Each year MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society offers the Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize to the MIT student submitting the best written work (under 50 pages) on issues in science, technology, and society. The Prize was established in 1990 by family and friends to honor the memory of Benjamin Siegel, S.B. 1938, Ph.D. The $2500 Prize is open to undergraduate and graduate students at MIT from any department or school.
The Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize is closed for the 2021-2022 academic year.
TO: MIT Graduate and Undergraduate students
The Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize of $2500 is offered to the MIT student submitting the best written work on issues in science, technology, and society. The Prize is open to undergraduate and graduate students from any school or department of the Institute.
- Single-authored work on issues in science, technology, and society.
- No more than 50 pages.
- Written within the last two academic years.
- Include one cover page with author’s name, title of paper, contact info (email/phone), year, and program of study.
- DO NOT include any self-identifiers within the body of the work (ie: no mention of your name anywhere).
“Making Quantification in the Age and Wake of Slavery”, by Hampton Smith, Architecture
MIT’s STS Program is pleased to announce it has awarded the 2021-22 Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize to Hampton Smith, for the essay “Making Quantification in the Age and Wake of Slavery.” Hampton is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Architecture. This year’s selection committee is composed of Chakanetsa Mavhunga and Sherry Turkle.
The goal of Hampton’s essay is to look at the experience of blackness through a new lens, one that does not satisfy itself with narration, but looks at materials that can be made to reveal previously unread quantification, for example, basketry. The essay shares its personal roots: “I grew up going to Charleston, South Carolina on vacation . . . I would always make it a point to watch local basket makers. I suppose those experiences are what lead me to this project.”
The essay’s argument begins with the violent archival materials related to the history of slave trading—ledgers, bills of landing, and other accounting instruments with which traders monitored and measured their investments. Then, it repositions black people (women in this case) as co-producers of quantification, [and] going beyond the ship ledgers or accountant manuals “to develop a historical counter-archive, … to read for black knowledges of quantification in an altogether different archive of slavery.” It is then that the essay turns to basketry as an example of such an archive, along with W. E. B. Dubois’s graphic visualizations, the one typically unrecognizable as a form of quantification, the other a banal one (i.e. data visualizations).
The virtues of this work are many: It opens a new research direction on studies of quantification, the transatlantic trade in Africans as slaves, and the plantation experience, by centralizing the quantified as quantifiers in their own right. Second, rather than relying on the slave master and seller’s written archive, Hampton classifies as text that STS scholarships traditionally reads as artifacts rather than writing. Third, it joins the literature that troubles definitions of the scientific and the technological in new global conversations.
-Chakanetsa Mavhunga and Sherry Turkle
This year’s selection committee, composed of David Kaiser and Rosalind Williams, decided to award the prize this year to two papers that use compelling case studies to illustrate how information systems are also political projects:
- “Quantifying the ‘National Physique’: Deterioration, Degeneracy, and the British National Anthropometric Survey, 1904,” by Michelle Spektor, HASTS
- “Deprivation Codes: Mississippi’s Welfare System in the Age of Computers,” by Marc Aidinoff, HASTS
In “Quantifying the ‘National Physique’: Deterioration, Degeneracy, and the British National Anthropometric Survey, 1904,” by Michelle Spektor, HASTS, traces the emergence of plans for a national survey of body measurements of British citizens after a 1903 War Office memorandum warned that 60% of the men considered for military enlistment in the previous two years were physically unfit for service. A national biometric survey was proposed to study reasons and possible remedies for this dismal state of national health. As debated by anthropologists, politicians, and others, however, the proposed survey began to be discussed as a means of identifying racial characteristics that might prove superiority of a supposed British “national race.” Would the Survey become primarily a measure of nature or of nurture?
Debates over this question, and skepticism about the value of such an ambitious program, eventually dampened enthusiasm for a national anthropometric survey. By World War I any plans for it had faded away. However, the issues it raised—especially possible connections between biometrics and national identity—were raised again in 2004 in the form of a proposed “national identity scheme” that would issue IDs linked to a national identity register. This program was put into effect but was repealed after the 2010 elections. In its short life it revived, without resolving, concerns about the exclusionary implications of biometric information systems.
The other prize-winning paper, also a case study of information systems that promote political objectives, is “Deprivation Codes: Mississippi’s Welfare System in the Age of Computers,” by Marc Aidinoff, HASTS. This work begins with the now-familiar announcement by a bureaucracy that it intends to implement a modern, efficient, cost-saving computer system. In the case this announcement was made in 1987 by the State of Mississippi concerning the benefit system known as AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). The practical purpose of the system was to distribute practical financial support to those who needed it. Its symbolic purpose was to demonstrate the modernization of the Deep South through its entry into the “information age.”
The new computer system, however, incorporated suspicions about the honesty of recipients, especially that of “deadbeat dads,” which gave it a coercive dimension. Its design linked AFDC benefit payments to means of withholding income for debt collection. As the system developed, welfare benefits became connected with law enforcement. They were held up not only for overdue child support but also for other offenses such as suspended licenses. In the end, the writer concludes, “There was no welfare state separate from the carceral state—the two were integrated as one machine.”
This evolution is presented not just as an abstract argument but as lived experience, through the work habits of a caseworker in Mississippi whose job evolved from looking into the eyes of the recipient to looking mostly at a computer screen. Similarly, the case study of the British National Anthropometric Survey uses detailed archival evidence to trace the personalities and work experiences of the main actors. Both writers pay careful attention to the language used by the individuals and groups who are making their cases. They also choose their own language carefully in describing the intentions and motivations of the actors involved. Most of all, Michelle Spektor and Marc Aidinoff focus intently on their core argument: that information systems incorporate intentions and anxieties beyond the stated ones, and that the information age is also always an age of politics.
“The Coronavirus Chronicles: Emergence of a Global Pandemic” by Jesse Gordon, Chemistry Department
Link to the essay:“The Coronavirus Chronicles: Emergence of a Global Pandemic.”
MIT’s STS program is pleased to announce that it has awarded the 2020 Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize to Jesse Gordon, for his essay “The Coronavirus Chronicles: Emergence of a Global Pandemic.” Gordon is a fourth-year doctoral student in Professor Gabriela Schlau-Cohen’s group in the Department of Chemistry.
Each year MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society offers the Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize to the MIT student submitting the best written work (under 50 pages) on issues in science, technology, and society. The Prize was established in 1990 by family and friends to honor the memory of Benjamin Siegel, S.B. 1938, Ph.D. The $2500 Prize is open to undergraduate and graduate students at MIT from any department or school. This year’s selection committee is composed of David Mindell and Rosalind Williams.
Here’s how the selection committee described the winning paper:
“Among the entries, Gordon’s essay is unique for its two voices. The text opens in the first-person as account of the graduate student recalling when, barely two months ago, he first realized, “the gravity of the situation” of the novel coronavirus outbreak, through an email sent through his group’s messaging system. Then the text shifts to a third-person description of the medical symptoms and mortality rates of the new disease we now know as COVID-19. The rest of the essay continues to alternate between the voice of scientific inquiry and that of personal experience.
Jesse Gordon told us that he first considered writing this personal account as a way of coming to terms with the “surreal” events that were unfolding so quickly. After hearing about the Siegel competition, he considered writing a submission about the coronavirus as a research topic, which would challenge him to learn more about virology, immunology, and medical science. Eventually he decided to do both: “I wanted to distill the scientific literature into a form that would be understandable to a general audience, as well as write about my first-hand perspective.”
Readers will be drawn by this portrayal of MIT as a place where academic inquiry and community awareness develop interactively and simultaneously. By honoring “The Coronavirus Chronicles” with the Siegel Writing Prize, we hope to encourage other MIT students to imagine broad audiences for their writing. Jesse Gordon’s essay has already been published by his department as part of a quarantine diaries series. It has contributed to the MIT Libraries Distinctive Collection project, which is assembling original materials related to COVID-19. “The Coronavirus Chronicles” is a timely, compelling statement reminding us all that science and humanity are inseparable.”
Congratulations to Jesse Gordon for his prize-winning essay, and my thanks to Roz Williams and David Mindell for serving as the faculty representatives on this year’s STS Committee on Honors and Prizes.
“All of Us? A Case for Ritual Communication in Community Engagement for Health Equity” by Samuel R. Mendez, Comparative Media Studies | Writing
Sam’s paper addresses a pervasive, fundamental challenge in medical communication: the lack of trust on the part of medically underserved communities when their members are invited to engage in participatory research.
In the first part of the paper, Sam reviews concepts of encoding/decoding and ritual communication, suggesting that they open up research questions to public engagement beyond the limits of transmission-based models of communication. The second part of the paper describes structural factors that distort the messages that community engagement programs carry with them into local communities. The paper then develops a “Health Equity Distortion” model of community engagement. It ends by showing how a current effort to advance health equity (the “All of Us” program of the Precision Medicine Initiative in Illinois) might unintentionally contribute to rather than diminish current structures of inequality.
The paper supplements academic research with brief accounts of personal experience, sketches, illustrations, and telling quotations from non-academics who are wrestling with the same structural issues. In this way the paper illustrates its own argument that achieving health equity will require new and more varied kinds of communication between historically underserved people and research institutions. “Where there is currently a hurdle of mistrust,” Sam notes optimistically, “there is also tremendous opportunity to incorporate more viewpoints into a system that can better serve many different communities’ needs.” His analysis of and concern for social inequalities in the American health care system are commendable. We congratulate Samuel R. Mendez for this excellent piece of work.”
“Gender and the Measurement of Fertility: A Case Study in Critical Metrology” by Marion Boulicault, Philosophy Department
We are pleased to award the 2018 Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize to “Gender and the Measurement of Fertility: A Case Study in Critical Metrology” by Marion Boulicault, a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. This paper is a meditation—informed by scientific papers, feminist science studies, philosophy, and Science and Technology Studies—on the “liminal field” of fertility science, its interplay with the politics of gender difference, and the different notions of time and life-course that discussions of fertility evoke. Infertility carries a strong stigma, but its very definition is elusive. Boulicault approaches these issues through metrology—the study of measurement. In her hands, metrology serves as a thread to connect the different levels of the fertility question. In doing so, however, she also alerts readers to the fact that the very act of measuring fertility, which might appear to exist outside these debates, is in fact defined by them.
Boulicault combines humanistic reflection with a lucid description of the scientific and technical ideas at the core of how fertility has been measured. Her analytical talents are on display in a comparative analysis of Ovarian Reserve Testing and semen analysis. While infertility can be thought of as a problem touching on the reproductive lives of both women and men, the problem is figured very differently in each case. The discourse of fertility around women tends to emphasize body and individual responsibility, whereas that around male infertility tends to focus on environmental factors that are beyond the control of the individual. By tracing how these ideas are built into the very processes of measuring fertility. Boulicaut suggests that we need a different view of the metrics that we use to understand this debate. Her analysis has far ranging implications for how women and men structure their personal and professional lives. “If nature isn’t a feminist, perhaps that’s at least partially because our metrics aren’t either.”
“When Inspiration Yielded to Calculation: Technology and Politics of the SST in the New Frontier” by John Tylko, HASTS
We are pleased to award the 2017 Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize to “When Inspiration Yielded to Calculation: Technology and Politics of the SST in the New Frontier,” by John Tylko, a Ph.D. student in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, & Society (HASTS) Program. This paper offers a captivating account of the ill-fated American program to develop supersonic transport (SST) for commercial aviation during the 1960s. Drawing upon a remarkable array of historical sources—including government documents (some recently unclassified), technical papers, corporate annual reports, personal letters, audio recordings, and oral history interviews—Tylko has meticulously reconstructed how the dream of achieving supersonic passenger transport, once a central aspiration of American aviation policy, fell into disfavor and was abandoned less than a decade later. It is a story of how the technological “inspiration” that characterized President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” gave way in the face of competing “calculations” of technical feasibility, political expediency, and economic profitability.
Equally at ease discussing the technicalities of turbofan engines and the machinations of congressmen, cabinet secretaries, and CEOs, Tylko offers a masterful study in the entanglements of politics and technology—and how much is to be gained by studying their respective histories in tandem. In one sense, Tylko’s paper uses the history of supersonic aviation technologies to tell a vivid, human account of a significant turning-point in postwar American public policy, when efficiency became a guiding virtue in governmental practice. At the same time, the article makes creative use of political archives and political dramas to explain a significant turning-point in the history of aeronautical engineering, when speed ceased to be a guiding pursuit in the development of commercial aircraft. All told, “When Inspiration Yielded to Calculation” offers a memorable lesson in how the values that shape our technologies and the values that shape our polities are forged together.
“Policing in the Digital Porno-Tropics: Expertise, Entrapment, and the Fight Against Child Abuse Online” by Mitali Thakor, HASTS
We are pleased to award the 2016 Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize to “Policing in the Digital Porno-Tropics: Expertise, Entrapment, and the Fight Against Child Abuse Online,” by Mitali Thakor. This paper, which draws upon her larger dissertation research on digital child exploitation, provides an insightful exploration and critique of recent efforts by members of child exploitation “anti-networks” to deploy digital avatars as a means of entrapping those who use the internet to solicit sex from children. In her cogent and incisive essay, Thakor provides a fascinating ethnographic portrait of members of the Dutch organization Terre Des Hommes and their technical allies who conceived and designed this avatar—dubbed “Project Sweetie”—which eventually netted a list of over 1000 individuals, resulting in 50 arrests.
Thakor also draws upon the critical insights offered by scholars of gender, law, and STS to offer some important cautions to this form of technical crusade. Why did Terre Des Hommes, formerly focused on direct aid to children in poverty, launch “Project Sweetie”? What assumptions about childhood exploitation were built into the design of the avatar? How can childhood sex crime be policed and punished when the target is approached by an avatar rather than a child? The answers to these questions, Thakor argues, raise broader concerns about the ways in which police forces and governments use child safety to justify larger regimes of surveillance. Her study of “Project Sweetie” suggests that new non-state actors which develop power to monitor and police online behavior may become aligned with many of the same institutions that create the structural conditions for child exploitation to begin with. Thakor’s paper thus leaves us with a keen sense of the pitfalls of seeking technical fixes for problems with deeper roots.
“Contested Landscapes: Staking Claims in Michigan’s Copper Country” by Elizabeth Yarina, Architecture and City Planning
We are pleased to award the 2015 Benjamin Siegel prize to “Contested Landscapes: Staking Claims in Michigan’s Copper Country” by Elizabeth Yarina. The paper offers a novel, nuanced, and timely reading of the role that particular narratives of nature and natural resource play in competing land claims. Weaving diverse case material (aerial photographs, blog posts, water samples, toxic wast studies, protest songs) into a captivating storyline, the author parses the distinct “valuation regimes” of different actor groups in Michigan’s Copper Country: landscape as commodity; as heritage; as status; as ecological system; as natural resource. Written as part of Prof. Rania Ghosn’s course Landscapes of Energy, “Contested Landscapes” combines cogent writing, compelling graphics, and the creative application of concepts and ideas within science and technology studies to an important contemporary issue. We particularly want to point out the beautiful graphic and visual design of the paper, which enhances the readers’ understanding of both the text and the data. The author closes with an argument for “new and revised methods of ownership and regulation as we examine claims to earth, air, water, and biology.”
“What We Should Do Before the Social Bots Take Over: Online Privacy Protection and the Political Economy of Our Near Future” by Erhardt Graeff, Media Arts and Sciences
Erhardt’s exceptional essay, “What We Should Do Before the Bots Take Over: Online Privacy Protection and the Political Economy of Our Near Future”, was chosen among a very strong pool of thirty entries. The essay examines the ethical and legal ramifications of web robots in our everyday lives. From drones to self-driving cars to ‘web-crawlers’, Erhardt shows that for all their myriad benefits, bots inspire fear of loss of control and invasion of privacy.
Focusing on “social bots” (software agents enabling two-way human-machine communication through natural language), he makes a compelling case for legislation that defines a general right to privacy of all US citizens. Such legislation, he says, would specify without any ambiguity whose right it is to access and control every citizen’s personal information. Such a platform of rights would serve as a firm foundation for audible industry design standards that inherently value and honor users’ rights to privacy and design them into technology.
“The Bots” is an essay that speaks to and tackles the disequilibrium between technology and the values that define being human in a tech-saturated milieu; and it does so through meticulous research.