Op-eds Science

Toppling Epstein’s intellectuals network

While there have been no other high-profile exits from the MIT Media Lab after Ethan Zuckerman and J. Nathan Matias submitted their resignations, the lab’s students had been demanding its director Joi Ito to resign over his ties with Epstein. While it is ridiculous that Ito pled ignorance in his August 15 note where he admitted he had received money from Epstein for the lab as well as as investments in his personal projects, tweets by Xeni Jardan and others only made his ignorance more implausible.

Peter Aldhous and his colleagues at BuzzFeed subsequently used tax filings to track down many of his elusive grantees in one frighteningly long list that includes biologists Martin Nowak and Robert Trivers as well as the publisher of Nautilus magazine.

According to a new set of updates that hit the news over the weekend, Ito had been letting on less than he knew, and he knew that Epstein was a convicted sexual offender who had preyed upon young, vulnerable women for his sexual pleasure as well as that of a bevy of celebrities (including Marvin Minsky, the cofounder of the Media Lab). The following articles – led by Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker, who apparently published the first article based on whistleblowers at MIT who had known of Ito’s and others’s (non-ignorant) ties with Epstein but whose notes the New York Times had turned down, possibly because Ito is on the Times‘s board of directors – have all the details:

  1. Jeffrey Epstein’s Donations Create a Schism at M.I.T.’s Revered Media Lab (NYT)
  2. How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein (NYer)
  3. Director of M.I.T.’s Media Lab Resigns After Taking Money From Jeffrey Epstein (NYT)
  4. The Epstein scandal at MIT shows the moral bankruptcy of techno-elites (The Guardian)

There is also this…

… and this (the whole thread is excellent):

Farrow goes into great detail in his story but the most revealing paragraph to me was this:

… the lab was aware of Epstein’s history—in 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution—and of his disqualified status as a donor. They also show that Ito and other lab employees took numerous steps to keep Epstein’s name from being associated with the donations he made or solicited. On Ito’s calendar, which typically listed the full names of participants in meetings, Epstein was identified only by his initials. Epstein’s direct contributions to the lab were recorded as anonymous. In September, 2014, Ito wrote to Epstein soliciting a cash infusion to fund a certain researcher, asking, “Could you re-up/top-off with another $100K so we can extend his contract another year?” Epstein replied, “yes.” Forwarding the response to a member of his staff, Ito wrote, “Make sure this gets accounted for as anonymous.” Peter Cohen, the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Director of Development and Strategy at the time, reiterated, “Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous. Thanks.”

While it was already ridiculous at the time of Ito’s first indication that he accepted Epstein’s money without knowing of Epstein’s crimes, it is absolutely certain now that Ito spent many, many years knowing what Epstein had done and expressed regret for his actions only when the heat became unbearable.

What’s more, MIT and the Media Lab are guilty of the same thing, descending to the moral cesspit occupied by universities around the country , and the world, that harboured exploitative professors who harassed their students, and purchased their employers’ silence with scientific expertise – whatever that stands for – and federal grants. This outcome also supports the view that without the right sociological safeguards, the naked scientific enterprise is hugely vulnerably to being instrumentalised to achieve extra-scientific goals. And Cesar Hidalgo, a former associate professor at the Media Lab and then its first and sole Hispanic member, said in a thread recounting his experiences that Ito had done just this, in his own way.

(Aside: Whenever a scientist is informed that he or she is a suspect in a crime in the TV show Elementary, their first response is often along the lines of: “But I’m a scientist!” I tend to burst out laughing at this point. It is fascinating how many people believe scientists are to be perceived as incapable of committing crimes by virtue of being scientists, as if they are not people too and – more importantly – as if they are people enslaved to the diktats of the natural universe and whose directions they follow in an unbiased and unemotional manner.)

Earlier, on August 22, Evgeny Morozov published an intriguing article in the New Republic, in which he shared an email he received from John Brockman in 2013 that showed Brockman knew about Jeffrey Epstein’s criminal activities as he continued to associate with him, and even tried to recruit intellectuals to interacting with him.

Brockman runs Brockman Inc., a literary agency that represents the who’s who of intellectual authors and writers, including Morozov himself, and now helmed by his son. More importantly, Brockman is the man behind the Edge Foundation, which runs, an internet salon of sorts where he invites some of the world’s more renowned scientists and philosophers to discuss their ideas. Edge also hosts an annual event for the world’s billionaires, called ‘The Billionaires’ Dinner’.

Morozov’s contention was that Brockman has been awfully silent about his ties with Epstein, even though it has come to light that many of the intellectuals in Epstein’s orbit were launched there by Brockman, as well as that Epstein donated $638,000 (Rs 4.5 crore) to the Edge Foundation between 2001 and 2015. Morozov apparently fired Brockman Inc. as his literary agency until the man could clarify what his relationship with Epstein was, and emailed the notice to Brockman’s son, who currently runs the company, and shared that email on Twitter on August 26:

Morozov also encouraged other Brockman clients to speak up, and sever ties if need be with him, his agency and/or his foundation. While only a few people answered his call, it is to the whistleblowers’, Farrow’s and the Miami Herald‘s credit that being or having been associated with Epstein is finally acknowledged as a problem that isn’t subject to individual moral codes but is being recognised as an incontestable evil. I hope it is only a matter of time before more scientists recognise this, and subsequently that greater participation from their own ranks in the efforts to understand S&T’s role in society is the best way to keep such Epsteinian affairs from recurring in future.


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.


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.


MIT I ask, where's my metadata?


MIT’s new app, Immersion, uses your Gmail metadata to draw a digital footprint of your email-centric life. It also shows how small apps are well poised to commercialize metadata, especially by its backers posing as research institutions instead of as commercial organizations. In the post-Snowden era, such apps comprise a vast jurisdiction where the use of metadata is still unregulated, and is especially well-poised to stall consumer-level technology. Here’s my OpEd on this for The Hindu.


MIT I ask, where’s my metadata?


MIT’s new app, Immersion, uses your Gmail metadata to draw a digital footprint of your email-centric life. It also shows how small apps are well poised to commercialize metadata, especially by its backers posing as research institutions instead of as commercial organizations. In the post-Snowden era, such apps comprise a vast jurisdiction where the use of metadata is still unregulated, and is especially well-poised to stall consumer-level technology. Here’s my OpEd on this for The Hindu.



Most of the principles of the MIT Media Lab I think can be adopted by young professionals looking to make it big. It’s not safe, it’s not sure either, but it definitely re-establishes the connection with intuitive thought (“compasses”) instead of the process-entombed one (“maps”) that’s driving many good ideas and initiatives – like the newspaper – into the ground.