Illustration by Paddy Mills

In 1963, Dennis Gabor, a Hungarian who had fled the Nazis and immigrated to Britain, published “Inventing the Future,” a book that contained his most famous quote: “The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” I don’t completely agree with the first part of the quote, unless we take it to mean simply that all predictions are erroneous. But that does not mean that all predictions are either irrelevant or equal.

We see all around us the invention of the future. Much of that is in the creation of new technologies and possibilities. At Rice, Professor Jacob Robinson and his team of scientists are working toward the possibility of humans communicating thoughts directly from one human brain to another or from a human to a computer. Across the university, scientists are working on transforming the production of energy to eliminate harmful effects of hydrocarbons, whether by using alternative sources or completely reinventing the methods of utilizing hydrocarbons so that no CO2 is produced. New materials are being discovered and designed that will revolutionize the way we build and deliver health care, and one day restore sight and physical abilities to those who today would have no hope. Professors Rich Baraniuk, Ruth Lopez Turley and others are pioneering improvement in education by using data to determine which tools and pedagogies are most effective.

The very best research universities are distinguished not only by their ability to advance technological frontiers, but also to think critically and broadly about the implications of technological advancement. We are learning more every day about the social consequences of new technologies of data collection and mining and artificial intelligence. 

We cannot invent the future without understanding the past, and we cannot cast a critical gaze on society outside our campus without also undertaking a careful examination of our own history and our own imperfections in providing access and opportunity in ways that build a more just and effective society.

University Professor Moshe Vardi is leading a campus initiative on technology, culture and society to undertake a deeper examination of the implications of new technologies, particularly information technologies. Inventing the future is not solely a task, or challenge, for science and engineering. The problems we must address, from deeply rooted inequalities to climate change, require the very best solutions we can muster that take account of values, culture and history. We must learn from the past and take those lessons to heart as we seek to invent, not predict, a better future.

George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Almost a half century later, William Faulkner manifested a somewhat different perspective when he wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Both reasons for studying history are compelling: to avoid repeating past mistakes and to truly understand our present. 

As universities, we are not simply outside observers of the past, present or future. We have been, are and will be participants — and often very influential participants. We have an obligation to study our own past and present and to assess the contributions we have made. In some cases, we will find that our institutions have been at the forefront of progress and justice, but that has not always been the case. 

One of our most difficult and controversial issues today is how we continue to be challenged by the role of race and ethnicity in achieving a just society. As a university, we must think broadly about such an important question and look both inward and outward. We cannot invent the future without understanding the past, and we cannot cast a critical gaze on society outside our campus without also undertaking a careful examination of our own history and our own imperfections in providing access and opportunity in ways that build a more just and effective society.

These are some of the reasons underlying our recent decision to establish a task force on slavery, segregation and racial injustice. Such a task force can help us in two ways. First, understanding how the legacy of slavery, segregation and discrimination affects Rice today sheds light also on the broader issues confronting our society. Second, understanding the ongoing effects of that legacy can help us improve what we do at Rice, and bring us closer to being the dynamic engine of opportunity that we aspire to be for all segments of society. 

The task force will be responsible for undertaking an examination of Rice’s history, fostering campus programming and dialogue and identifying suggestions for our future. This will of course not be the only effort to examine how we might more effectively make Rice an inclusive and welcoming environment for all our students. Efforts focusing explicitly and urgently on current issues, such as campus climate and opportunity for students who are first generation, low income and/or underrepresented minorities, will also be undertaken.

We cannot expect any of these undertakings to be easy or to be without controversy. But a university that does not turn its capabilities for examination and reflection on itself and its own past jeopardizes its broader role and credibility in creating a better future far beyond our campus. We look forward to working together toward that goal.

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