in part, a companion to my set of WWW links for ESD.10
Frank Field
-Why FurdLog?

Why a FurdLog?

In the spring of 2001, I was asked to work on course development for one of the core classes of the Technology & Policy Program at MIT. Founded in 1976, this SM program within the School of Engineering has been dedicated to producing technically capable professionals who can successfully operate in a policy milieu. The Program is founded upon the notion that, notwithstanding the historical limitations of the engineering/science world views when policy conflicts emerge, there is a very real need to have people in positions of policy leadership who appreciate that there are many important classes of social and private policy issues whose successful resolution depends as much upon a subtle appreciation of the technical underpinnings of the issue as it does upon an ability to cope with the social, economic, political, strategic and institutional elements. The goal of the program is to educate engineers & scientists who want to take on that policy leadership role.

This means, among other things, taking engineers & scientists and forcing them to unlearn some of the key elements of the traditional engineering science weltanschauung so that they can begin to recognize that policymaking and analysis relies upon different metaphors and methods. The start of this process of unlearning, and learning, takes place in this core class, ESD.10. Although the course has gone through several incarnations (and names!), the key lessons have been essentially the same:

  • There is no "right" answer (i.e., optimality is not the way to a solution);
  • Where you stand is where you sit (i.e., values and interests govern the view of the merits of any potential solution);
  • Uncertainty is everywhere (so learn how to manage risk and to confront the distinctions between the unknown and the unknowable);
  • There are many ways in which a policy problem can be framed (i.e., Cartesian methods will only take you so far - learn to see the world in other ways); and
  • There are a multitude of complex policy problems whose resolution depends upon the development of an appreciation of the way in which technology creates, constrains and (may) help to resolve them.
Of course, there's more to finishing the entire TPP curriculum than grasping these principles - a lot more! But ESD.10 is the start of the process.

Central to the educational process of ESD.10 is the illustration of key elements through a set of case studies, largely drawn from the course instructors' areas of expertise. At the outset of this course development effort, faculty from the areas of transporation, space systems, law, political science, materials systems (my domain) and engineering systems were represented. We knew that we needed to have a case from the field of information technology, but we didn't have an expert on the course faculty. So, the teaching assistants and I suggested that Napster be the case, with me taking the lead on the development of the case and the associated module.

It was actually a pretty hard fight at the time, in that, aside from the teaching assistants and me, the rest of the faculty didn't see Napster as anything more than a cut and dried case of copyright infringement! That made for a really interesting opportunity to use the case to introduce some of the ethical issues that we wanted to repeat throughout the course. Moreover, because of the historical tension between technological development and copyright law, it seemed like a great way to introduce the distinctions between natural rights and utilitarian laws. And so, the mold was set.

Anyway, we won the argument to produce the case, and I found myself having to dig back into knowledge that I really hadn't made much use of since I was a student! And one of the immediate realizations was that it would be vital to stay abreast of the evolution of the issue. This meant plowing through the Internet news and opinion organs on a daily basis. And, it meant cataloging everything so I could find interesting things when I needed them again. I built a WWW page for the links, but it rapidly got out of control. (So much so that, to this day, I still haven't moved all the links from that page into the database.) So I built a Yahoo-like link site, and kept adding things and trying not to screw up the cataloging too badly (I have an even greater appreciation for library science today than I did when I got started!)

I might have just kept up the link maintenance indefinitely, but I began to realize that (a) the issues were starting to become personal (as well as expanding beyond the original scope) and (b) I really needed something that allowed me to do the WWW page thing (allowing me to inject more of my own thoughts/opinions/rants about what I found) while retaining the link catalog. Of course, nothing like that exists, but I thought that trying to develop a weblog in parallel with the ongoing effort to maintain and refine the links database would give me much of what I wanted to have.

And, thus, FurdLog. The links site continues to be updated, and it remains my primary resource for the class, both at MIT and as a part of a course at Cambridge University. However, the weblog gives me a little room to ruminate on what I find and to give interested parties a chance to see the chronology of link discovery. I have found that issues go through waves of interest, news and commentary, waxing and waning according to the timetables of legislatures, courtrooms and both software & hardware development cycles. And sometimes I add so many links in a day that the 'New Links' part of the links page can only show what's been added in the last 24 hours.

I'd like to think that I will eventually figure out how to put these two elements - the links database and the weblog - together into a specific tool for my purposes. Luckily, everything I use is GPL software, so it's really up to me. In the interim, I hope that I will eventually have learned enough about this area that I will actually be able to contribute, rather than merely observing. But, even if I never get that far, I love doing the observing and I hope you, the reader, will get something out of it too!

MUCH Later: A BBC news article that summarizes it well: Academics give lessons on blogs


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