The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is offering a cash prize for what it is calling “responsible disobedience.” The stated goals of the competition are as follows: “With this award, we will honor work that impacts society in positive ways, and is consistent with a set of key principles, including non-violence, creativity, courage, and responsibility for one’s actions. The award will go to a living person or group engaged in what we believe is extraordinary disobedience for the benefit of society.” Nominations for the prize recently closed, and a winner will be announced in July.
At first glance, disobedience may seem like a strange thing to reward. After all, most of us are raised to harbor a certain respect for authority, at least for our parents, and to obey instructions that come from a legitimate source. We’re told to follow the law, as well as other rules of etiquette and courtesy, and for the most part, this remains pretty good advice.
So why encourage disobedience? The answer is simple. Disobedience, especially of rules that are arbitrary or that come from an illegitimate source, is and has always been the greatest source of human progress.
The cash prize is $250,000, but the money is not what’s important. It’s changing the way we think about disobedience. In a culture that all too often rewards conformity and obedience, whether to statutory laws or to the unwritten yet rigidly enforced rules of political correctness, it’s important to remember that progress and innovation don’t happen by following the rules.
Think about all the innovations that make your life great. If you ever travel in an Uber or Lyft, you’re benefitting from someone breaking the rules about what taxis can do. If you’ve ever stayed in an Airbnb, you’re benefitting from someone breaking the rules about what constitutes a hotel. If you’re reading this on a computer or a smartphone, you have rule breakers like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to thank.
Now think about all the pioneers throughout history, who broke rules and barriers so that future generations could prosper. This doesn’t just apply to technology. It applies to exploration of any sort. Even America itself was the product of repeated rule breaking and the refusal to listen to reason. Columbus was desperately wrong about the size of the planet, thinking he could reach east Asia by crossing the Atlantic. Everyone with any sense knew he was wrong, but undeterred, he went anyway, leading to the European colonization of the Americas.
A few centuries later, a hardy band of rebels decided to take on the greatest military power in the world, against all odds, to start a new nation. That was pretty solidly against the rules — sort of a big rule called “treason” — but they broke it, and here we are.
Galileo broke the Church’s rules when he discovered that the Earth moves around the sun and not the other way around. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King broke the rules of segregation to achieve equal rights. The Wright Brothers went so far as defy the laws of gravity itself, in achieving human flight. Where would we be if all these people had followed the rules and done as they were told?
The idea of civil disobedience appeals to me on a personal level, because I was the beneficiary of it growing up. You see, I was homeschooled at a time when it was very much against the rules. Everyone was expected to enroll their child in an “official” school, and some people were even arrested for disobeying. Without the willingness to break rules, spurred on by a desire to give children a better education than was otherwise possible, a generation of people like me would never have been able to enjoy the benefits of a free, self-directed education.
Today, there is no shortage of innovative rule-breakers competing to revolutionize the way we do things. From self-driving cars that aim to solve congestion, land use, and personal transport issues, to the at-first-it-seems-bonkers idea of seasteading — the construction of independent floating cities — far-seeing entrepreneurs are eager to shatter the status quo.
MIT’s prize may even be unnecessary to encourage this kind of thinking, but for someone skeptical of government authority like me, it’s encouraging that more people are starting to think of peaceful disobedience as an explicitly good thing.