Originally published September 8, 2019
Here is an excerpt:
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.
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