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scheduled time by Allan K. '17

my classes this semester, and how engineering and sociology go hand in hand

Is this what it’s like to be an upperclassman and only take classes you enjoy? My schedule this semester is half Aero/Astro and half Comparative Media Studies (CMS):

16.35 is “Real-Time Systems and Software”, or as I like to call it, “How To Write Good Code That Won’t Kill People,” taught by the inimitable Prof. Julie Shah. In aerospace (and lots of other places) lots of people place their trust in software–software that flies planes or handles private data or shoots rockets into space. Engineers operate in social contexts and therefore have social responsibilities, and this class teaches you specifically how to write safe, well-verified, and well-documented code. We wrapped up the first class with the “Software Engineer’s Code of Ethics,” which I’ve copied below:

  1. Approve software only if you have a well-founded belief that it is safe, meets specifications, passes appropriate tests, and does not diminish quality of life or privacy, or harm the environment.
  2. Ensure adequate testing, debugging, and review of software and related documents on which you work.
  3. As a manager, do not ask a software engineer to do anything inconsistent with their code of ethics.
  4. Be accurate in stating the characteristics of the software, avoiding not only false claims but also claims that might be speculative, vacuous, deceptive, misleading, or doubtful.

16.36 is “Communication Systems and Networks”, or as I like to call it, “How the Internet Works.” It’s a technical overview of digital communications (what exactly happens when you talk into a phone?) and networked communication systems (what really is the internet, anyway?). I’ve spent a large amount of time taking CMS classes in which we think about media systems as social and societal objects, so I thought it’d be good to take an engineering class about building, using, and maintaining those media systems.

CMS.701 is “Current Debates in Media” and is an upper-level, fairly academic crash course on some of the major topics of discussion in modern media studies. We talk about things like net neutrality, privacy, who owns and profits from media, and inequality in technological systems. The first week we read essays titled things like “Do Machines Make History?” and “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other.”

CMS.362 is a project-based class called “Civic Media: Collaborative Design Studio”, or “Codesign Studio” for short. It’s a common perception that engineering and design happens in “isolated creativity” — someone tinkering in their dorm room has a brilliant idea, builds it, and changes the world. And especially at MIT, there’s an urge to see a social problem and want to build an app to “fix” it. But more often, especially if you want to build something that helps other people, you can’t just tinker in your dorm room. CMS.362 partners students with local community organizations, with the idea that you have to get out of the building and really understand people’s day-to-day experiences before you can begin to design something that addresses a community’s obstacles and needs. Maybe that’s an app–but maybe it’s a packet of educational materials, or a publicity video, or a mass-distributable flyer, or something totally different. You don’t know until you get out of the building and into the community. The key step is to include the people you’re trying to help in the design process, because they’re the ones who best know what they need.

Now’s as good a time as any to remind everyone that MIT’s ranked top three in the world for the humanities, arts, and social sciences. I’m really glad I go to a school that values the lib-arts just as much as it values STEM, because all the cool stuff is happening at the intersections between the two. It’s important to remember that being an engineer doesn’t preclude your ability (or responsibility!) to be a champion for social change and human rights. Look at Edward Snowden, or cosmologist/activist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (who works at MIT!). Hell, look at Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III from How to Train Your Dragon, who’s an excellent model of a hacker-inventor-engineer who became a voice for the disenfranchised and an advocate for social change, and who totally would have gone to MIT if he wasn’t too busy leading a village of Vikings.

It’s good to be back at school–see you all soon!