MIT Program on Knowledge, Learning & Progress

W. Curtiss Priest, Director

Background and Activities


Dr. W. Curtiss Priest was most recently a Research Affiliate in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program (CMS) from 2002-2007.  Curtiss contributed to CMS at the interface between media and public policy.  For example, in 2004 he was involved in FCC Public Forums, providing podcasts for forums that might have gone unheard and in 2004 published Media Concentration: A Case of Power, Ego, and Greed Confronting Our Sensibilities in Volume 53 of the American Law Review.  Dr. Priest  moderated and participated in several MIT Communications Forum Events. The forum was originally established by Ithiel De Sola Pool, author of Technologies for Freedom.

In the Fall of 2007, Dr. Priest began the MIT Program on Knowledge, Learning & Progress within the School of Humanities.  Having had various appointments at MIT, both in the School of Engineering and the School for Humanities and Science, Dr. Priest has continued in the legacy of C. P. Snow's 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures.  In particular, there is a pressing need to restore the task begun in the Age of Enlightenment, when not only could scientists explain matters of physical nature but various key figures of the Enlightenment realized that if science can explain physical nature, and as mankind was a product of physical nature, science would be able to explain the choices and actions of men or women.

As vividly described by E. O. Wilson, in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, what followed after the Age of Enlightenment has been ages of confusion where, when science could not quickly provide answers to difficult problems related to families and societies, many reverted to religious dogmas to maintain order.

The MIT Program on Knowledge, Learning & Progress was formed for two reasons.  First, as the result of many years of Dr. Priest's IT experience, it was becoming clear that the publication of billions of web pages and the scanning of millions of books was resulting in yet further divergence from the dreams of the Enlightenment.  The enlightened man or woman saw the world simply and completely.  The existence of disciplines is not to be viewed as ways in which everyone walls their knowledge off from each other, but, simply the secondary need to specialize in areas where extensive knowledge in a field (or domain of knowledge) is knowledge only to the specialist, and is noise to everyone else.  By calling it noise, we do not denigrate the knowledge, but simply are saying that the symbols that constitute that pattern of nature is not central to viewing nature as a whole and may be considered "noise" without loss of vision.

In terms of consilience, from the Greek, meaning a common groundwork for explanation, the way colleges and universities are filled with scattershot disciplines, students are neither given the confidence nor basis for a unified view of our world.  And, the problem extends to US K-12 learning.  Curricula is devised that precisely undermines a child's ability to achieve consilience and a sense of knowledge simplicity.  As a child progresses in school grades, each class of each higher grade is focused on a narrower view of the world and more and more on details, and, yes, noise.  For example, in Earth Science, the child sees a unity across the sciences and this course is typically taught at 7th grade.  The learner learns, say, what determines the periodicity of moons revolving around planets, and so has also learned some physics related to gravity.  In the same course, the student learns that the ecology of pond life involves single living cells and also learns that soap phosphates can disturb the ecology of the pond by overly providing nutrients to some organisms -- so the student has also learned some biology and chemistry.  But, what happens in High School ?  Strangely, the student now must take a course only about chemistry.  And the ways in which chemicals relate to say industry or to human health are at best in the footnotes.

The second goal of the MIT Program on Knowledge, Learning & Progress is to re-introduce consilience at the University or Institute level.  MIT must, as must almost all of the US' Universities, Colleges and Institutes, provide a reinvigorated response to Enlightenment.  The current focus is too Balkanized. Each Department continues to specialize, more and more, and cross- department communication is stymied by language barriers that result from the very problem of specialization being addressed here.  And while one might hope that an institute's Centers could and would be the source of cross- fertilization and steps towards Enlightenment, unfortunately the sources of funding are either highly politicised or derived from sources that are also Balkanized.  The problem is further compounded by the fact that Centers are typically directed by full professors, who have, by the force of the tenure system and the step-wise process of "publish or perish," been shaped monolithically.   In short, these professors, lacking a body of Enlightened colleagues, self- fulfillingly are denied the opportunity to become consilience-oriented leaders.

In summary, regardless of how high these barriers, it is the hope of Dr. Priest and his close colleagues that, with time and with convincing evidence, institutions of higher learning will come to embrace what they are fully capable of addressing for this country's success, and for world community and sustainability.

Dr. W. Curtiss Priest is the Director of the Center for Knowledge, Learning & Progress in Melrose (MA), previously the Program for Information, Technology & Society in the Center for Policy Alternatives at MIT and the Program on Knowledge, Learning & Progress in the MIT School of Humanities, up to January, 2008. Dr. Priest was described in a recent Newsweek article as one of the "Fifty People who mattered" most on the Internet.

Anticipating the Internet in a 1972 thesis at RPI, Curtiss has most recently concentrated on bringing learning tools to filling the "81%" of our children's time not spent in schools.

His 1985 Report on information and intellectual property to the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment provided a framework for the Office of Technology's influential Report to Congress, "Intellectual Property Rights in an Age of Electronics and Information."


Building the World Brain:

I am not saying that a World Encyclopedia will in itself solve any single one of the vast problems that must be solved if man is to escape from his present dangers and distresses and enter upon a more hopeful phase of history; what I am saying — and saying with the utmost of conviction — is this, that without a World Encyclopedia to hold men's minds together in something like a common interpretation of reality, there is no hope whatsoever of anything but an accidental and transitory alleviation of any of our world troubles.  As mankind is, so it will remain, until it pulls its mind together.  And if it does not pull its mind together then I do not see how it can help but decline.

H.G. Wells, World Brain, 1938, pp. 24-25

"A Condensation and Review of Various `Learning Object` Activities and Efforts"

Working Papers at the 'Learning Object" Blog site

Peer-to-Peer Media, Communications Tools:

"Building Worldwide Mentoring Tools: Content Analysis of Visited

Page and Matching: 'Mentor-Matcher,'"

Accompanying slides of the Montreal presentation.

Design and Patent of a distributed-knowledge sharing tool

including decision-support

"Value of ClearView to the User and the Corporation"

Primary patent(05167011):

Primary licensees: Microsoft, Novell, Qualcomm and Sony

Issues related to Intellectual Property and Media Ownership:

CITS MEDIA Watch, editor and publisher, since 1994. A subscription-based newsletter about significant trends and issues in intellectual property laws and media concentration and cross-ownership, reaching several thousand people.

Papers and activities:

"Media Concentration: a Case of Power, Ego and Greed, Confronting Our Sensibilities" American University Law Review Symposium: FCC's Media Ownership. Washington DC, Friday, November 14th, 2003

Rep. Edward Markey, minority leader in the subcommittee on telecommunications, Interview printed as "E. Markey, E-Rate, and E-Culture," The Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) Newsletter, Volume 15, No. 2, Spring, 1997 exploring how states can build on Universal Services for education and learning.

LINCT provides low-income communities with a process and technological tools to help adults to "learn and earn" computers. Active in over half a dozen states, "graduates" of LINCT programs earn Time Dollars exchangeable for services and the experience becomes an important step for many participants in attaining steady jobs.

University of Toronto sponsored workshop on Universal Access to Basic Network

Services, presentation on "The U.S. Telecommunications of 1996 and Implications for Universal Service, March 14-16, 1996.

Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), U.S. Congress: 1985. Consultant on a report to Congress on intellectual property. Produced a study identifying 14 major characteristics of information and related these characteristics to issues involving information as a form of intellectual property. Characteristics include 1) Market related, 2) Market-failure related, and 3) Non-market. The process by which value is added to information in the creation of products and services was investigated and issues of the political economy of information as a commodity were examined.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 1986. Host and organizer for a conference entitled "Social and Ethical Consequences of Designs for Medical Information Systems. A day long conference addressed issues of: Shared Clinical Decision Making; Medical Knowledge, Flow, and the Role of Computers in Medicine and Medical Education; Information Systems and the Roles of Health Providers; Issues of Access to Medical Information and Medical Information Systems; and the Scope of Considerations to be Included in Medical Information Systems. Speakers had backgrounds in medical decision-making, clinical computing, philosophy, sociology, and health.

Previous MIT activities:

o Regulatory Policy Analyst

In a study for the Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a procedure for trade-off analysis and impact assessment for environmental decision making. In response to the frustration associated with the use of classical cost-benefit analysis, a technique was developed that coalesces with the political system for decision-making by utilizing cost-benefit analysis only up to the point it does not obscure significant trade-offs.

o Behavioral Economist

In a program for OSHA/DOL regarding the use of alternatives to standards to achieve workplace health and safety. Some of the approaches investigated include the use of medical removal protection (wherein a worker is removed from harm), a "working conditions" tax, changing workers' compensation premiums, informational activities, performance and specification standards, workers' suits in tort, and tax credits.

U.S. Federal Communications Commission (U.S. FCC): 1975.

Project Director in a program for the to monitor the technical quality of telecommunications. This project involved an analysis to establish a mechanism and the criteria for the surveillance of service quality provided by the common carrier.

C. F. Kettering Foundation, Dayton, OH, Consultant, Consultant: 1973

Performed studies for programs to improve communications between government and citizens, including evaluation of computer aided dialogue and decision aid systems.

U.S. National Science Foundation, grantee: 1972.

Conducted sponsored project on feedback in education. Used voting boxes in combination with live, public television to engage community participation in education.

2004 - present      Liaison Officer between the Learning Technology Standards Committee -- Learning Object Metadata Committee (under the IEEE) and the Committee on Cataloguing: Description and Access (CC:DA) of the American Library Association (ALA)

1978 present     Member, American Economics Association (AEA)

1969 present     Member, Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)

1975 present     Who's Who in the East