What should become of the MIT Media Lab?

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/09/11/what-should-become-of-the-mit.html


Props for bringing in the Geek Social Fallacies; Ito has a lot of legit goodwill, but they play a part in the response to his failures in this situation.

I’m fine with the MIT Media Lab continuing to exist, even though some of the stuff it does seem silly. We need these kind of blue-sky think tanks where assorted geniuses and artists and weirdos can explore new ideas without the normal strictures of academia or corporate profit motives. I’m don’t even have much objection to the Media Lab having some grand underlying purpose, because most such places have such a philosophical underpinning (when they’re vociferous in their claim to be without an agenda is when my eyebrow raises).

What I do object to is their, or any other such academic institution, taking a “dollars are dollars” approach to donations and support, with fungibility extended to source of funds. Due diligence should extend to an evaluation of the moral and ethical character of the individual or corporation making the donation, and the result of those evaluations should absolutely reflect the moral and ethical character of the entity taking those donations and its managers (which is why Ito had to resign). Going hand-in-hand with that is transparency, of course, so that nothing is hidden from the public in this regard.


The silly stuff is the good stuff! Someone linked to an artist making a device that allowed her to control sperm movements with her mind, like that made the MIT Media Lab look bad. Nope, what made it look bad is the blandly corporate cryptocurrency stuff.

Bad to whom? is the question to ask. And compare the answer you find to the mission statement.


I disagree that the Media Lab is somehow bad for its industry connections (as opposed to its Epstein connections). While I dislike the mixture of science and corporate money in general (where conclusions can be biased due to funding source), what the Media Lab is about is creating interesting pieces of technology that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Lego Mindstorms, which allows the creation of working, programmable robots, wouldn’t exist if Lego and Media Lab researchers like the late Seymour Papert didn’t collaborate.


Well, that and taking money from arseholes.

Its “research” interests range from advanced prosthetics to thinly-veiled corporate advocacy like the Digital Currency Initiative, a cryptocurrency program underwritten by sponsors including Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group, and the central bank of Singapore.

There’s not much reason for the Media Lab to be involved in this “Initiative”, except as a respectable front.


That has become all the more important since the money manipulators, asset stripping, and corporate chicanery in general have all but wiped out organizations like Bell Labs.

They need to watch out for donors demanding a quid pro quo, though.


I’ll just leave this here:

Also, whither Negroponte?


Dare I say, the silly stuff comprises many wonderful things? :slight_smile:


I knew someone who went to school at MIT, working in the Lab, and his approach, that he very much picked up there, was always to fake it. The appearance of something working was more important than it actually working. It’d be interesting to know how much the Lab ended up spreading that approach to tech companies…


David Koch funded PBS. Many right-wing cranks fund the Smithsonian. Hell, look at all the things named Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller. Do we destroy those institutions because evil douchebags used them in the attempt to launder their reputations?


Back when I was doing my masters, I took a class in chaos theory.

I’m not sure whether it was the fact that it was taught at George Mason (home of the Koch’s Mercatus Center), or whether it was that it gave some mathematical grounding to some of the ideas that my father had been musing about (he was the topologist and engineer; I was the son with the far more impoverished grasp of mathematics) but some ideas about the world started to click–

Namely, that interesting complex structures grow out of very simple interactions among individual entities, and that these complex structures are quite difficult to understand, and thus control, using a “top down approach.” Sufficiently cynical individuals might grasp the relevance of the Mercatus Center’s interest or influence.

Sometimess, it’s not the rigourously understood foundations that are so interesting, it’s the astonishing tracery that floats about the foundations that provokes such awe and wonder. Poke it enough times, perturb the wrong things, and the system collapses into a very dull, inelegant, and considerably less valuable state.

The media lab, before the Epstein revalations, existed in the public consciousness-- or at least in the conscioussness of its audience-- as a scientific toymaking facility. Now, it’s a toymaker with a strong link to Jeffrey Epstein-- which is no fun at all, or maybe it’s just another corporate research lab that occasionally creates toys as a way of attracting media attention-- and thus more funding.

The question seems to be-- “Can the media lab still have it both ways? And if it cannot, is it still worth having?” I’m guessing that the answer is No. The bubble has popped, the froth has collapsed, and what’s left is something that’s rather simple and dull-- a corporate funded research lab.


I think there are three issues to consider when accepting money from people with bad reputation.

  1. Are they using it to boost their reputation, demanding publicity or even naming buildings or awards after them?
  2. Is the money itself tainted, earned dishonestly?
  3. Will it go to serious science, not just vanity project that fancies the donor?

If it’s just an scumbag that apart from being a scumbag is also interested in science and willing to donate without any personal benefit, then I see no reason to refuse. Epstein’s donations may have failed on the third point, though.


That’s important, and there’s probably all sorts of things to unpack there, not all wonderful.

However, what is popping into my head though is a fuzzy boundary between engineering and science fiction in the inquiring into different ecological and societal orders, and even imagineering.

Sometimes a new idea, even one that must be propped up by a willing suspension of disbelief, is the bridge to a different world, one that needs no propping up.


In a cynical view, any money accepted for something good is less money that can be used for something bad.

In a cynical view of the cynical view, the donation is also allowing the donor to quiet their conscience so is won’t be so loud next time they do something bad.

In a cynical view of the cynical view of the cynical view, yeah, but they were going to do something bad anyways.

And it’s cynics all the way down.


Note: unlike those institutions, AFAIK the Media Lab did nothing to try to whitewash Epstein or highlight his donations or influence researchers. I’d very much like to be corrected if I’m wrong.

Because in that case I’m inclined to just say pecunia non olet.

It has been referred to as a Theranos for plants.


Yeah, there are situations where it’s an appropriate strategy (the person I know was using it within an art context, where it was fully appropriate, as what was appearing to happen was all that mattered), but less so in start-ups and tech companies where the products being sold to investors/customers are actually illusions.


It’s true they didn’t highlight his donations after his conviction - quite the opposite, they deliberately hid his donations, publicly pretending they were anonymous, because they knew it wouldn’t go over well that they knowingly cultivated a relationship with a known rapist/pedophile/trafficker. Because they weren’t just donations, it was a relationship - Epstein apparently did have strings attached to the money he gave, directing how it was to be used to at least some degree. When MIT’s role in all this came out, Negroponte and others dismissed - rather callously and cavalierly - the message it sent to women and abuse survivors working/studying there, despite some being obviously emotionally devastated by what they saw as a betrayal.

Everything about this stank.


Thank you. I was really having trouble keeping it straight in my head and getting a clear read, this helped a lot.

The kids are too eager to pull things down because something has changed.

I never heard of the place until Stewart Brand spent time there, especially his book about the place. Someone already mentioned Seymour Pappert, it seemed to me to be like Xerox Parc or Bell Labs, things being done that might not have direct “usefulness”. I even meet a modern dancer about 2005 who had been involved in some project at the place.

The MIT Radiation Lab in WWII was driven by the war effort, yet it propelled electronics and radio quite a bit further during and after the war. Decades later the resulting books were still studied. Sometimes you need to spend freely and just push on without somevwell defined goal, even the side products can be valuable.

Is the issue tainted money, or is that mereky an excuse to tear down the place? Like so many of these “let’s rename it” things, were people unhappy with the place before, or are they now finding reasons to dislike it? Was there are general ambivalence about it before, or are people jumping on a bandwagon as popularity changes direction?

What happebs if it goes away? Will there be little loss, or wil there be a void for something else to take it’s place? Unless it’s unstable, it’s easier to keep it going than try to emulate the function from scratch somewhere else.

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