Making a Better World | The Human Factor
Solving the political, cultural, economic dimensions of global issues
A sarpanch, or head village decision-maker, in India. Photocredit, clevercort, MIT J-PAL
MIT is working to advance solutions to major issues in planetary health, education, innovation, and human health. For example: How can we reduce morbidity and mortality in cancer cases? How can we halve carbon output by 2050? How can we provide quality education to all people who wish to learn?
Framing the questions well is critical for sucessful solutions.
As the editors of the journal Nature have said, framing such questions effectively — incorporating all factors that influence the issue — is a key to generating successful solutions. Science and technology are essential tools for innovation, and to reap their full potential, we also need to articulate and solve the many aspects of today’s global issues that are rooted in the political, cultural, and economic realities of the human world.
Multi-disciplinary collaboration is a key to solving the great issues of our time.
With that mission in mind, MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences has launched The Human Factor Series — an ongoing collection of stories and interviews that highlight research and perspectives on the human dimensions of global challenges. Contributors to this series describe humanities, arts, and social science research that generates social innovation, and share ideas for cultivating the multi-disciplinary and sociotechnical collaborations that are needed to solve the major civilizational issues of our time.
Take a look!
Interviews and Stories
COMPUTING AND AI | HUMANISTIC PERSEPCTIVES FROM MIT
"With a sense of promise and urgency, we are embarked at MIT on an accelerated effort to more fully integrate the humanistic and technical forms of discovery in our curriculum and research, in our institutional structure, and in our habits of mind and action."
ETHICS, COMPUTING, AND AI
To support ongoing planning for the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, Dean Melissa Nobles invited faculty from all five MIT schools to offer perspectives on the societal and ethical dimensions of emerging technologies. This series presents the resulting commentaries — practical, inspiring, concerned, and clear-eyed views from an optimistic community deeply engaged with one of the most consequential questions of our time.
MEET MIT'S HUMANISTIC FACULTY
"Lately I have been trying to think of African history from the perspective of goodness and basic human decency. Of course, conflicts exist, and do a great deal of damage in our lives, and we must confront them — but we must also allow ourselves to appreciate basic goodness and kindness when we see it."
VOTING AND DEMOCRACY
"The story here is not just about whether people are legally allowed to vote, but about whether they are practically able to vote, whether they know they're allowed to vote, and whether they think they have any reason to do so."
DEMOCRACY AND DISCOURSE
Media historian and expert on conservatism discusses the current state of political discourse and media in the U.S.
Solving language puzzles, linguists shed light on deep properties of the human mind, on language acquisition in children, on machine learning, social interactions, and meaning itself. David Pesetsky, an internationally acclaimed linguistic scholar, is the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at MIT.
VOICES OF MIT ALUMNI
Jaques, an MIT Philosophy postdoctoral associate, is bringing the tools of philosophy to ethical questions related to information technologies.
"Understanding others is crucial right now. Of course, understanding is not the same as forgiving or ignoring conflict. But you cannot write convincingly until you care about people who are different from you. That’s what being a playwright has taught me."
"Africa today is seen as the future of global innovation and entrepreneurship in areas from technology to the arts. Important questions about Africa’s new visibility include: Who is recognized as an expert? What is seen as innovative, and what knowledge is considered worth carrying forward? Who gets to be the face of this 'New Africa'?"
"Globalization today is at a crossroad. It is confronted with major challenges, including rising inequality and global warming. At the same time there is a lot of skepticism about what governments can do to regulate global capitalism. Looking back at previous globalization episodes is critical, first to clarify the specificities of our time." — Thomas Piketty
"This strikes me as exactly the moment when the work of economic historians is of greatest importance. We have something useful to say about what the disruptions of previous 'waves of globalization' have looked like and how social and political communities have resolved the disruptions of those episodes."
Assistant Professor Caley Horan is an historian of the U.S. interested in the cultural and intellectual transformations of the post-WWII era. SHASS Communications spoke with her about her book manuscript, Actuarial Age, which explores the cultural life of insurance and the role of risk-based thinking in shaping American institutions and daily life during the second half of the twentieth century.
"American journalism is based on the principle of objectivity: journalists are supposed to be dispassionate about the subjects they cover. We’ve seen too many journalists confuse not taking sides with not calling out liars and frauds or giving too much credence to fringe or extreme views."
Q&A with digital learning pioneer Shigeru Miyagawa
On interdisciplinary approaches to digital learning
"The MIT Office of Digital Learning (ODL) is actively reaching out to faculty across MIT to help them leverage digital learning to improve teaching and learning, and I am glad to be contributing to that."
“The new frontier is learning how to design the relationships between people, robots, and infrastructure...The new success of robots will depend on how well they situate into human environments; as in chess, the strongest players are often the combinations of human and machine. I increasingly see that the three critical elements are people, robots, and infrastructure — all interdependent."
"It is remarkable that we do not measure the costs of war in any meaningful way. The costs come in many shapes and sizes: mortality and disability, loss of livelihoods and homes, displacement, the destruction of clean water resources and sanitation facilities, the disruption of education for children, ecological devastation, and many others. All wars produce these results, yet no country, including the United States, has the will to understand and calculate these costs."
THE POWER OF HISTORY
3 Questions with historian Malick Ghachen
On finding root causes: how history helps us solve today's issues
"One of the principal ways historians contribute to problem-solving work at MIT and elsewhere is by helping to identify what the real problem is in the first place. When we understand and articulate the roots and sources of a problem, we have a much better chance of actually solving it."
"Almost anyone engaged with global issues of human well-being, the distribution of resources, or the future of society is doing moral philosophy Even the most technocratic assessment of costs and benefits makes assumptions about the value of human life and the demands of justice....Making our ethics more explicit, being self-conscious about our principles and premises, improves our moral thinking. This is particularly true when the questions are ones of public policy."
Richard Nielsen is an assistant professor of political science at MIT SHASS who writes on international law, the political economy of human rights, political violence, and political methodology. His current book project, Deadly Clerics, explores why some Muslim clerics adopt the ideology of militant Jihad while most do not.
PhD student Elizabeth Setren brings data to bear on questions about charter schools and local education policy.
Over the course of 26 years at MIT, political scientist Kenneth Oye has discovered that collaborating with technologists is a very effective way to inform good policy on the issues he cares most about — from climate change to synthetic biology.
CLIMATE + HUMAN HEALTH
In India, industrial development and rapid urbanization have far outpaced efforts to protect the environment, resulting in levels of air and water pollution that pose major threats to human health. Working with the Tata Center, two MIT-SHASS economics doctoral students are addressing this challenge by generating incentives for polluters to change their ways.
As a specialist in how culture and behavior influence illness, treatments, and health outcomes, James researches how to leverage innovations in health-care and medical research to make care affordable and universally available.
"If you want science to deliver for society, through commerce, government or philanthropy, you need to support a capacity to understand that society that is as deep as your capacity to understand the science."
Reforming democracy is not a technology problem, writes open government activist Joshua Tauberer. It’s not something that a slick website solves. Building power is a social, societal, institutional challenge.
THE HUMAN FACTOR | FAIRNESS
Is there anything we can actually do about growing inequality in the U.S? (Yes!) David Autor, Professor of Economics, and Ian Condry, cultural anthropologist and MIT Professor of Comparative Media Studies, along with Marybeth Campbell, of SkillWorks, explain the causes for U.S. inequality, and what real solutions might look like.
MIT professor makes the case that meaningful, face-to-face dialogue is necessary for human beings to develop self-knowledge, empathy, and cognitive skill.
"Transferring the models of physical matter or rational calculation to these massive global problems can do a great deal to help solve our current issues — but only when they are informed by a nuanced understanding of how humans and human organizations operate."
"The search for the answers to society’s most pressing questions always involves a political science dimension. Politics is the art of figuring out what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and how you’re going to convince others to go along with what you want to do."
"[W]e should understand that when the problems we’re trying to solve with tech are social, we need sociotechnical solutions that look at the interaction between people and technology."
Toyama reached the conclusion that it is the social and cultural institutions surrounding a certain problem that prevent the technology from having the desired result. In order to achieve good outcomes, the institutions themselves need to be changed.
Announcing the new comprehensive campaign, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said, "Humanity faces urgent challenges — challenges whose solutions depend on marrying advanced technical and scientific capabilities with a deep understanding of the world's political, cultural, and economic complexities."
Discover the role of MIT's Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences fields in solving the economic, cultural, and political dimensions of global issues, and in problem-solving in collaboration with our STEM colleagues.
MIT Associate Professor Michel DeGraff recently received a $1M grant from the NSF for research to develop tools to teach STEM subjects in Haitian Kreyòl—part of a larger, transformative project to use Kreyol, the language Haitians actually speak, in the country's classrooms. In this interview, DeGraff speaks about his vision, and how the project is a model for teaching in other local languages around the globe.