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Sunday, September 08, 2019

The MIT Media Lab's greatest hits

With the MIT Media Lab in the news, friends have been asking me questions about it.

One common question is, what are the Lab's greatest accomplishments? It's easy to see its open academic model as vague and prone to hot air, and that's not always wrong. If you compare the Lab's output to most similar-sized departments at elite universities, the record seems impressive. But of course the more immediate and common comparison is to hard science departments at MIT, and that's a tall order.

The Lab's mission is to avoid incremental work within existing lanes of research, and to explore the possible future in more ambitious and inter-disciplinary ways. (Or, as former director Joi Ito has put it, anti-disciplinary ways.) The hope is that this widening of perspective can open up new kinds of possibilities, ones that might not be conceivable if the faculty were subject to the traditional mechanisms by which departments use research to demonstrate their value.

All that said, here's my short list of greatest hits:

* CRISPR (teams there are among the many teams around the world that contributed to its discovery and refinement)
* One Laptop Per Child (no one thought a $100 laptop was close to possible, but they shipped tens of thousands of them, pushed innovations that demonstrated that devices like the Chromebook could be built and had a market, and several Central and South American countries still use the actual OLPC device)
* the Kindle (key e-ink research was done at the ML)
* Scratch (where I work now; programming website for kids; about 10mm monthly active users in 100+ countries, and around 50mm kids per year create projects, mostly in school)
* LEGO robotics (developed through a 30-year partnership with Scratch's group)
* tons of innovations in mechanical prosthetic limbs
* innovation in airbags that was used in improving their rate of false deployments
* Guitar Hero (first created at the lab and then spun off)
* BuzzFeed (lots of Jonah Peretti's research on viral storytelling was at the lab)
* AdaFruit (hardware and custom microcontroller store, created by ML alum Limor Fried, aka LadyAda)
* Sifteo cubes
* the Computer Clubhouse Network of international, free creative tech learning centers for kids
* RFID research that led to ambient RFID being usable, hologram research that is used in most holograms
* the UI ideas that were used in Minority Report
* some of the core research in collaborative filtering
* wireless mesh networks
* the MPEG-4 video codec
* and the "Stop SOPA" campaign.

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Thursday, September 05, 2019

Questions for the Media Lab

My current questions for the Media Lab, in the wake of the scandal around having solicited, and received, donations from Jeffrey Epstein:
  • Is it possible that Epstein's involvement in Joi Ito's funds created a relationship where it was harder for him to see the question of soliciting, or accepting, Epstein's money for the Media Lab in an independent light? Harder, that is, than if the ML had a policy of not soliciting or accepting donations or investments for both the Media Lab and the director's own funds from the same donors?
  • Did Epstein invest in Joi Ito's outside funds before his Media Lab funding? During? After?
  • Did Epstein ever appear on the various public lists of funders of the ML? If not, was his absence unusual? Are there other funders who are not listed now, even as an anonymous donor?
  • In what forms would it have been possible for professors or students in the ML to see that Epstein was funding the ML, before Ito's email? Is it fair to call the funding "secret"?
  • When did other people in the ML communicate with Joi Ito about whether or not to accept Epstein's funding? Were there any group or public discussions?
  • When discussions did take place between Joi Ito and other ML people about whether to accept Epstein's funding, at those times did Ito already have an outside financial relationship with Epstein? If so, did Ito reveal this during the discussions?
  • What is the nature of the funding and support from Epstein that Push Singh's 2005-ish dissertation refers to? Did Singh ever travel to an Epstein property?
  • While visiting Epstein properties, did Ito ever hear about or see evidence of Epstein getting a massage? Was Ito ever offered a massage, and did he ever receive a massage?
  • According to some sources, there was at least one press release by Epstein that claimed he was funding something Media Lab-related, which he wasn't. The ML denied it, and I've read elsewhere that it was a total fabrication by Epstein. My question is, what was the ML's internal response to this? It strikes me that a former criminal, lying about funding the Lab, is something of a red flag. Were there ever discussions about cutting him off from further funding?

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Thoughts on the Media Lab's all-hands disaster

Here are my thoughts, coming out of the Sept. 4th, 2019 Media Lab all-hands meeting (which you can read about here), which I attended.

None of this is meant to reflect the thoughts or experiences of my employer or anyone else.

First, Nicholas Negroponte's outburst is overshadowing the broader questions and concerns about how this meeting was organized, conceived and executed, but there were major problems there.

Others have other particular complaints, but to me the most tone-deaf aspect were the repeated dismissive remarks about social media and "extreme" voices. If someone is legitimately furious, they have every damn right to speak their mind, and social media is just other people who listen. It might not be a great forum for everyone to debate -- god knows -- but is in-person argument necessarily better? I felt insulted, not least of all because it had taken weeks for this carefully designed, officially sanctioned forum to take place.

Second, the feeling in the room when Nicholas Negroponte spoke up was awful. Seriously, he is supposed to be a leader, and his unscheduled speech and bickering was the worst example of leadership I've ever witnessed in person. It's important to point out how extremely precise the speaking order, and list of speakers, were. Yet when he called for an unplanned turn to speak, he was given a microphone immediately.

That's not to say that he wasn't honest, or that his remarks weren't valuable -- though, I think, not in the way he intended. I thought the portrait he painted of the reality of fundraising, and the deep coziness of the wealthy and powerful with those who, like Nicholas, can dispense meaning and purpose for their money, was revealing. As was his full-throated defense of the decision to take Epstein's money. It peeled back the veil on how power and money and gender operate -- in ways I don't think he intended to reveal.

In a sense, Joi Ito had been saying taking Jeffrey Epstein's money had been a departure from his values, and the Media Lab's values.

Nicholas was saying the opposite.

And in a way, that supports the students and faculty who are pressing for deeper, more substantial change. If this episode was part of the inseparable spine of the institution, and not just a boil, you can't exactly just lance it like a boil.

It also felt much clearer to me in his heated exchange that this episode is tied, for many, to long trends of how women are used and excluded in the institution. Joi and the admin team deserve immense credit for improving that, particularly with the percentage of Media Lab students who are women. But it felt clear to me that there is pressure, and need, for a deeper reckoning with the ways the billionaires' club and fundraising not just didn't include women, but didn't imagine women's concerns and voices. There is pressure and need for a deeper reckoning with the ways sexual harassment, assault and exploitation have been treated as a side issue, rather than one that -- absent a public relations crisis -- needs all-hands attention.

It may be that the Epstein money is getting that attention not because it's worse than what has been going on, but because it became part of the zeitgeist to the point that donors are skittish. Emblematic of this is that after the meeting, when Nicholas approached someone to resume arguing (not trying to be cagey about names, just not trying to tell someone else's story), there was quickly a group of several women pleading with him to stop. But it wasn't until Joi came and led him away that he actually did stop.

What if they had been men? What if they had been professors? What if they had been billionaires? And what if the women who Media Lab professors have hurt with their sexual exploitation were professors? Were the Provost? Were on the MIT board? Were billionaires?

What I keep thinking of is Joi Ito's promise to approach healing the Lab through "restorative justice." For that to be more than a catchphrase will take some serious work. How do you interrupt and rewrite the patterns by which mostly white men circulate power, permission, and authority? Should Joi bring women and people of color to those meetings with billionaires? Should he resign and be replaced by a leadership of women and people of color?

I also think it's important to realize how many people don't think taking the money was such a bad thing. That was only briefly alluded to.

Everyone has lines they won't cross. Everyone. It's just a matter of what outrages you, infuriates you and disgusts you to the point where you can't do business with someone -- even if the public will never find out. It's mind-boggling to me that Nicholas Negroponte still doesn't see that not only was it a strategic mistake for him to court Epstein as a donor and as a personal associate, but it is a sign that he, and the institution he built, were deficient in human understanding and ethics at the time.

And, clearly, still are.

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Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Complicity and civility

I'm struggling with this question right now: where is the line between making change through relationship, and enabling abuse?

I think it's a mistake to hold onto surface civility at all costs. And, I think there's a real tendency in the left to recast our own exclusion of others, dehumanization of others, and political violence in self-righteous terms.

I also think we undervalue the norms of surface civility that the cruel and hateful do often stick to. I think we're often dealing with people on the right who have a significant amount of desire watch the world burn, and make others as miserable as they are themselves; in other words, they're much more in the market for incivility than we are. I think from their perspective, an incivility arms race is winnable, whereas from ours it is not.

Most of all, I think it's a bit dangerous for us to act as though there is an easy answer to the question of what to do about all the powerful people motivated by cruelty. Don't appease and enable them! Of course. But then, what? What's the plan? Does the racist gang calling itself a militia really cower in the face of the show of force? Or does that mostly give them license to do much worse?

I think one of the most significant casualties in the Trump era is the rigor of thinking on the left. We are so obviously, incredibly obviously on the right side of history, I don't think we're doing much entertaining tough questions about how to win and hold power and what to do with it. Why was the CFPB so vulnerable to an illegal takeover by a Republican administration, when other federal offices aren't? What are the most important structural changes we could win to peel back the legal entrenchment of disproportionate Republican and white voting power? Do we want to make DC and Puerto Rican statehood core parts of our agenda? How do we pursue entitlements so that they will receive the widespread support that Social Security does, instead of the widespread derision that AFDC and WIC do? How do we use wedge issues like gay rights to our advantage, now that most Americans agree generally with the left? How do we incubate the next few generations of democratic leaders, so we don't wind up with so many lost opportunities to run competitive congressional and Senate races? How do we take seriously the ways that regulatory complexity allows large, powerful players to navigate the system better than new entrants?

I just see a dozen self-congratulatory posts about how awful the Republicans are right now for everyone that is asking difficult questions of Democrats or progressives.

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