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Breastfeeding, Technology and the Symbolism of Progress

Stanford University – Science, Tech & Society Program Commencement – Student Address – June 13th, 2010

A couple of people have asked me to post the address I made at Stanford’s Science, Technology & Society Program commencement ceremony. I do this with some hesitation. Things were incredibly hectic in the days leading up to graduation and I ended up writing the speech, rather hung over, an hour or so before delivering it. That is to say, it’s not my most elegant or elaborated work, but it gets a point or two across I hope.

I’d like to begin by addressing a question to my fellow graduates: By show of hands, who knew coming in to Stanford that they would be an STS major? [only one hand is raised] Obviously, we who knew coming into Stanford that we would study Science, Technology & Society are rather atypical among STS majors.

We are far more typical in the sense that STS represented a disciplinary framework that allowed us, and indeed, required us, to reconcile interests in science and engineering with pursuits in public policy and business and the humanities. In my case, Stanford topped my list of schools precisely because such an interdisciplinary course of study existed.

There was more to it than that, though. I followed in the footsteps of an older brother and sister, who brought the things they’d learned in the their STS courses back to our dinner table in DC. The discussions were lively, colorful and ranged from trivial speculation on the latest gadgets or Internet startups to ruminations on the role of mobile infrastructure in international development and the implications of failures in STEM education to the future of minority communities.

This is to say, even before I came to Stanford, my engagement with STS as a discipline was stimulating, horizon expanding and eminently relevant to people and places I care about. It is no surprise then, that during my time here at Stanford, STS has been more than just an academic discipline, more than just an ivory tower pursuit. It has been personal.

Professor McGinn and many others have encouraged and empowered us not only to understand theories and frameworks in the abstract, but also to engage in a personal sort of inquiry. We were encouraged certainly, to think about lofty questions such as what values are embedded in and engendered by technologies.

But we were also invited to think about the fabric and fibre of our own lives and to be rigorous, deliberate and experimental in deciding which technologies we will use and which we will not, which add richness and variety to our lives, and which have unacceptable costs.

For me, STS has provided principles and insights that will actually inform the way I live my life. It has grown my ethical mind and my ability to recognize nuance and complexity, perspectives and stakeholders. It has taught me to balance exuberance with healthy skepticism and to be lucid about convenient equivalencies – to understand that an email is not a letter, nor an ereader a book nor the human mind a computer.

It has taught me that technology cannot be the chief barometer of human progress, lest we sucomb to the tragic ironies embodied in the fact that food production and prep technologies have created for us the problem of obesity, without solving the problem of hunger; embodied in the fact that technology has increased the variety and abundance of food we can eat, but in many cases degraded its nutritional value.

In our time, the symbolism of progress has become deeply intertwined with science and technology, but we we must not confuse the symbols of progress, for actual progress.

As we go out into the world we must understand that technology will play some part in the way we solve entrenched global problems. But let’s not forget the place of sweat and labor and paradigm change; let’s not forget that the most important endeavors facing us are not technical ones, but rather have to do with expanding and re-drawing our circles of empathy to be ever more inclusive.

As practitioners, if you will, of Science, Technology & Society in the world we must subscribe, in the words of one great public intellectual, to “a sort of blues inflicted hope rather than a cheap American optimism”.

That is to say, we must live the Sensheimer-Baltimore debate – tempering an optimism around technology based in the faith that somehow technology will solve the very problems that it engenders and perpetuates, with an understanding that we and our world are actually delicate and impermanent, that we are constantly threatened by our own genius.

These are some of the things that STS has taught me. But to return to the idea of how STS has not just been lofty and abstract, but also personal – let me share with you in closing, a story that is both deeply personal to me and quintessentially STS.

I am one of eight breastfed children. Bear with me here, I know the mention of breasts discomforts the puritan in every American. You see, in our times, this is a highly unusual occurrence. For over 30 years my mother has counseled mothers and families on the challenges of maternal and early childhood health. Much of her work has been in teaching poor, minority women about the benefits and practices of breastfeeding.

This is pretty bizarre in the sense that, only a generation or so ago, breastfeeding was the primary nutrition for infants. Today, breastfeeding has to be taught and advocated for, even among experts such as pediatric doctors. What happened over the course of one generation that disrupted the transmission of a vital practice which had gone uninterrupted for millennia? The answer, is manufactured infant formula and its lobby.

At a time in American history where the ability to consume manufactured industrial goods became the ultimate measure of upward mobility, nutrient dense and far superior human breast milk was replaced with expensive, manufactured, dairy-derived products. This is a perfect case study for the STS discipline. In this instance a food technology, infant formula, taken as a symbol of progress, won out over actual progress with deep cultural and health repercussions.

And with that story, I leave you. To my fellow graduates, I wish you joy and abundance. To the STS department professors, lecturers and staff, thank you, thank you and thank you. To our parents, families and mentors, thank you, thank you and thank you.