3 Questions: Anat Biletzki on the Human Rights and Technology Fellowship Program

MIT Center for International Studies (CIS) research affiliate Anat Biletzki is the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac University. From 2001 to 2006, she served as chair of B’Tselem ― the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and in 2015 was honored as a nominee of the 1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize initiative. Her most recent book is “Philosophy of Human Rights: A Systematic Introduction” (Routledge, 2019).

Biletzki is a founding co-director of the CIS Human Rights and Technology Fellowship Program. The program offers research fellowships to MIT students with the intent of producing new knowledge about the relationship of human rights and technology. The fellowship program is open to both undergraduate and graduate students and invites proposals for its 2020-21 cohort of fellows through Oct. 26. She speaks here on the fellowship program.

Q: Can you tell us about the work that the Human Rights and Technology Program does and what it offers to MIT students? 

A: The program is invested in teaching human rights, but teaching in a very deep sense of the word “teaching.” It is not about classes. It is about actually getting students to engage with human rights. The “work” is getting students to think of their own projects, which can be completed in a semester or a year, that link human rights with technology.

When thinking of a human rights program at CIS, John Tirman [executive director and a principal research scientist at CIS], Richard Samuels [director of CIS and Ford International Professor of Political Science], and I determined that the program should focus on MIT’s strength in technology. Our vision, then, was to add the human rights component and thus explore on a grand scale how technology either aids or hinders human rights.

Tirman and I co-direct the program, and each fall we send out a request for proposals to MIT students to apply for the annual fellowship. The program started in 2018 with its first cohort of students. Our 2019-20 awardees involved seven projects and 10 students. The projects are amazingly diverse and come from both undergraduate and graduate students across the Institute. 

One student was working on the use of technology in monitoring migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Another student was working in Micronesia, looking at Facebook Groups and the issue of labor exploitation of migrant workers. One evolving group project began with looking at how social media promotes activism for workers’ rights. And we have other students working on questions of indigenous knowledge, indigenous culture and indigenous groups, and how access to their own resources is supported or harmed by technology.

Q: What sort of adaptations has the program and its current fellows made due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

A: On a very mundane, technical level, the part of the program that is predicated on meetings among fellows and personal reports and encounters all went online. There is nothing exclusive here merely the easy success of Zoom meetings with all our fellows who continued to deliberate together about their ongoing projects.

More significant was the fact that a few projects involved travel abroad (to Vietnam, Mexico, India) while others demanded face-to-face contact with interviewees who were not accessible via internet, or internet contact with interviewees whose technological resources became scarce. These projects underwent certain transformations some couldn’t travel, some were “stuck” in their alternative space, some meetings couldn’t take place and the fellows managed to admirably convert their methodology and even their project-goals to something doable in Covid-19 times.

Clearly, the 2019-20 cohort had to make their changes and “deliver the goods” on an ad hoc basis. Looking forward to 2020-21 and beyond, and as strange as it may sound, I see great potential for the program in our current Covid-19 predicament. Projects that are articulated now cannot ignore the limitations and demands that this new context will require of students, especially when thinking about their objectives and tools, since both are now impacted in the matter of technology. Just as relevant, to my mind, are the effects of Covid-19 on questions of human rights. A whole new slew of human rights abuses, now so much with us, are precisely matters of human rights and technology. In working with new fellows, we will need to adapt to our new physical, geographical, and conceptual frameworks.

Q: How do you hope the program will continue to grow in the future? 

A: Of course, we’d like it to grow in the very mundane sense of having more people. For example, if we could have 20 projects a year, we’d have a more vibrant program. What we’re noticing now is how the projects are enriching one another and how the group as a whole is working together. If it’s a bigger group with more projects, it widens the horizons of what we can do.

On a less concrete level, I want the program to be asking deeper questions about whether technology is good or bad for human rights, and grappling with how we deal with the encroachment of technology. In that sense, I see this program as being a great contribution in the way human rights is perceived and done all around the world, not just at MIT.

What we are seeing, and what gives me great hope that the program will thrive, is that the students involved are getting more and more excited. I have been incredibly amazed at the speed and depth with which they do their work. Within two weeks of our first meeting, they are human rights “experts.” They read, they investigate, they absorb everything they hear.