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In Defense of Novelty

By Maryanthe E. Malliaris

It is easy to forget that newness is uncomfortable. Beyond the classic studies of a liberal-arts university, at the rough unfinished edges of disciplines and fields, there is space for both using and misusing the power that comes from knowing first.

This discomfort has been evident in the recent debates about TECH, Harvard's proposed center for technological exploration. Proponents have likened TECH to the IOP; somewhere students can go to play around with bleeding edge technology, gain programming skills that they can't get in class, get support for Web ventures and learn from the best minds in the wired world. Opponents worry that TECH will become an assembly-line producer of little capitalists, encouraging the moneymaking impulse exactly when we students should be waxing Platonic.

I have supported TECH from the beginning, but I've been surprised by the diversity of its reception. The need, I thought, was clear. Suppose I want to pursue a distance education project, to set up a hyper-linked classical lexicon, or script an international math-help bulletin board to study the way children learn. An institute, rather than a computer science affiliation, would provide the perfect opportunity.

In The Crimson and elsewhere, students have taken positions across the scale. Some, who grew up writing autoexec.bat files, are extremely excited at the chance to explore new technologies. Some, intent on making their first million before graduation, hope for an influx of angels. Still others, eyeing those budding millionaires, maintain that enterprise has no place at the university.

If enterprise had no place at Harvard, multi-million dollar Harvard Student Agencies (HSA) would have been out of business a long time ago. HSA (and its for-profit subsidiary Let's Go) enjoys University support, wiring, direction and affiliation--and no one complains. What is so different about a technology center?

TECH, others say, will take up all of a student's time; it will encourage full-time participation in what should only be a part-time activity. Computer science and Internet projects, this argument goes, are 24/7 and not compatible with class. This line of reasoning stops at the office of The Crimson president, the Let's Go publishing director, certain sports teams' captains, the HSA and Advocate presidents, the head of PBHA and dozens of other campus heroes. We are not averse to full-time projects as evidenced by the wealth of them on campus. So what is so different about TECH?

Lots, the argument goes, but is at a loss to say exactly how. There are questions of priority and direction, questions of definition and allocation, and some very important questions about the role of a university in business and society. But the deepest question is also the most simple: a worry that motives and outcomes are not clearly defined, in other words, a mistrust of what is new. This mistrust is not entirely unfounded, but it is extremely misleading.

What is new is difficult. It has not yet taken full shape; it is not yet trustworthy, but it is extremely powerful. Splitting the atom, discovering radiation, Keynesian economics, postructuralism, relativity and now computerization: all are the results of great social debate and change, and all have their share of ugliness. Major shifts in human thought are not negotiated without some who recognize power in the new--the democratic, the economic, the wired--and seek to exploit it.

There are several responses to this. One is to shun the new at all costs: As long as there are people trying to make a buck off the Net, some might argue, it's not a valid subject for study. As soon as one student comes to TECH solely to make money, the hands of all the streaming-media researchers will be dirty.

A proper counter-argument recognizes that the new is precisely the place where careful study can make the most difference. If knowledge is power, then wider dissemination of knowledge is the only counter to misuse. We need ways to understand and parse newness, not to condemn it out of hand.

TECH as I see it would be a center where students can explore technology, see what they think of it, figure out how it works and how it can fit into their own areas of study. Perhaps a great new SGML lexicon will come out of it, but equally likely may be holographic psychology studies or smart fabrics. The academic and applied study of computer science have something to learn from each other.

It will not be easy to strike this balance. Wherever experimentation and change is allowed, motives come into question. It may be difficult to tell exactly whether someone is interested in ideas for their own sake or for their eventual monetary worth or for the challenge of winning. Be they political, economic, social or religious, the frontier always contains ulterior motives. This is not, to me, a convincing damnation.

The answer, instead, is education. As we come of age in a world where technology is alternately billed as a whole-scale digital revolution and capitalism masquerading as innovation, a critical part of education is learning what technology can do and, more importantly, what it cannot do.

Put simply, technology--like democracy, language or gears--is a tool. We must understand how our tools work and whom they work for; this requires a great deal of time and the space for experimentation. A TECH center at Harvard, done properly, could give fascinating answers to these questions.

Maryanthe E. Malliaris '01 is a mathematics concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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