The Industry

The Moral Rot of the MIT Media Lab

Like its parent university, the famed research center became far too comfortable selling its prestige. Even to Jeffrey Epstein.

The MIT Media Lab.
The MIT Media Lab. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Unmadindu/Wikipedia

When I first started visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s famed Media Lab in 2007, the place actually looked like an idea factory. Giant containers of liquid nitrogen littered the hallways. There seemed to be some kind of robot around every corner. Researchers studied playful things like the opera of the future and lifelong kindergarten for which they somehow found practical applications. I wrote my master’s thesis about the lab’s affective computing research group, which was developing technologies to make it easier for autistic people to sense others’ emotions. My paper was complimentary and credulous. Like so many people who visited the Media Lab, I was taken in by the intoxicating, startuplike atmosphere. It was the most intellectually vivacious and generative place I had ever been.

I kept returning to MIT for years for various reasons, but the bloom eventually fell off the rose. You didn’t have to squint to see that the Media Lab’s whiz-bang vibe was made possible—and was constrained—by the corporate partnerships it worked so hard to cultivate. The building functioned less like a university department than an independent R&D firm for industry; its research groups were conduits for corporate and institutional investment. Each year, it hosted a sponsor week, during which research groups were expected to dance for their big-money benefactors, corporations like Exxon Mobil, Citigroup, PepsiCo, GlaxoSmithKline, and Verizon. Many of its scientists were also involved with private companies that had been founded to monetize their discoveries. A year after I turned in my master’s thesis, the key members of the affective computing group I had studied founded a company that today partners with “1400+ brands,” builds “automotive AI,” and works with market research firms and other companies to “measure consumer emotion responses to digital content, such as ads and TV programming.” This was what the idea factory was incubating?

It is neither unusual nor inherently wrong for scientists to take research funding from industry and to seek commercial applications for new technologies. But at the Media Lab, the gulf between the corporate benefactors and the institution’s lofty rhetoric of scientific exceptionalism felt especially jarring. 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 “hacker ethic”: iconoclastic engineers who used applied science to try to 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. The main goal of Moss and his successors 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 Aug. 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 it 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 never cared very much about their moral valence as long as their checks cleared.

In this, the Media Lab has apotheosized the capitalistic philosophy of its parent institution, which in the 20th century pioneered the now-common nexus between academic science and private industry. In 1919, MIT president Richard Maclaurin developed a document called the “Technology Plan” that sought to create clear ties and channels between the school and corporate America in order to forge “an alliance between [MIT] and certain of the industries in the solving of such technical problems as might be presented and as [MIT] might properly undertake.” The Technology Plan ran counter to the old-fashioned notion that scientists ought to pursue research in order to add to the common store of knowledge, not so that they or their patrons could realize financial gain. The academic scientist’s reward for good work, instead, is acclaim and stature within her community. Theoretically, at least, professors are salaried and tenured so that they can conduct research pursuant to this communal scientific ethos free from any profit imperative.

This is not how modern academic science often works in practice, and it is certainly not how things have worked at MIT for the past 100 years. The Technology Plan came to life as the Division of Industrial Cooperation and Research, and it blossomed during and after World War II, as MIT used its experience with external partnerships to secure and fulfill hundreds of millions of dollars worth of government and military grants and contracts. In the 1980s, the Bayh-Dole Act made it possible for universities to patent the results of federally funded research and license those patents to companies. As you might expect, MIT was on the front lines of this lucrative “technology transfer” process. When the end of the Cold War brought reductions in federal science funding, MIT became even more reliant on the private sector, and on rich people who derived some perhaps-intangible benefit from giving money to the school.

I wrote about this history in my 2016 book about the life and death of the programmer Aaron Swartz. Swartz had a complicated relationship with MIT, which liked to portray itself as a safe harbor for unruly intellects. His father worked with the Media Lab, and Swartz himself gravitated to the school, even though he never formally enrolled there. When Swartz was arrested and indicted for using MIT’s computing resources to download 4.7 million documents from JSTOR without explicit authorization, he and his family believed that MIT could be convinced to speak out on his behalf and perhaps help quash the indictment. After all, Swartz’s actions were not all that different from many of the famous “hacks” that MIT affiliates had perpetrated over the years and that the school had come to officially celebrate. Instead, MIT left Swartz to twist in the wind. A subsequent independent inquiry into MIT’s conduct basically absolved the school for its inaction. It wasn’t personal. It was just business.

In January 2013, days after Swartz killed himself, some of his friends hosted a memorial reception in the lobby of the Media Lab. I attended that reception, but later became upset at the discordance of remembering Swartz in a building that embodied the reasons why MIT had done nothing to help him out of his predicament. According to the Abelson Report, MIT had chosen not to aid Swartz in part because doing so could have sent the wrong message to its institutional partners, which might have interpreted the gesture as MIT coming out as soft on content piracy. And then Swartz died, and the Media Lab was the site of an ice-cream social in his honor. The Media Lab and MIT were capable of anything, it seemed, except meaningful self-reflection.

The Epstein scandal has forced the Media Lab and MIT into that unfamiliar space. In an all-MIT email sent on Saturday afternoon, titled “Fact-finding and action on the Media Lab,” Reif promised “an immediate, thorough and ongoing investigation” into the accusations in the New Yorker story, and claimed that the school was “actively assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect MIT’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future.” I hope that this review examines the structures that not just allowed Ito to accept Epstein’s money and subsequently cover his tracks, but that made the Media Lab into the sort of place where transgression is seen as evidence of genius and social disobedience is underwritten by LinkedIn. “Lab members who defend [Ito] said academia had a long history of accepting funding from dubious characters,” the Times reported on Friday, accurately and depressingly. MIT’s rainmakers have always been tacitly empowered to show bad judgment in pursuit of research funding; to not think too hard about the provenance of the money they raise or the implications of the partnerships they cultivate; or, as seems to have been the case with Joi Ito, to understand why it would be a bad idea to take tainted funding and then to go ahead and cash those checks all the same.

Over the course of the past century, MIT became one of the best brands in the world, a name that confers instant credibility and stature on all who are associated with it. Rather than protect the inherent specialness of this brand, the Media Lab soiled it again and again by selling its prestige to banks, drug companies, petroleum companies, carmakers, multinational retailers, at least one serial sexual predator, and others who hoped to camouflage their avarice with the sheen of innovation. There is a big difference between taking money from someone like Epstein and taking it from Nike or the Department of Defense, but the latter choices pave the way for the former. It is easy to understand why Jeffrey Epstein wanted to get involved with the Media Lab. Unfortunately, it is also easy to understand why Joi Ito got involved with Jeffrey Epstein. The only bad donations were the ones that weren’t received.