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Breastfeeding, Technology and the Symbolism of Progress

Iâ 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 Scien
ce, Technology & Society are rather atypical among STS majors.
We are far more typical in the sense that STS represented a disciplinary framewo
rk that allowed us, and indeed, required us, to reconcile interests in science a
nd engineering with pursuits in public policy and business and the humanities. I
n my case, Stanford topped my list of schools precisely because such an interdis
ciplinary 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 theyâ d learned in the their STS courses b
ack to our dinner table in DC. The discussions were lively, colorful and ranged
from trivial speculation on the latest gadgets or Internet startups to ruminatio
ns on the role of mobile infrastructure in international development and the imp
lications of failures in STEM education to future of minority communities.
This is to say, even before I came to Stanford, my engagement with STS as a disc
ipline was stimulating, horizon expanding and eminently relevant to people and p
laces 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 to
wer pursuit. It has been personal.
Professor McGinn and many others have encouraged and empowered us not only to un
derstand theories and frameworks in the abstract, but also to engage in a person
al sort of inquiry. We were encouraged to think about lofty questions such as wh
at values are embedded in and engendered by technologies.
But we were also invited to think about the fabric and fibre of our own lives an
d be rigorous, deliberate and experimental in deciding which technologies we wil
l use and which we will not, which add richness and variety to our lives, and wh
ich have unacceptable costs.
For me, STS has provided principles and insights that will actually inform the w
ay I live my life. It has grown my ethical mind and my ability to recognize nuan
ce and complexity, perspectives and stakeholders. It has taught me to balance ex
uberance with healthy skepticism and to be lucid about equivalencies â to understand
that an email is not a letter, nor an ereader a book nor the human mind a compu
ter.
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 solvi
ng 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 nouris
hing value.
In our time, the symbolism of progress has become deeply intertwined with techno
logy, 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 pa
rt in the way we solve trenchant global problems. But letâ s not forget the place of
sweat and labor and paradigm change; letâ s not forget that the most important endeav
ors facing us are not technical ones, but rather have to do with expanding and r
e-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 â a sort of blues i
nflicted hope rather than a cheap American optimismâ .
That is to say, we must live the Senshimer-Baltimore debate â 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 o
ur world are actually delicate and impermanent, that we are constantly threatene
d by our own genius.
These are some of the things that STS has taught me. But to return to the idea o
f how STS has not just been lofty and abstract, but also personal â let me share wit
h you in closing, a story that is both deeply personal to me and quintessentiall
y STS.
I am one of 8 breastfed children. Bear with me here, I know the mention of breas
ts discomforts the puritan in every American. You see, in our times, this is a h
ighly 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 w
ork has been in teaching poor, minority women about the benefits and practice of
breastfeeding.
This is pretty bizarre in the sense that, only a generation or so ago, breastfee
ding was the only way to feed children, whereas now it has to be taught and advo
cated for, even among experts such as pediatric doctors. What happened over the
course of one generation that disrupted the transmission of a vital practice whi
ch had gone on uninterrupted for millennia? The answer, is manufactured baby for
mula and its lobby.
At a time in American history where the ability to consume manufactured industri
al goods became the ultimate barometer for upward mobility and success, nutrient
dense and far superior human breast milk was replaced with expensive, manufactu
red, 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 prog
ress, 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 abu
ndance. To the STS department professors, lecturers and staff, thank you, thank
you and thank you. To the parents, families and mentors, thank you, thank you an
d thank you. To all, be well and peace be upon you.