Robert McGinn is a professor of management science and engineering, and of science, technology, and society at Stanford University, where he has taught since 1971. His academic specialties are ethical issues in engineering workplaces, technology in society, ethics, science, and technology, and ethics and public policy. Before participating in a panel on the future of public space, he talked art, jazz, and 19th-century Neapolitan folk songs in the Zócalo green room.
What profession would you practice in your next life?
[Laughs.] If I had my druthers I think I’d rather be an orchestra conductor.
Where do you go to be alone?
I either go to the beach, or I go to a different kind of alone, which is certain cafes in San Francisco that I enjoy inhabiting—where one can sit at a corner table and read, write, initiate contact if one wishes. And another form of alone is, I may put on earphones and listen to some of my favorite music.
What’s the last ethical dilemma you faced personally?
Well one of the ones I’ve been struggling with for several years, and I continue to struggle with, is whether or not to put notes for my lectures online. On the one hand, students have asked me to do so, and I think it’s a good idea because it frees them up from madly taking notes and enables them hopefully to focus on understanding the subject matter. But on the other hand, a number of people take that as a license for not coming to the lecture. So I’m torn between wanting to do something which is beneficial to the people who care enough to come to class, and on the other hand not wanting to facilitate people who use that as an excuse for not coming to class.
What’s your favorite thing about L.A.?
Other than the fact that my son, who’s a film director, lives here? I love the Disney Concert Hall, which I’ve gone to a couple times recently. And of course the magnificent museums in the L.A. area.
What’s hanging on your living room walls?
A lot. Mostly reproductions, posters, a hand-water-colored print of the city of Florence in the 15th century. A beautiful copy of a wonderful work of Domenico Ghirlandaio, called Giovanna Tornabuoni. And works by American artists like Wayne Thiebaud, a landscape of San Francisco. Anything else on my walls? There are also some Italian ceramic pieces.
What music have you listened to today?
You’ll have to allow me to go back to yesterday because today was a traveling day. I’m a great lover of classical music. I listened to one work on the way to the airport: La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. I’m very fond of it, having seen it at the San Francisco Opera in June. I went out and purchased the CD of a particular version of that opera, and I listen to it almost every day. I also listen to a lot of Beethoven and Brahms symphonies. For variety, in the last few weeks I’ve been going back to 40 years ago when I used to be really fond of jazz, Horace Silver and Art Blakey on YouTube. I just found out Silver died in June, and I went back and listened to a number of e-mail attachments from friends of mine I used to play and go see jazz with.
What instrument did you play?
I first played piano, then I came out to San Francisco in the early ’70s and got involved with Italian old guys who played Mediterranean music. I played guitar with them for 10 years. I learned all the classics of 19th-century Neapolitan folk songs.
How would you describe yourself in five words or less?
Passionate, energetic, friendly, lover of natural and built environments. I know that’s more than five.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Spend your time on things you really love doing because you’re likely to do them well.
What keeps you up at night?
I’m a bit of a worrier. A lot of projects on the plate that are competing for my attention. I worry about my interpersonal relationships with dear friends. And I worry about my health and hope that it continues to be good—that means not being overweight, getting adequate exercise—so that the energy will still be there, and I’ll be able to do what I want to do.