• Professor Theodore Postol called for technological security upgrades at the teach-in on

    Professor Theodore Postol called for technological security upgrades at the teach-in on "Technology, War and Terrorism."

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Professor Hugh Gusterson said the roots of the terrorism problem

    Professor Hugh Gusterson said the roots of the terrorism problem "are political, not technical.."

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Bilal Zuberi, a graduate student in chemistry, speaks from the audience at the Oct. 1 teach-in.

    Bilal Zuberi, a graduate student in chemistry, speaks from the audience at the Oct. 1 teach-in.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Speakers probe role of technology after attacks

Technology can combat terrorism in the short term, but it cannot secure lasting solutions to international conflicts, a panel of eight MIT faculty and graduate students agreed at an Oct. 1 teach-in on "Technology, War and Terrorism."

"Technology can make us secure and insecure. Currently, it appears there is a poor match between the technology we're developing and the problems we're facing," said moderator Rosalind H. Williams, the Robert M. Metcalfe Professor of Writing in the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) and director of graduate studies.

Professor Theodore Postol of STS focused on technical strategies to "minimize the possibility of worst-case scenarios. If we make it easy to take over planes and turn them into missiles, they will do it again," he said.

Postol urged immediate upgrades in aircraft security, including video cameras for pilots to view passenger cabins; videocameras identifying those boarding the plane; and improved methods for transmitting data about the flight to the ground.

Professor R. John Hansman Jr., of aeronautics and astronautics noted the abrupt and horrifying transformation a "good" technology--commercial aviation--had undergone since Sept. 11. But he added that commercial flying was not the only technology over which the shadow of the World Trade Towers hangs.

"I flew this weekend. It was like flying over Sarajevo. Air traffic control used to be there to keep planes from bumping into each other. Now it's become an early-warning system," he said.

Kendall Hoyt, an STS doctoral student, called for improvements in the early-warning systems for public health and bioterrorist threats, including development of new rapid-immunity vaccines with longer shelf lives and widened effectiveness for civilian populations.

Other panelists reflected on the effects of overreliance on technology and on the underlying causes of global tension. David A. Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Assistant Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in STS, reminded the audience that systems analysis has been overused in the past, and the human aspect underacknowledged. This was the disastrous case in Vietnam.

"The very flexibility of our systems--aircraft, cryptology, emergency response--implies the existence of shadow or parasite systems, such as terrorism or drug dealing," he said.

Hugh Gusterson, associate professor of anthropology and science and technology studies, warned, "Increasing security technically does not address the root problems, which are political, not technical."

Having grown up in Great Britain, he experienced attacks by the IRA. "Every time there was a terror attack, there were reduced human rights, more arrests, more surveillance. Only negotiation brought peace," he said.

"Technology meets only short-term goals. We need to understand why Muslim people are against the U.S.," said Abdul Hameed Toor, a visiting scholar in the Security Studies Program from Islamabad, Pakistan. "Few of them support terrorism. And it's not democracy or freedom they don't like. It's other things. The U.S. must learn about those," he said.

David H. Marks, the Morton and Claire Goulder Family Professor of Engineering Systems and Civil and Environmental Engineering, described himself as contributing "the longest view."

As MIT coordinator for the Alliance for Global Sustainability, Marks saw the events of Sept. 11 as "caused by the collision of haves and have-nots" and predicted this friction would persist, thanks to an increasingly impoverished urban population in the developing world.

"The haves walked away from the have-nots elsewhere. We backed off of Bangladesh and from the AIDS crisis in Africa. Can technology play a role to help people living in the greatest density? Will the haves help the have-nots?" Marks asked.

"Technology, War and Terrorism" was one of the series of teach-ins sponsored by the Center for International Studies in cooperation with the political science and economics departments, Boston Review, the foreign languages and literatures section, STS, the Comparative Media Studies Program, and the Dean's Office in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

Upcoming teach-ins will be held on Oct. 4 ("US Policy Options") and Oct. 11 ("Economic Implications") in Room 26-100 from 5 to 7 p.m., followed by small group discussions and dinner.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 3, 2001.

Topics: Technology and society, September 11


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