The Network of Things to Come

The year is 1959 and a very powerful modern art aficionado is sharing a limousine with Princess  Beatrix of the Netherlands. The man is supposed to be showing off the splendor of the capital of what was once —so optimistically— called New Amsterdam. His orchestrated car trip is not going quite as he had hoped and instead of zipping past “The Gut” and dwelling on the stately early 19th century mansions on Central and Clinton Avenues, Beatrix is devastated by the utter poverty that has come to define the very center of this capitol city now called Albany, New York. The art aficionado, unfortunately for him, cannot blame some far away disconnected bureaucrat or corrupt politician for what they are seeing because he is the governor of this powerful Empire State and he has done little to elevate the suffering of his subjects. He resolves, after that fateful car trip, to devote the same kind of passion he has for modern art to this seat of government. Governor Rockefeller will make this city into a piece of art worthy of his own collection. (more…)

Selling the Social Sciences

“If it weren’t for all of you I would have lost my mind at my job.” Its a familiar refrain that I hear at lots of small conferences and, occasionally, on Twitter backchannels. Its an amazing compliment to hear that your weak tie with someone means so much, but its also an immensely troubling prospect. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of highly trained professionals have serious misgivings about their professional associations, their home institutions, and maybe even their life’s work. I had heard variations on this theme most recently this past week when I helped out at the (really, really cool) Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace Conference hosted here in Troy, New York. The conference was attended by an array of people: engineers, educators, activists, and social scientists like myself. Some people worked in industry, others in academia, and a significant portion worked for NGOs like Engineers Without Borders. And again, I just want to reiterate: No single person said the exact phrase above, and I certainly don’t want to (mis)characterize any of the attendee’s personal feelings about their jobs or work. Rather, what I witnessed at ESJP is more accurately characterized as a feeling of “coming home.” Think of it as the positive side of the same disaffected coin. This anecdotal trend was in my mind when I read this Seattle Times articleabout social scientists finding new and inviting homes in tech companies. Are social scientists finding better intellectual homes in industry than in academia? Or am I connecting two totally separate phenomena? Is it just the pay? More to the point: can social scientists do more and better things for the world working in Silicon Valley than the Ivory Tower?
(more…)