What I Learned from Forbidden Research

July 23, 2016

Earlier this week I had the privilege of attending the Forbidden Research conference with others from Berkman Klein. There the speakers posed the question of “[h]ow can we most effectively harness responsible, ethical disobedience aimed at challenging the norms, rules, or laws that sustain society’s injustices?” This was explored both through panel discussions and also some announcements that were made at the conference. At the end of the conference I felt refreshed and motivated.

The panel that most resonated with me was the panel about the hacks at MIT. There they discussed the process and rules that MIT and its students follow in relation to the famous hacks that involve placing objects on top of the MIT dome. That panel helped me understand that while the students were breaking the rules, there were still a set of norms that governed that rule breaking. Both them and the administration understood it was something that happens and that the students would endeavor to conduct their activities in a responsible and ethical manner despite the fact it was not allowed.

The biggest takeaway I got from the panel is that often it is better to be proactive in reaching out to enforcement agencies than to have egos clash in public later. The other big takeaway is that breaking the rules is often fine if it works, but you can quickly be disavowed if it fails. I think it is fairly evident that we do not have enough space and room for people to experiment and fail in this world, and while I appreciate the idea of the prize that was presented at the conference, I think another good action item would have been to spend time figuring out how we can create more spaces for rule breakers to fail safely and ethically.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.