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Thursday, September 05, 2019

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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