horse's mouth

    The obsessive focus on “”homeland security”” notwithstanding, the Jacobs School of Engineering’s annual Research Review turned out to challenge my thinking — not because of the numerous research posters that barely made any sense to me, but because of a noted sci-fi writer who spoke at the event.

    In addition, the presence of free food from UCSD catering makes any event markedly better. Speaker after speaker on Friday morning expounded upon our holes in security, our vulnerability to terrorists and our need to focus on their particular field of research to make us safe from attack. This did not particularly resonate with those who believe that no amount of technology can protect the United States unless its people take a fundamentally different view on international relations and domestic equality.

    So when David Brin stepped up to the microphone after this succession of prominent researchers with words that challenged the basic assumptions of not only the researchers but the political establishment as a whole, his words transformed an average lineup of morning speakers into an entirely new perspective on the possibilities and consequences of sensors and monitoring in society.

    Brin contends that a move toward ubiquitous sensor technology is imminent and unstoppable. However, he challenges both the notions of civil libertarians and the attorney general when he maintains that increased monitoring capabilities do not necessarily translate to a loss in freedom for individual citizens.

    Brin points out that no government has had as much information accessible at a glance about its individual citizens as the modern Western democracies, yet no people are freer. The axiom that increased data means decreased freedom comes under attack by this apparent paradox, and Brin contends that reverse transparency — wherein citizens monitor their government and the systems at work — is the key to avoiding an Orwellian scenario.

    Brin’s words come at a time when a witch-hunt atmosphere permeates our creation of laws meant to “”protect”” our basic freedoms. It struck me that intelligent dialogue of this kind, which thinks beyond traditional political lines and rhetoric, is just as critical to the progress of society as the numerous research posters and corporate technology exhibits that surrounded me.

    Research Review, no doubt, is an even headier event for those who can actually understand what the posters are saying, but the sociological consequences of technology, along with all sorts of forward-looking thought, should be given footing equal to forward-looking science. Why aren’t undergraduate students invited to mill about at an on-campus event where progressive, nonstandard political and sociological thoughts are put up for display? Some may argue that Library Walk qualifies on one of those fair days, but there is a clear difference between intelligent thought and rehashed rhetoric.

    The only poster I saw that included some degree of sociological research was by William Griswold’s team in computer science and engineering, which was examining the effects of giving personal digital assistants to freshmen to communicate in lecture and track one another on campus.

    Brin is perhaps a living illustration of this importance. One of the most famous alumni of UCSD’s electrical engineering and physics departments is neither academic researcher nor businessman, fields on which the school of engineering so often focuses. Brin’s doctorate in space physics from UCSD led to an illustrious science-fiction writing career, with Brin winning several prominent awards for his novels. That seems ironic, given the relative size of our literature department, and how much Warren engineering majors grumble about having to take “”Ethics and Society”” and finish an unrelated program of concentration.

    Perhaps it is an elitist thing to say, but it is irritating to see relevant and interesting basic research reduced to the lowest common denominator of “”homeland defense.”” With all due respect to the speakers on Friday, Brin clearly illustrated the dichotomy between two modes of thought on research. The first is to respond to popular political rhetoric and try to gain funding for what you do best by showing the broadest potential application most likely to appeal to people’s fears (in this case, of domestic attack). Or you can think outside political rhetoric, and try to apply funding and gear your research toward a “”better, freer society”” rather than a “”nationally safe”” one.

    Or perhaps the engineering majors here do not have time in the span of five years to think about taking something useless such as sociology, political science or classical rhetoric when they are in such a rush to get an MBA.

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