Canadian hydropower to Boston.

Graphic of the proposed line from The Portland Press Herald

The policy benefits are clear: Between the retirement nuclear plants, decline of coal, and push for renewable sources of power for the significant needs of the Boston grid (especially during the Winter), the bill aims to provide a generation of Massachusetts residents with clean power. To put it plainly, the bill provides some indisputable economic (and environmental) benefits to Massachusetts residents.

In January 2018 Massachusetts regulators announced that Eversource’s Northern Pass had won the contract and would bring power from Hydro-Quebec dams to Boston via New Hampshire. However, by March 2018, political uncertainty in New Hampshire around the status of the project led regulators to announce that they had revoked their Northern Pass offer, and instead chosen Central Maine Power’s New England Clean Energy Connect to route Hydro-Quebec power through Maine. The only catch? CMP needs to get the power from the Canada-Maine border to their existing power lines along the coast.

Despite the clear economic benefits in Mass, like New Hampshirites, many Mainers are also opposed to the project. Why? Objections to the proposal generally fall in three categories:

  1. It will disrupt the northern Maine ecotourism industry (specifically whitewater rafting on the Kennebec river)
  2. It will disrupt the delicate ecology of the Kennebec river
  3. There is no economic benefit to Maine residents
Image of an anti-CMP flyer. From The Portland Press Herald.

Interestingly, New England is not unique in grappling with the political realities of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. Around the country, and especially in the West, we have seen several examples policy initiatives aiming to provide clean power run afoul environmental activists. Because often the best and cleanest alternative to burning fossil fuels is hydro, we are increasingly seeing politicians and regulators damming rivers. The downsides are the ecological disruptions, and associated political conflicts, with generating hydropower.  

For example, the Klamath River on the California/Oregon border has been dammed at six places, the earliest of which were built in the 1920s. Yet recently activists, arguing that the dams make it impossible for salmon to spawn which adversely impacts the native river tribes, have successfully secured four of the dams decommission by 2020. Yet, the Klamath dams are a major source of clean power for northern California. Clearly, there are no obvious solutions.

Arial image of one of the Klamath dams.

Part of what makes the CMP project so interesting is that the issue here is not the creation of the dam itself, but rather the transport of power from an existing dam to a needy market. No one is denying the necessity of clean power in Boston; rather, the concerns of Maine residents are more focused on the lack of benefits to residents of the state.

This raises some important questions to grapple with. What responsibility does Maine have to help out its New England neighbor? What repatriations are sufficient to compensate Mainers? (Note, after initially proposing $22m in mitigation, CMP cut that to as little as $5m in 2018, while low-income ratepayers in Boston will benefit greatly from reduced-price power.) How do we reconcile efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels with the environmental and economic implications of doing so?

If one thing is clear, it is that there are no obvious answers, and the fight is ongoing. CMP is continuing with plans to build the line while activists organize in opposition to it. Perhaps the CMP line counts as a sacrifice that we as a society need to make for the greater good – there is no doubt that we Bostonians need clean power. But who said northern Mainers should have a massive power line built in their backyard? Or that the value of rafting the Kennebec river is less than the value of supplying clean power to Boston? I know I don’t want to be the person who makes those decisions.

Sources:

  1. https://www.pressherald.com/2019/01/16/maine-voices-cmp-power-line-wont-help-the-environment-and-certainly-not-mainers/
  2. https://www.pressherald.com/2018/09/13/dark-money-and-blurred-alliances-drum-up-resistance-to-cmp-project/
  3. https://bangordailynews.com/2018/11/01/business/hydro-quebec-faces-pressure-to-make-cmp-transmission-line-a-better-deal-for-maine/
  4. https://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/02/maine_transmission_line_will_c.html
  5. https://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/07/transmission_hydro_and_wind_de.html
  6. https://www.masslive.com/politics/2016/08/gov_charlie_baker_signs_hydrop.html
  7. https://www.wbur.org/bostonomix/2018/03/28/mass-ditches-northern-pass
  8. https://www.redding.com/story/news/2018/10/05/controversy-klamath-river-dam-removal-persists-approval-nears/1523718002/

Experiencing Homeschooling

Image result for homeschooling
Source: Metroparent

In the past twenty years, there has been a significant rise in the number of students following the homeschooling model all over the United States (Gould, 2011). This growth has fueled the debate about the pros and cons of the homeschooling model and how it compares to the traditional schooling model. These debates are often emotionally charged due to the strong beliefs of the proponents of each side. Many researchers attribute the growth of the current “homeschooling movement” to various reasons including the deterioration of the public schooling system, moral and religious beliefs that oppose the traditional schooling model, and the parents’ beliefs that homeschooling nurtures their children’s ability to achieve a prosperous future (Cogan, 2010). This week, I had an opportunity to interview Edward (Ned) Burnell who is a proud product of both systems. Burnell, a current Ph.D. student at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, attributes part of his success in academia to his upbringing in a homeschooling system.

AM: Can you tell me more about your typical day when you were homeschooled?

EB: My parents prepared a daily schedule for me and my sister that was divided based on the subject. They would choose a workbook that matches a particular subject and then ask us to go through it and complete some exercises. We were also allowed to play a fair number of educational computer games that were mainly focused on math and grammar. The important approach that my parents followed was giving us the relative flexibility to decide what we wanted to learn and when to learn it. For example, if we were provided with a workbook that was not interesting to us, we would skip it and choose a different one. My sister (who is three years younger) was mostly using the same workbooks and games I was using so there was no grade level in the traditional sense.

AM: Why do you think some parents choose to homeschool compared to the traditional schooling model?

EB: I believe that there are three camps of homeschooling the Christian fundamentalist, the camp that is morally opposed to the structure of the traditional schooling model and believe that their children deserve better, and the camp that wants to spend more time honing their children’s skills and knowledge so that they can thrive in the real world.

AM: How did you spend your summers during your homeschooling years?

EB: I generally spent my summers hanging out with friends in my neighborhood. My mother would also motivate me to draft a research paper every summer. This was not a structured research paper in the academic sense, but it offered me the opportunity to research a topic I’m interested in and visit the library in search of answers to my research questions. A highpoint in middle school was emailing a researcher on the Bubonic plague and getting a response about an argument in his research paper that I did not understand.

AM: In what ways do you think your homeschooling experience helped you during your transition to the traditional public high school system?

EB: I remember in high school, it was relatively easy for me to explain content to other students as I was very comfortable explaining things to myself; this has been a valuable survival skill. Also, the time I spent during my homeschooling learning about diverse topics and nurturing different skills helped me during my high school years.

AM: Did you face any challenges transitioning from the homeschooling to the traditional model?

EB: I think discipline was something I had to learn. For example, I never learned to write about something I didn’t care about. I had to learn that in high school and college. I was very confident. If I had something to say, I said it. This was really challenging when I was forced to write about a topic that I wasn’t interested in.

I was also never pushed to challenge myself in ways that I didn’t want to, and I was never punished by an external source or by myself for failure to overcome a certain challenge. Another challenge was sometimes suffering from social anxiety, especially during my first year.

AM: Do you feel that your upbringing in a homeschooling model helped you garner your current passion for using design to improve human experiences?

EB: I think the freedom offered to me within the homeschooling environment helped me learn how to experiment with objects and think about answers to questions that are interesting to me. When I grew up, I realized that those experiences had supported how I handled design challenges and made me more comfortable in experimenting with unconventional methods.

Image result for traditional school
Source: Medium

AM: Having had the chance to learn through both models, what do you think are the benefits of the traditional schooling model compared to the homeschooling model?

EB: I think the traditional schooling model offers children more opportunities for developing their social skills. It also makes them more comfortable adhering to the traditional rules of schooling academia which may support their success within the system. Traditional schooling is also essential for parents who have jobs and cannot afford to homeschool.

AM: What do you think are the main challenges of the traditional schooling and the homeschooling models?

EB: I think that the traditional schooling model has several challenges. First, schools force students to fit into certain archetypes and molds, and this limits children’s creativity and freedom to express themselves. I also think the “factory model school” may force children to learn certain topics without spending time understanding them and applying them. People often think of school, as unpaid labor. We have these kids perform for us certain tasks; these tasks are called “Homework,” even the name is problematic. The school helps students prepare reports that will never be used which is a preparation for a white-collar lifestyle.

As for the homeschooling system, I think that the difficulty with homeschooling is that takes it a lot of time and attention from the parent, it might be hard to homeschool if you have to pay rent and have jobs. So, I believe it is circumstantial. The parents’ presence for a significant portion of a child’s day may also impact the children’s interest in their parents’ experiences since by time parents have fewer stories and experiences to share due to their constant presence in their children’s lives.

Homeschooling may also make it hard for students to follow the traditional academic system and to follow its rules as they were not exposed to it from a younger age. For example, it was hard for me to get used to the taking exams, but I was lucky enough that I had a photographic memory that helped me achieve high scores with less effort.

When I asked Ned about the system he would choose for his children, he mentioned that he might be more inclined towards a traditional system that has some of the merits of the homeschooling system such as freedom of expression and the ability of children to learn by performing activities and tasks that they are interested in. It was fascinating to get to learn more about Ned’s experience when Ned asked me about the schooling system I would prefer; I found myself struggling to make a choice. I guess it is hard to choose an educational system that might significantly influence the future of another individual!

References

Cogan, M. F. (2010). Exploring Academic Outcomes of Homeschooled Students. Journal of College Admission208, 18-25.

Martin-Chang, S., Gould, O. N., & Meuse, R. E. (2011). The impact of schooling on academic achievement: Evidence from homeschooled and traditionally schooled students. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement43(3), 195.

Hi! I’m Aileen.

Hi! I’m Aileen, a second year Sloan MBA who is coffee & pastry obsessed. In a world where I have oodles of money, I would own a high end bakery, and smell the smell of baking croissants all day. I hum when I feel awkward.

But perhaps more relevantly–

 

 

  • My Background: 
    • Education: Majored in Political Science, Minored in Economics. Originally I wanted to be a journalist to pay the bills as I worked my way through the next great American novel. Was fascinated most in my classes by the role of media in political society.
    • Work Experience (journalism ended up not working out): 
      • Advertising: I used analytics and statistics to optimize media placement, brand messaging, and media mix for clients like JetBlue, and Match.com.
      • Google: Decided I wanted to understand how businesses worked. I helped launch and grow a new product, and also did operations strategy.
      • Entrepreneurship: Creating your own product felt compelling, and still is. I am a co-founder for Armoire, a startup that was in MIT’s summer accelerator this past summer, and still going strong.
  • My Personal interests:
    • Better media for the average person: After studying mass media in American democracy during my undergrad, I struggled with some of the shortcomings in today’s media: the sensational headlines, dizzyingly short news cycles, parachute journalism, and inaccessibility by the average American. I’m passionate about finding a media structure that is engaging and educational for everyone, not just people who read The Economist.
    • Food science: Because, science makes everything tasty!
    • Other things I do in my free time: Learning how to photograph & edit, blogging & writing, learning French, baking, and learning how to gracefully lose at chess.

 

Maddie’s Bio

I’m Maddie Perez, a second year MBA at MIT Sloan. Before coming to MIT I had a mixed bag of a career, including working in sports journalism, crisis communication, education PR, R&D research and consulting, and venture capital. I’m an aspiring venture capitalist with the hope of funding media companies that have found ways to create high-quality, accurate content with a profitable business model—we’ll see how long that takes. Here are a few more random facts about me:

  • I’m an army brat and moved around a bit growing up, but I consider Fayetteville, NC home
  • Coding-wise, I’ve focused primarily on front end work, and am pretty proficient in CSS/HTML and quasi-proficient in JavaScript
  • I’m currently working on a VR platform for autism therapy. The hope is that using different types of media in new ways (in this case building simulation exercises for VR) can improve the efficacy of autism therapy while drastically reducing costs
  • I was an English major in undergrad with a minor in policy journalism and media studies, so in some ways I feel like I get to relive some of my favorite classes
  • I’m a proud Slytherin

Sruthi’s Bio

Hi, my name is Sruthi. I am a 2nd year MBA student at MIT Sloan and an engineer at heart. I have always been interested in understanding how technology can make a social impact. To be precise I am interested in how technology combined with business strategy could be used to make a social impact.

Prior to joining Sloan, I studied computer engineering and worked in fin-tech. Last summer, I interned as a data science intern at Microsoft, where I used data to influence internal strategy decisions. Combining my interest in both technology and strategy, I am going to be a future management consultant in the digital space.

I have always been fascinated with how news and media brings people on to a common platform to share their voices and identity. Given my interest in the social sector, I am taking this class to understand how the power of media can mobilize people behind a cause. My personal goals for the class are to:

  • Enter my stretch zone by utilizing more of the right side of my brain
  • Become more of an active contributor using media
  • Work with an interdisciplinary group of people (I was very impressed with the cultural and intellectual diversity in the class)
  • Understand how to use media / understand the power of media to engage global citizens

Apart from my “slightly obvious” skills in programming (Matlab, R etc), I like to travel and try/cook multi-cultural cuisines. I am coffee and chocolate snob and occasionally addicted to Instagram.

You can find me on: LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram

Arthur’s Bio

Hi! My name is Arthur Sheyn, and I’m a 2nd year MBA student at MIT Sloan. To be quite honest, I was naively ignorant about the importance of the media for most of my life. Annnnndddd then this election happened. I distinctly remember that the moment I first read about whether or not Facebook should be held responsible for policing fake news was the moment I realized how important of a role the media plays in everyday society. (This John Oliver segment was also very eye opening.)

What started as the above nugget (or maybe epiphany) has now evolved into a full-blown curiosity and fascination for how news and media have evolved and must further evolve to serve an important purpose in society. This is why I am taking this class – to educate myself, and hopefully, explore some meaningful solutions for the future.

A bit about me:

  • I was born in Ukraine, and my family immigrated (as political refugees, a fact of my history that I have learned to appreciate so much more as of late) to the US in 1991
  • I grew up in San Francisco, which meant that for most of my life, I thought the diversity of my childhood was representative of the US (are you beginning to sense a theme of naiveté?)
  • Fun fact – I used to be a competitive ballroom dancer (check me out on youtube!). After I stopped competing to go to college, I took up coaching my university’s ballroom dancing team. That experience showed me just how meaningful and powerful communication can be.
  • I love action, adventure, nature, pretty much anything outside and remotely physical. One of my highlights of 2016 was going bungee jumping in New Zealand (twice!)
  • For my short professional career, I spent 3 years in management consulting and 2 years working for the digital innovation arm of a global retail company. I’ll spare you the details, since LinkedIn provides a pretty good summary!