Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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The moral rot of the MIT Media Lab

Justin Peters writes:

Founded in 1985, the Media Lab cultivated an image as a haven for misfit geniuses, for academics who, as the Lab’s most recent director put it, “don’t fit in any existing discipline either because they are between—or simply beyond—disciplines.”. These thinkers were the latest inheritors of MIT’s famed “hacker ethic”: iconoclastic engineers who used applied science to try and make the world a better place. Yet the money came from modern-day robber barons, whose main interest in science was how it could be used to sell more cheese.

“The balance is between working more closely with our sponsors and understanding their problems, while continuing to generate the wild and crazy new ideas that they’ve joined us for,” the Lab’s then-director Frank Moss told the MIT Technology Review in 2006. Two years later, Moss announced the launch of the Center for Future Banking, a multimillion-dollar partnership between the Lab and Bank of America that was touted as “a powerful new model by which academia and business will partner to invent the future of entire industries.” This tacky and embarrassing enterprise revealed the truth of the “balance” that Moss had vowed to strike. Moss and his successors’ main goal was to bring in money—lots of money—and they appeared willing to co-opt the Lab’s scholarly pursuits in order to achieve it.

I made my final emotional break with the Media Lab in 2016, when its now-disgraced former director Joi Ito announced the launch of its inaugural “Disobedience Award,” which sought to celebrate “responsible, ethical disobedience aimed at challenging the norms, rules, or laws that sustain society’s injustices,” and which was “made possible through the generosity of Reid Hoffman, Internet entrepreneur, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn, and most importantly an individual who cares deeply about righting society’s wrongs.” I realized that the things I had once found so exciting about the Media Lab—the architecturally distinct building, the quirky research teams, the robots and the canisters and the exhibits—amounted to a shrewd act of merchandising intended to lure potential donors into cutting ever-larger checks. The Lab’s leaders weren’t averse to making the world a better place, just as long as the sponsors got what they wanted in the process.

It is this moral vacuity that has now thrown the Media Lab and MIT into an existential crisis. After the financier Jeffrey Epstein was arrested in July on federal sex-trafficking charges, journalists soon learned that Epstein enjoyed giving money to scientists almost as much as he enjoyed coercing girls into sex. The Media Lab was one beneficiary of Epstein’s largesse. Over the past several years, Ito accepted approximately $1.725 million from Epstein, who was already a convicted felon at the time Ito took charge of the place in 2011; $525,000 was earmarked for the Lab, while the rest of the money went to Ito’s private startup investment funds. The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow further reported on Friday that Epstein helped secure an additional $7.5 million for the Media Lab from other wealthy donors, and that the Lab sought to hide the extent of its relationship with Epstein. Ito was Epstein’s contact at the Media Lab. The director even visited Epstein’s private Caribbean island as part of the courtship process.

A jailed Epstein killed himself in August. The Media Lab is now facing its own reckoning. In mid-August, Ito released a public apology letter that, in light of Farrow’s reporting, now seems breathtakingly incomplete. That was followed by an all-MIT apology email sent on August 22 by university president L. Rafael Reif; this email also now reads as limp. Two Media Lab affiliates, Ethan Zuckerman and J. Nathan Matias, decried the Epstein donation in August and announced their intention to leave the Lab at the end of the current academic year; I would be shocked if other affiliates do not join them on their way out the door. A community meeting on Wednesday ended in disaster when former Media Lab head Nicholas Negroponte said that he would still have advised Ito to take Epstein’s money. (He later clarified that he meant that he thought the decision was sound at the time it was made.) The fallout from the meeting made the front page of Friday’s New York Times. On Saturday afternoon, Ito resigned as director of the Media Lab.

Ito’s decision to accept Epstein’s money was at best exceptionally stupid, and not just in retrospect; the financier’s 2008 conviction for procuring an underage girl for prostitution was a matter of public record when he and Ito made contact, and should have been sufficient to end their conversation before it began. (According to Farrow, “Epstein was listed as ‘disqualified’ in M.I.T.’s official donor database”. ) But Negroponte’s comments—even in light of his later clarification—indicate the structural rot at the heart of Ito’s choices. The Media Lab has long been academia’s fanciest glue trap for morally elastic rich people. It is a laundromat for capital from some of the world’s least socially conscious entities and individuals, and the Lab has never cared very much about their moral valence as long as their checks cleared. [Continue reading…]

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