Whether technology unites or divides depends, in large measure, on those who harness and apply its potential. That was among the key messages of the 2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President’s Commencement Colloquy, which featured four individuals whose contributions continue to spur innovation and shape the international discourse on some of today’s most pressing issues.
Moderator and Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson was joined by the Institute’s Commencement honorees New York Times columnist Thomas L. Freidman, CBS News producer Don Hewitt, and former astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison at the May 18 event, “Balancing on the Knife-Edge: Politics, Technology, and Ethics.” The four attracted a standing-room-only crowd, filling a 500-seat lecture hall and 200 seats in a designated overflow area.
Jackson launched the conversation with pointed questions that drew on each honoree’s insights and expertise to stimulate discussion of issues ranging from technological innovation, globalization, and energy security to ethical leadership, education, and the media’s influence on politics and perspective. Following are some highlights.
On technological innovation:
On ethical responsibility:
Jemison: “We shouldn’t feel comfortable burning that much energy and then telling other people they have to be willing to allow us to use all of their oiland that we shouldn’t have to give anything back. I think it’s an issue of ethics, an issue of what’s morally responsible... I don’t think it’s just about profits.”
Hewitt: “I’ve always thought that night [of the first televised presidential debates] was the worst night that ever occurred in American politics. From that day on, in the greatest democracy on Earth, you can’t even begin to think about running for local dogcatcher unless you’ve got money for television time... It doesn’t make any sense in a democracy for television time to be that expensive and to decide how and why we’re going to have our next president.”
Jemison: “The impact of television has been that information is formatted in very, very small sound bites that end up not being able to actually convey any of the conversation... You have people getting information that’s very constricted, that does not help to move public discourse, public debate along, and, yet, that’s what is news.”
On energy and innovation:
Friedman: “You cannot make a product greener without making it smarter smarter software, smarter materials and smarter design. What can we still do here in America, in Troy? We can still do knowledge-based manufacturing. That’s what’s not getting outsourced... To the extent that we shift the whole debate in the world to green, we actually play to the strength of our economy.
On the need for national leadership:
Hewitt: “What you’re talking about is looking for leadership. The ‘we’ has no power to do anything. Somebody has to shape this thing, and nobody seems to be taking any lead in it. That, I think, is the problem. It’s not the ‘we.’ ‘We’ would all welcome it.”
On education and investment:
The Colloquy will air on WMHT on Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. An archived Web cast may be viewed at http://mediasite.itops.rpi/edu/mediasite4/catalog/ and click on “Colloquy” in the left menu.
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