Jul 24 • 1HR 6M

⚡ MIT: Progressions & Regressions

The history of The Institute, and why we should care (plus "Reboot team" voice reveal)

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I was recently informed that it’s totally unclear who the “Reboot team” signoff is, which makes personal notes about taking the bus around LA very confusing. So… hi, I’m Jessica, one of Reboot’s cofounders. I’ve been running the newsletter/ writing intros and microdoses since December, and editing essays for it for a little longer. Also as a bonus(?) this week you get to find out what I sound like.


When I heard my friend Luke Igel was making a documentary about MIT, I was equal parts impressed and skeptical — impressed, because that sounds so incredibly difficult to do, and skeptical, because I wasn’t sure how much the history of MIT would matter to anyone who wasn’t already affiliated with the university.

My skepticism was unwarranted. MIT: REGRESSIONS, which covers the period of time between World War II and the start of covid-19, is fascinating; over these decades, the same questions come up over and over again: military involvement and warmaking, student activism, (military and private) funding, career decisions, student and campus life. I got to watch an early rough-cut of the film, and today, I’m super excited to share a Q&A with the co-director Luke.

(Watch the trailer!!)

I had a TON of fun having this conversation. I’ve excerpted just a bit below, but in the full audio we talk about so much more: to what extent is MIT [history] unique, and to what extent can we extrapolate to universities in general? What is the purpose of an academic institution? What’s capital-P progress, and how do we get there? Who should pay for all of this? Why does student life matter in the context of more macro-level politics? And we talk about the making of the film as well — how do you even make a documentary?!, how to balance storytelling and argument and ~vibes~.

Luke Igel is an undergraduate at MIT and co-director, with Wesley Block, of the feature-length documentary, MIT: REGRESSIONS. He’s previously worked on the Mars Perseverance rover’s self-driving system at NASA JPL and the Starlink satellite constellation at SpaceX. Find him on Twitter @lukeigel.


📽 history matters

J: How did you get started, and why did you decide to make a full-length documentary? 

L: My friend recommended this movie HyperNormalisation by a BBC journalist named Adam Curtis. I watched it back in November of 2020, COVID was peaking, and this movie just completely blew my mind: this vast expanse of archival footage, spanning the history of America, Britain, various other countries from the 1970s onwards, overlaid with this strange, atmospheric and hypnotic industrial music.

And I thought, well, it would be funny if I made a parody of this movie, but with footage of MIT. And my good friend Wesley, I sent him this joke video that I made that was 2 1/2 minutes, and immediately he was like, let's write a script for this

So we write a broad overview. But then — ok, what if we were to add narration? What if we go over footage of the 50s and 60s and 70s that we can download from YouTube? And quickly the scripts turn from 10 to 15, to 50 to 100 pages.

There’s this guy named Kenny who published this movie called MIT: Progressions which came out in 1969, looking at what students were like in the late 60s while the Vietnam protests were at their peak, while the student body was becoming far more diverse, during the first decade that women were even [on campus] in large numbers. And there were just these gorgeous shots of students hanging around on campus. We were like, if we can capture this vibe, but across all 80 years, this is something we have to work on.

We found that MIT: Progressions was not the only documentary about MIT that examines student life. We found a very similar version of this from the 90s; there’s this really strange one from the 30s that was just called Technology, and it was just them going around like this dinky biology lab. Apparently MIT’s biology department was not nearly as respected back then, so it’s just one guy with a test tube, just staring at a bacteria, and then they show off the really cool boats that they were good at making back then….

I think the core topics that we cover: the military's role at MIT, the vast series of protests throughout campus, whether it's because of America's war in Vietnam, because of MIT's treatment of the homeless and people of low income housing in Cambridge in the 1980s, all these different things were so incredibly compelling that we wanted to build a script around them.

We knew that this was crucial and we knew that we had to build this story up over the course of many hours [i.e. a feature-length documentary] in order to make it so that this moment fully made sense.

[I want to talk about] this history of student protests at MIT. Something that's really striking about the earlier decades, especially, around the Vietnam War, is how militant and genuinely radical student activism was. The protests you can see onscreen, they're super intense, to the extent that riot police were called in, there was some violent enforcement action, students were imprisoned. 

And all of this feels very radical to me now. But it also feels like a lot of the student body was on board with it, the UA, the — I don't know what that stands for — it's like the presidency of the student body. 

The Undergraduate Association. 

Yes.  

The student council president guy. 

Yes, like the person who won that election ran on a very radical platform. And there were even public conversations about whether the fact that Noam Chomsky was antiwar but also a professor, if that served to legitimize the institution [and neutralize critique]. 

I was really surprised watching this because my perception—and correct me if this is unfair—but I think my perception of 2022 MIT, as someone who has a lot of friends affiliated with MIT and based on conversations with people I know, is that generally the student body feels pretty apolitical, if not actively antipolitical. Which feels like a huge shift from this very intense and [visceral] political engagement from several decades ago. Why do you think this happened? 

I would agree. Things do feel pretty apolitical depending on — I think every major has a stereotype…. 

A lot of the work that we tried to do when we covered the 1960s was to explain how students went from very apolitical — as they are now — to very engaged, and then how they went back down to their current state. That is much of what we try to examine in the 70s and 80s onward. 

There are all these different forces, and there are many different voices coming to students, insisting that we do have the power — in the case of the anti war protests — to end war research at MIT. You're referring to Michael Albert. He ran for UA president in the late 60s and he ended up winning on a run-off — as a write-in, saying that he wants to end all war research at MIT, he wants to adopt the demands of the Black Students Union, which had recently formed at the time. 

And if you were to look at what the platforms of all the other Undergraduate Association candidates were, it was like, “As president of MIT, I will be someone who respects you,” you know, just normal stuff. 

I asked one of the people who was involved in this whole protest scene. He was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society chapter at MIT. His name is George. He's a major character later on in that chapter. 

After we interviewed him, I said to him, like, “What do you think happened? I mean, you've been to — there were protests against the US invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s, and you were there. Seems like they weren't as intense when you were a student — what's going on?”

He was like, “Well, the war ended.” 

I was like, “Oh. Yeah, I guess you're right.” 

And I think there is some truth to that, right? 

I think a lot of the militancy that we see throughout the entire country, and even in other nations, like in France in the late 60s. I think part of it was because a lot of these kids genuinely felt like their lives were at risk because they were, in very real senses. 

And I think the reason that doesn't happen anymore is because we don't draft people. The US government, the US military does not draft kids and crucially, does not draft middle class kids who go to universities and have time to protest. 

Instead, it's volunteer based and there are other ways in order to get the numbers that they need. And I think that the way in which it very, very directly affected all of the men on campus and all the women as well, I think contributed a lot to why people felt like they had nothing to lose. Why people were willing to get their skulls swatted at by riot police. (Albeit riot police were much less heavily armored than they are today, but still.)

And I think it's because they genuinely felt that they were at risk of getting sent off to war, and I think it's a very different incentive than we have today, the incentive for protesting. 

Nowadays I think a lot of it — 

Yeah, say more about nowadays. 

Well, I think [in the film] we talked about extensively in the 1980s, the rise of what seems to be careerism or the rise of the yuppie. We try to go a lot into why war research — working at Boeing, Draper, Raytheon, and others — is not the most sexy thing you can do as a student at MIT, and from what I gather, it's the same at other engineering-centric schools. 

And I think that’s because they now had to compete with even richer companies. These companies of the new economy from the 1970s onward, that came from the rise of digital computation and “the neoliberal turn,” as some people like to call it. There’s a large series of deregulations that occurred from the 70s and 80s onward that made it so that high finance was able to reclaim some of its pre-Great Depression hegemony. So Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, they were more encouraged to hire some of the top MIT, Stanford, Yale students from throughout the entire country, whereas before it was much more sleepy, much more legacy based. The Dow was growing a healthy 2, 3% per year, but as inflation was taking off in the 70s and 80s, you saw a massive need across the entire economy to massively increase the rate of productivity, increase the rate of profitability. And what that meant was the sorts of jobs that you need out of the average graduating class of MIT was going to change, there is more than just producing weapons of war and there is more than just working in these various organs of the state. 

And I think there's a good quote from Chomsky. He's speaking in front of the student center and I myself was shocked to see that he's just hanging in front of the student center, just talking to a group of like 20 kids. 

He's like, “you’re going to encounter a lot of pressure to work for the State Department to work at a military contractor to work as a” — I think what he said was — “a pragmatic planner of the American empire.” Right? “And every single incentive is going to point towards you doing that. And it's up to you, whether you want to succumb to that or not.”

And I think that same logic still applies, but it’s more towards high finance and it’s more towards tech. It's more towards these new parts of the economy that have since grown in importance since Chomsky gave that speech. And I think that leads to a sense of apathy, and I think that leads to a sense that there's a lot more to lose if you act really rude and really, really rude to your professors and your president by protesting. I think your odds of doing well in your career are going to go down significantly. 

Isn’t that a little bit depressing? Based on what you're describing of the war protests, it was maybe less about the actual politics of the war, and more about, you know, the fact that you as a student may have had to leave and go fight and possibly die. When I watched the film I was like “wow, these people really care about politics.” Are you saying that a lot of the reason that they cared about politics was primarily out of self-interest for their own livelihoods? 

No, I don't want to emphasize that too much. I think we give an incredible amount of screen time to the horrific images that were coming out of Vietnam that journalists were putting on American TV and like everyone was forced to watch. Just the footage of forests, of villages just getting bombed relentlessly really did strike the the souls of everyone in America, especially kids on campus.  

And you see in some footage that we have of the November Actions, we see those two 20 year old students getting into a debate. That one guy is like, “Do you think it's right that they're dropping napalm on innocent women and children?” 

The other guy’s like, “Well, the National Liberation Front isn't much better either,” and they're going back and forth. And you don't really hear them mention well, “I'm upset with this 'cause I'm getting drafted.” But then at the very end of this exchange, the guy who's speaking out against the North Vietnamese army, he says, “I know all of this because I was there, and I saw the war crimes they were committing.”

And so I think there is this underlying tone. They do have a genuine moral revulsion. I think a lot of this was both a combination of what they were seeing in the media, testimony that they were hearing from people, and the fact that they were going to be forced to go in there. 

One of my math teachers, who I think was a student in Cambridge back in the 70s, said that he had consistent nightmares in his early 20s that his draft number was going to get called. And I remember I was like 19 when he told me this. I was like, damn, I just cannot imagine that happening to me right? I cannot imagine a world where the government would try that on my generation of people.


MIT: REGRESSIONS will be out soon! Be notified when the full-length feature drops by signing up for their mailing list here.


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🌀 microdoses

  • Topically — on engineering for war, on engineering for the sake of engineering

  • No comment for these two

💝 closing note

Remember Kernel? We’ve been hard at work on Issue 2, and are just starting to finalize copyedits for our first couple of essays!

Email or comment your best guesses about the context of this piece we recently finished… person with the best guess will get a Prize

A screenshot of a paragraph of text. All of it is blocked out, except for a phrase in the middle of the paragraph: "To a Bezos, a Benioff, or even a MrBeast,"

Oh to be at MIT in the 1930s… would you rather be “guy with a test tube staring at bacteria” or “be really good at making boats”?

Reboot team (… aka Jessica)