Vice Dean Campante Confirms New Tech and Culture Focus Area

By Zachary Wheeler

In an interview with The SAIS Observer, Vice Dean for Education and Academic Affairs Filipe Campante discussed the formation of the new Technology and Culture concentration arriving with SAIS’s academic overhaul next fall. By building on the initiatives of current SAIS faculty, this new program aims to prepare future SAIS students for the unique challenges of the 21st century. SAIS’s formalization of a technology-focused study track parallels recent moves by peer institutions, including Georgetown and Harvard. 

Emerging technologies occupy a position of increasing importance within the realm of foreign policy and international affairs. From the debates surrounding 5G mobile broadband and the United States’ tenacious diplomatic campaign against Huawei to the artificial intelligence (AI) arms race and advancements in space technology, the disruptive effects of emerging theaters of technological innovation are more tangible than ever. Furthermore, the geopolitical impact of these innovations is likely to increase at pace with great power competition, and push more of the developed world to invest in technologies that might give them an edge. 

Accordingly, contemporary foreign policy experts will become increasingly concerned with their ability to leverage critical perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of technological innovation. Preparing future policymakers, of course, starts with education. With a dramatic overhaul of its academic curriculum beginning in September 2021, SAIS seeks to rise to the occasion.

First, the overhaul will do-away with the existing region and policy concentrations that defined SAIS for decades. These are to be replaced with an expanded core curriculum, five “functional” areas, and seven regional areas of study. One such functional area is Technology and Culture, which, in its own words, is designed to help students “develop expertise on how the use — and misuse — of technology, media, and digital communications shape our evolving cultures and identity.”

Speaking to the impetus behind the development of the Technology and Culture functional area, Professor Filipe Campante, the Vice Dean for Education and Academic Affairs at SAIS, said that recently hired professors like Drs. Narges Bajoghli and Lisel Hintz were the driving force behind the initiative. In Fall 2020, Professor Bajoghli taught a course entitled “Media Wars,” which sought to answer the question “is social media making our politics more extreme?” by examining technology, surveillance, cyberwar, militarized media, social movements, and social life of algorithms. Media Wars is a perfect example of the sort, of course, one might find listed under Technology and Culture next fall. 

Campante further explained that it was the research interests and intellectual pursuits of the existing faculty that made the creation of this functional area possible, and thereby also made it possible to “tackle the important dimension [of technology and international affairs], which will be more important going forward.” For instance, Professor Sarah Jordaan previously taught the course “Science, Technology, and International Affairs,” which delved into the complex relationships between STEM and foreign policy. Currently, Professor Thomas Mahnken is teaching “Technology and War,” which aims to develop students’ abilities to analyze military technology and discern patterns in its evolution. Students in Professor Mahnken’s class will undertake a semester-long group exercise to model a Technology Assessment Board task force and produce a full report on a critical technology. 

SAIS’s forward-thinking approach to addressing the intersection of technology and international affairs is paralleled by similar initiatives at peer institutions as well. The Harvard Kennedy School has the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service master’s program will be rolling out a Science, Technology, and International Affairs concentration this fall. Even though Professor Campante could not speak to any potential future projects, perhaps Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, and Harvard’s Belfer Center, could serve as models for further SAIS initiatives pertaining to the role of technology in international affairs.

In the coming months, SAIS professors will map out new courses and rework existing ones in accordance with the requirements of the new overhauled curriculum. This fall, SAIS’s incoming class will then be presented with a fresh array of course options and study areas designed to better orient their education toward the future. Should they choose to investigate the cross-section of technology and international affairs, SAIS will have them covered.

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