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MIT in Mourning

From the Editor in Chief
November 1, 2001

As the sun rose on September 11, we were already in mourning in our new offices at One Main Street in Cambridge. A dear friend and supporter of Technology Review had just died, suddenly and shockingly. Michael Dertouzos was the director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and a pioneer in the development of computing technology. The LCS, as it’s called around here, was the place where time-sharing was invented, along with the spreadsheet and many other innovations in information technology. Dertouzos was widely mourned in the computing community and the world at large, but his loss was felt particularly keenly in our office, since he had supported the new Technology Review from its inception.

Michael Dertouzos

Very early in my tenure at this magazine I was introduced to Dertouzos by our publisher and CEO Bruce Journey. Over lunch, I told this imposing outsized Greek what kind of magazine I wanted the new Technology Review to be-a magazine devoted to the subject of innovation. He was interested. Since he was a famous innovator, I asked him what subjects such a magazine ought to cover regularly. His eyes lit up and he paused, holding the silence perhaps just a beat longer than strictly necessary, and then answered with a flourish: “The Three Queens!”

The Three Queens turned out to be information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology. Now, those three choices weren’t surprising to me. Information technology and biotechnology were no-brainers, and I had learned a lot about nanotechnology in my previous job at Science magazine. Still, having someone of Dertouzos’s stature dramatically confirm these choices was a powerful experience. There and then the shape of the new TR crystallized.

As I got to know Michael better, it became clear to me that the thing that really moved him was the necessity to reconcile new technology and human needs. He was convinced that the fundamental relationship between us and our machines, especially these demanding new machines called computers, was reversed: we were serving them rather than the other way around. They should be our servants, he insisted, an argument that put human beings back in the center of the cosmos-where, according to Greek humanism and Michael’s religious beliefs, they had belonged all the time.

So I asked him to write a column on that subject, and since I’d hit on his passion, he agreed. The result, called “The People’s Computer,” appeared in every issue of our magazine for the first two and a half years after its relaunch in May of 1998. Along the way, I learned that although Michael didn’t write for a living, his writing habits were thoroughly professional. His column fit the space available, almost to the word, every time, and it was generally written before his deadline. (Ask any editor how common that is.)

Along the way, as Michael Dertouzos moved from supporter of TR to columnist, he also became a friend and mentor to me, a source of emotional strength in learning about the MIT community. Therefore it was crushing to hear that Michael had died suddenly. Although he had had medical problems over the summer, he had seemed to be recuperating well, and news of his death was devastating.

Painful as that experience was, it was swept aside by what happened on September 11 in New York and Washington. Like every other community in the nation, MIT was emotionally leveled by the pictures on our television screens. The campus came to a halt as students and teachers turned to each other for comfort. Technology Review has assembled a group of stories on the tragedy and its aftermath, drawing on the expertise of the MIT faculty.

Danny Lewin

We have also sustained our own casualties. One of the foremost among them was a brilliant young innovator from the Laboratory for Computer Science that Michael Dertouzos led. Daniel Lewin, chief technology officer of the high-tech company Akamai Technologies, died on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles when it hit the World Trade Center’s north tower at 8:45 a.m. As a student of LCS professor Tom Leighton, Lewin had developed algorithms that make it possible to manage the profuse and disorderly traffic of the Web.

Lewin was only 31 when he died. His ascent had been so rapid that he did not yet have his doctorate from MIT, even though, along with Leighton, he had already helped found Akamai to commercialize his algorithms. In a sad and painful irony, the very algorithms Lewin devised helped keep many large news sites on the Web from failing on September 11.

It will take a long time to draw out the lessons of these events. But it is already clear that technology was threaded through it all, for better and for worse. As we pick through the devastation, the thing that keeps recurring to me is Michael Dertouzos’s insistence on the primacy of humanity, not technology. Our machines exist to serve us and they serve our purposes faithfully. A Boeing 767 can be a remarkably reliable form of transport or a suicide bomb. It is clearer than ever before that what we make of our technology depends on what is in our hearts.

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