Yesterday, my colleague, James McClellan, and I held a discussion group on Hurricane Sandy with students at Hoboken’s Stevens Institute of Technology, where James and I are professors. Both of us are members of the College of Arts and Letters’ new Program on Science and Technology Studies. We called the event “Sandy Studies: Exploring Science and Technology Through Our Experiences and Difficulties.”
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The students taught me a great deal.
I want to say a few things. First, Stevens President Nariman Farvardin, Provost George Korfiatis, Dean Ken Nilsen, Holly Nelson, and the other faculty, staff, and campus police working on campus right now have done an amazing job of keeping the students sheltered, fed, healthy, and safe. Many students are still on campus, and perhaps just as many are in off-campus housing in Hoboken, most without power. Providing comfort to this many people during a disaster would be a tough task for any school, but the people here have done astoundingly good work. In the room where I have been writing and uploading most of these blog posts, I am surrounded by students who spend the entire day playing video games, which is precisely what some of them would have been doing today had there been no Sandy whatsoever. Normalcy matters. So hats off to everyone who has kept campus running.
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Second, you consistently hear around town that Stevens students are providing a real backbone for volunteer efforts in Hoboken. I’ve only been in this city and at Stevens for about ten weeks, and I am aware that my opinion does not mean much: But I could not be more proud of our students who have set their worries aside to help people worse off here in Hoboken. For instance, our students have been bringing necessary prescription medications, water, and other supplies to, often elderly or disabled, people who are stuck in high rise apartments, some over fifteen stories high.
Let me give you one other example: Two nights ago, I worked an overnight shift at a Red Cross shelter. My shift mostly involved sitting in a bright flourescent-ly lit kitchen, talking to a nice guy who does freelance work for MTV and reading a book about Robert Merton. The head of the shelter, a woman named Rose, has not left the shelter for more than a few minutes at a time since the hurricane struck. She sleeps on a cot in the back. Rose told me that the shelter received an elderly woman and as well as an assistant, another woman who tends to her daily needs. Their routines of care required privacy, but the shelter is one big, open room. Rose turned to some Stevens students who were helping there. They were engineers, and they acted like it. They looked at what raw materials lay at hand, and they built a sturdy, triangular screen within the shelter that has given the women privacy and a little more comfort ever since.
After I left the shelter, I went back to my apartment and slept for two hours. It’s cold in there. Then I got up and prepared to meet the students.
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At the discussion group, we learned, once again, how individual our reactions to technological changes and depravations are. One student (half-jokingly) jones-ed for his video games, which are unplayable in his powerless apartment. Another, however, said that being without technology was not a big deal to her. You learn funny things. The runners on campus have continued practicing and have invited non-runners to join them to while away the time. The fencing team, however, cannot practice, and they are itching to do so. The room that holds their foils was turned into the city’s triage center, after the hospital here closed. Ambulances come and go throughout the day, bringing the sick and injured.
We talked about technological systems. James McClellan has been talking for several days about the interconnection and interdependency of systems. He gave the students some historical perspective on how recent, in relative historical terms, industrial society really is. He outlined in simple, clear terms some of Thomas Hughes’ ideas: it’s not enough to have the light bulb, you need the wires, the generating station, the fuel, the managers, and the sales force to make the whole system worked. These are, of course, what we call sociotechnical systems, combinations of human agents and technological artifacts. People didn’t “naturally” adopt these systems either. For instance, as Mark Rose and others have shown, electrical utilities gave housewives electrical appliances in early 1900s to try to get them to use electricity at home.
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What historians have too rarely emphasized, however, is how interconnected all of our systems have become. We called it the “supersystem.” Sea water may have corroded the electrical substation here in Hoboken, but if we are to replace those parts, we will need to use other systems, like roadways or rail lines, which were down for some time after the storm. Yesterday, I heard that north in New York, where fuel is running short, there is a refinery full of gasoline, but it requires electricity to pump it out. The mind boggles. Hold on, you have fuel right there, and it didn’t occur to you that you should perhaps build a generator on site? Interdependency, not fail safe-redundancy, is the norm.
One student works during the summers for a large petroleum company in Houston. She remarked on how better prepared the people and systems are for severe weather there. This brought up a discussion about the role of cost-benefit analysis in engineering. How much money should we spend to ensure that the New York subway will not be flooded again? We will have to rethink our infrastructure.
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Recently, I have been reading my friend Yulia Frumer’s work on the history of time and time-keeping in Japan. Yulia shows beautifully how scientific instruments slowly shifted conceptions of time during the Edo period. She draws out attention to how concrete, material technologies undergird our awareness of time’s passing. Everyone in the discussion talked about our changing awareness of time. People here often do not know the hour, let alone the minute. We no longer carry watches, and our cellphones are dead. Also, our days are beginning to bleed together. We can’t remember when events happened. We discussed how our memories are usually tied to regularized events (classes, meals, work, etc.) that have a dependable place in time. We are lacking those structures to hang our memories on. Moreover, the students are going to sleep earlier, with little to do once the sun goes down. One of the students went to breakfast for the first time in years. A night owl, he usually isn’t awake that early.
We also talked about the fake and doctored images that have circulated the web during this catastrophe.
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One of my clever students who was at the discussion likes to talk about what he calls “idiot mountain,” a different take on the old adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” The student invites us to imagine a graph in which a line shows the correlation of the relationship between knowledge and the willingness to talk about something. The more you know, the more willing you are to share on the topic. Yet, he posits that there would be an intense peak somewhere near the left of the graph, wherein people who know only a little bit feel a need to share with everyone they know. This is idiot mountain, and the student believes it explains much of internet culture, including the continued posting and reposting, Tweeting and re-Tweeting of these images.
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I must say that it felt odd, but somehow reassuring, to be holding a discussion in a classroom in the middle of a disaster zone. Later, I likened it to a teach-in, something that James (Columbia University, Class of ’68) knows a thing or two about. I don’t think he minded the analogy.
I mean the title of this blog post as a kind of half joke. The “teachable moment” has become a ubiquitous cliche. Yet, I am learning here as are my students. And they are teaching me so much–about technology but, more importantly, about human resiliency. At some point, we will have to make a transition back to our everyday lives: they will be students; I will be a professor. I have been thinking about what I will say then, when I walk into the classroom again. I would love to hear what how anyone reading this is planning on teaching Sandy and what materials they plan to use. Please comment below. But if you are not the kind of person to comment on a blog, you can write me at email@example.com.
(I want to thank Holly Nelson for putting together the discussion group and for organizing the book swap tonight, where I plant to unload a small mountain of science fiction on the students.)