In the parallel moral universe known as the tech industry, the MIT media lab was Valhalla. “The engineers, designers, scientists and physicians who constitute the two dozen research groups housed there,” burbled the Atlantic in a profile of what it called the Idea Factory, “work in what may be the world’s most interesting, most hyper-interdisciplinary thinktank.” It has apparently been responsible for a host of groundbreaking innovations including “the technology behind the Kindle and Guitar Hero” (I am not making this up) and its researchers “end up pollinating other projects with insights and ideas, within a hive of serendipitous collaboration”.
That was written in 2011. In the last two weeks, we have discovered that some of this groundbreaking work was funded by Jeffrey Epstein, the financial wizard who took his own life rather than face prosecution for sex trafficking and other crimes. It should be pointed out that most of those researchers were entirely unaware of who was funding their work and some of them have been very upset by learning the truth. Their distress is intensified by the discovery that their ignorance was not accidental.
A scarifying investigation by the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow revealed that the vaunted “idea factory” had a deeper fundraising relationship with Epstein than it had previously acknowledged and that it went to great pains to conceal the extent of its contacts with him. Dozens of pages of emails and other documents obtained by Farrow “reveal that, although Epstein was listed as ‘disqualified’ in MIT’s official donor database, the media lab continued to accept gifts from him, consulted him about the use of the funds and, by marking his contributions as anonymous, avoided disclosing their full extent, both publicly and within the university”.
After the New Yorker story was published, the lab’s director, Joi Ito, resigned from his post and his professorship and MIT’s president announced the usual “independent” inquiry by a fancy law firm.
As with everything dodgy, the key to understanding this scandal is to follow the money. The media lab was an offshoot of MIT’s architecture school, founded in 1985 by Nicholas Negroponte, a man for whom the term “effortless superiority” could have been invented. At a stormy meeting of the lab’s members last week, he reportedly said that he prided himself on “knowing over 80% of the billionaires in the US on a first-name basis”, which is how he first got to know Epstein and had accepted donations from him many years ago.
From the outset, the funding model of the lab was unusual. It rests on corporate sponsorship – about 70 companies pay an annual subscription that entitles them to share in the lab’s intellectual property without paying licence fees or royalties. (Its researchers generate about 20 new patents a year.) This arrangement gives the lab its annual operating budget of $75m (£61m) and its researchers the freedom to do whatever they want. It also generated its hallowed techno-utopian aura.
Ito’s response to the crisis followed the tech industry template. First of all, profound and anguished apologies, followed by an admission that mistakes had been made and the declaration of a firm resolve to learn from them. He announced his intent to stay at the lab and begin a process of “restorative healing”, if you please.
These laudable aspirations quickly evaporated when Farrow revealed the duplicity involved in concealing the extent of Epstein’s involvement in the lab, which left some of Ito’s academic colleagues, including Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain, who had circulated a message of support, high and dry. As for those sentiments to do better in future, we have heard them before from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg.
We shouldn’t be taken in by this cant. The ethical bankruptcy of the tech world rivals that of investment banking. “This story of looking-the-other-way morals,” wrote Kara Swisher in her New York Times column, “should not be seen as an unusual cautionary tale of a few rogue players. These corner-cutting ethics have too often become part and parcel to the way business is done in the top echelons of tech, allowing those who violate clear rules and flout decent behaviour to thrive and those who object to such behaviour to endure exhausting pushback.”
She’s right. The most prestigious universities on the planet have morphed into hedge funds with nice academies attached. (The top 10 universities in the US now have a combined endowment of $200bn.) They have accumulated much of this wealth by being nice to billionaires, some of whom use them to launder their reputations. If this can happen at MIT, then it can happen anywhere. Time to stop regarding these outfits with awe and remember that behind many a fortune lies a crime.
What I’m reading
Which way for AI?
In April, a Politico article by Janosch Delcker noted that the EU had an AI dilemma: should it prioritise ethics or innovation? The bloc’s appointment of the impressive Margrethe Vestager to a second term as competition commissioner suggests the former.
Finding the Self in a Selfie, a nice 2015 New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik, traces the history of the self-portrait from Weegee to Instagram.