What are you working on?
I’m working on what I always work on. I have one big question I always come back to. What is it like to live in a world that’s primarily self-created? So much in our surroundings refl ects human desires, energies, aspirations, and powers. This is a very different world from the one human beings have inhabited for most of the millennia of our existence. What does this mean for human life?
When I fi rst came to MIT, in the early 1980’s, I had just fi nished a book on consumer society. I was interested in the idea of consumer society as a world of merchandise, where people are in their created spaces and are immersed in commercial products. I followed that with a work of imaginative literature involving underground fantasies. I had noticed that there is a theme of underground living running through a great deal of 19th
century Western literature. The paradox of that existence is that though you are in the heart of nature, quite literally, survival in the underworld is impossible without the abilities to generate light, food, and water. Therefore, you depend entirely on technological systems. If they break down, you’re doomed. Often in these stories, the reason for retreating underground is some environmental or military catastrophe which has ruined the earth. It fascinated me to consider what it would be like to live in a completely technologically based environment. Again, what is it like to live in a world that’s primarily built, rather than given?
At that point in my career, I made what some might consider a detour. I went into administration here at MIT and worked as Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education for fi ve years in the late 1990’s. It turned out to be not such a detour after all. At the outset, I often wondered what I was doing in this job. One of the answers I arrived at was that I felt I could get a good book out of it, which is the way a writer always thinks. That book, Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change, was about the built world, and it focused on MIT as the site of that world.
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