The MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award: Recognizing Rebels With A Cause

Progress comes from innovation, and innovation happens when inventors, entrepreneurs, activists, organizers, and others refuse to accept the status quo. Instead, they pursue new paths and new solutions – and sometimes bend or even break the rules in the process.

This dynamic is what inspires the MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award. Announced in July 2016 at the Media Lab’s Forbidden Research event, the Disobedience Award is now officially accepting nominations for a cash award of $250,000. Nominations can be submitted through May 1. A recipient will be announced on July 21, 2017.

The intent of the Disobedience Award is to recognize and support the efforts of an individual or an organization that has engaged in ethical disobedience to authority, in ways that have positive social impact. It rewards courage, justice, and principled civic engagement along with ingenuity and risk-taking. Just as importantly, it does not reward or condone reckless or dangerous behavior, or violence of any kind. For potential nominees engaged in scientific research, proper scientific method and correct attention to safeguards must be top priorities.

The Disobedience Award is a global prize open to individuals and organizations working in all fields, including science, medicine, human rights, politics, civics, law, journalism, and technology (nominations must come from third parties, not the individuals or organizations themselves).

The winner will be chosen by a multidisciplinary panel led by MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito. I was one of many who helped Joi conceptualize the award during the design process, and after many conversations, decided to provide the seed funding for the first prize. Because an independent judging process is important, I won’t be participating in the judging process myself.

The Disobedience Award is not intended to promote disobedience itself, but rather disobedience as a principled means toward achieving significant positive social impact. Its goal is to recognize an individual or group that has put itself at risk of persecution during ethical and responsible efforts to correct injustice or otherwise achieve a greater social good.

To a large degree, you can assess a country’s civic health and economic dynamism by how open it is, on a systemic level, to upstarts and challengers. Throughout its history, the United States has flourished because of its emphasis on innovation, entrepreneurism, and the space it gives individuals and organizations to challenge incumbents and the status quo. This aspect of our country has catalyzed both prosperity and justice, and it’s a part of our national history and character that should make every American proud.

In the realm of entrepreneurship, almost every great triumph has its roots in disobedience or contrarianism of one kind or another. And ultimately this impulse doesn’t just create new products and companies, but also new industries, new institutions, and ultimately new cultural norms and expectations.

And of course disobedience also functions as generative force in science, civics, and politics. Galileo’s disobedience in the face of church doctrine helped usher in the age of modern science. Susan B. Anthony was arrested, tried, and convicted for voting illegally in the U.S. federal election in 1872 – and helped pave the way for the 19th Amendment. Gandhi suffered beatings and imprisonment while popularizing the tactic of peaceful non-cooperation in the pursuit of self-rule. Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King recognized civil disobedience as the most effective way to highlight the injustice of segregation and initiate positive social change.

Upstarts and iconoclasts bring new ideas, new values, and new approaches into play. They compel incumbents to evolve and grow. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead."

Ethical and responsible disobedience helps create democracy for the living, and even more importantly, for future generations. It inoculates the polis against complacence, rent-seeking, and all forms of incumbentism. It keeps our culture dynamic and adaptive.

That’s why it’s so important to encourage and formally recognize it. While it may seem counterintuitive to host a prize honoring disobedience at one of the country’s most venerable institutions, the MIT Media Lab is actually the perfect home for the Disobedience Award. Combining academic rigor with applied research, the Lab’s multi-disciplinary staff and students experiment with new technologies and unconventional approaches in pursuit of paradigm-shifting tools and applications that can have significant impact.

It’s an institution that prioritizes methodical but untethered experimentation, where researchers with widely varying areas of expertise are encouraged to collaborate and improvise in ways that become not just multi-disciplinary but antidisciplinary – disobedient.

The Disobedience Award, in turn, embodies and extends these values in a global way. In America and all over the world, in the realms of science, politics, business, and culture, there are traditions, orthodoxies, and incumbents that should be challenged. And the people and organizations willing to take on that risk in the pursuit of progress deserve recognition and support.

This first iteration of the Disobedience Award is an experiment itself. If it goes well, both in terms of the selection process and the impact the prize has, our goal is to repeat it. In time, I can imagine the Disobedience Award expanding so that each year, there might be one for science, one for politics, one for the arts, etc.

Similarly, the Award could broaden to include collaborations with more universities. It offers a focused but effective way for institutions to reinforce their own internal commitment to and capacity for principled disobedience while simultaneously providing a way to promote this value in the wider world.

Or perhaps it will evolve in some entirely different way.

I’m supporting this effort in part because Joi himself embodies the values the Disobedience Award is designed to promote. A two-time college dropout who never stopped being a student and now leads a research lab at one of the world’s leading universities, Joi has successfully challenged conventions as an entrepreneur and investor, an activist, and an educator. Over the arc of his career, his own thoughtful and systematic cultivation of a disobedient mindset has consistently helped him identify new opportunities to make the world we live in more democratic, more just, and more prosperous for us all.

With the Disobedience Award under Joi’s stewardship, I expect that we will be surprised, challenged, and inspired, and that we will learn something useful.

Nominations close May 1. While some freethinkers may see this as an opportunity to break the rules and submit nominations after that date, such tactics will prove fruitless. The goal here isn’t to honor arbitrary or merely clever acts of disobedience, or disobedience as a cover for unpreparedness. The goal is to honor disobedience within a larger framework of principled engagement, disobedience that is deployed ethically and strategically in pursuit of a greater social good. Thus, the May 1 deadline will be strictly enforced!