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Another exit from MIT Media Lab

J. Nathan Matias, a newly minted faculty member at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, has announced that he will cut all ties with the latter at the end of the academic year over the lab director’s, i.e. Joi Ito’s, association with Jeffrey Epstein. His announcement comes on the heels of one by Ethan Zuckerman, a philosopher and director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, who also said he’d leave at the end of the academic year despite not having any job offers. Matias wrote on Medium on August 21:

During my last two years as a visiting scholar, the Media Lab has continued to provide desk space, organizational support, and technical infrastructure to CivilServant, a project I founded to advance a safer, fairer, more understanding internet. As part of our work, CivilServant does research on protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment. I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple.

Zuckerman had alluded to a similar problem with a different group of people:

I also wrote notes of apology to the recipients of the Media Lab Disobedience Prize, three women who were recognized for their work on the #MeToo in STEM movement. It struck me as a terrible irony that their work on combatting sexual harassment and assault in science and tech might be damaged by their association with the Media Lab.

On the other hand, Ito’s note of apology on August 15, which precipitated these high-profile resignations and put the future of the lab in jeopardy, didn’t at all mention any regret over what Ito’s fraternising with Epstein could mean for its employees, many of whom are working on sensitive projects. Instead, Ito has only said that he would return the money Epstein donated to the lab, a sum of $200,000 (Rs 143.09 crore) according to the Boston Globe, while pleading ignorance to Epstein’s crimes.

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Science

Joi Ito’s nerd tunnel vision

On August 15, Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s famed Media Lab, published a post apologising for fraternising with Jeffrey Epstein. His wording mimics a bit of George Church’s as well, in that Ito says he “was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of”.

This ignorance is ridiculous coming from the director of an institution whose research draws from and influences different forms of media. Ito’s account exemplifies the ‘nerd tunnel vision’ that Church spoke about: where scientists are willing to ignore the adverse ethical or moral implications for them and their work if an endeavour will benefit them directly or indirectly. It’s like Epstein was looking for the sort of investments that would shield him from unfavourable attention and found it all among scientists because they don’t ask too many questions.

However, as Church is careful to note, there’s no excuse for not keeping abreast of the news. It seems Ito has known Epstein since 2013 – giving him six years to discover that one of his major funders is a notorious sexual predator. Instead, he chose to step up only after the American media turned a glaring spotlight on the scandal.

Indeed, Church noted that labs usually don’t have to bother about the moral/ethical quality of funding and that that is checked by a different part of the university administration. While this is suboptimal, I find it funny that Ito couldn’t have known when he was surely part of the MIT Media Lab’s efforts to identify and evaluate new funders.

The charade doesn’t end here. Ito’s apology is also rendered ineffectual in part by the fact that he didn’t choose to speak up until eight months after the Miami Herald‘s investigation resuscitated the case against Epstein, and only shortly after Marvin Minsky’s involvement came to light. (Ethan Zuckerman, a philosopher at the Media Lab, calls Minsky the lab’s “co-founder”.) Earlier this month, The Verge reported that Minsky was one of the men that Epstein had forced young women to sleep with.

On August 21, Zuckerman posted on his blog that he was going to leave the Media Lab at the end of the academic year because of Ito’s involvement with Epstein. “I feel good about my decision, and I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what it’s appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been part of has made terrible errors,” he wrote.

It sounds a bit ominous; is this going to be the end of the Media Lab itself? Ito hasn’t said anything about resigning as director. Instead, he wrote in his post: “I vow to raise an amount equivalent to the donations the Media Lab received from Epstein and will direct those funds to non-profits that focus on supporting survivors of trafficking. I will also return the money that Epstein has invested in my investment funds.”

The money Epstein poured into the lab itself will stay, of course, presumably because it can’t be removed without significantly affecting the lab’s academic and research commitments. Let’s see what the lab’s other members – about 80 in total – have to say.