Critical Questions

Jeffrey Epstein and MIT Media Lab; Fact-Based Future vs Toxic Nostalgia; and more.


A word of introduction: Over the coming months, we are going to experiment with some changes to the format and style of this newsletter, in an effort to make it more useful to our readers and grow its reach. We’ll be doing some in-depth user research as part of that, so stay tuned for more. But today, this is an example of a different kind of First Post, where instead of offering a broad array of links plus commentary to news of civic tech and tech’s role in society, I’m zeroing in on just two important developments. Let us know if you find this useful!

This is civic tech: Ethan Zuckerman, the longtime director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media (and, full disclosure, a personal friend), has announced that he is ending his relationship with the MIT Media Lab because of its ties to Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire sexual predator who committed suicide less than two weeks ago while in prison awaiting trial. Specifically, Zuckerman writes, he realized he had to end his 8-year relationship with the Media Lab after Joi Ito, the lab’s director, told him that “that the Media Lab’s ties to Epstein…included a business relationship between Joi and Epstein, investments in companies Joi’s VC fund was supporting, gifts and visits by Epstein to the Media Lab and by Joi to Epstein’s properties.” Ethan adds,

My logic was simple: the work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view. It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship.

Just to offer a little context for why this is a big deal in the world of civic tech: The Center for Civic Media at MIT Media Lab has been the stomping grounds of many leaders in the field, including Joy Buolamwini, Willow Brugh, Denise Cheng, Chris Csikszentmihalyi, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Rodrigo Davies, Hossein Derakhshan, Erhardt Graeff, Lorrie LeJeune, Josh Levinger, Molly Sauter, Daniel Schultz, Jeff Warren and Christina Xu. The Center is one of two or three best academic places you can go to jumpstart a career in civic tech. Before coming to MIT, Ethan was an early member of the Tripod.com team (where he regretfully invented banner ads), and then in the nonprofit world, he co-founded Global Voices Online (with Rebecca MacKinnon) in 2004. He’s also been a seminal part of many internet-based collaborations, perhaps most notably with Andy Carvin in 2004 on Tsunami-info.org and then on the Katrina PeopleFinder project, both very early demonstrations of how a distributed network of motivated individuals could use the net to collectively barn raise projects of tremendous human value. (Ethan’s long-running blog, “My Heart’s in Accra,” is one of the best repositories of personal internet knowledge going.)

Ethan’s decision to separate from MIT has been matched by one other colleague, J. Nathan Matias, a current visiting scholar at the Media Lab, who has been developing his Civil Servant start-up with support from the Lab.

On August 15, a few days before Ethan’s announcement, Joi Ito, who not only runs the Media Lab but also sits on the boards of the New York Times, the MacArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation, published an apology for his “error in judgment.” He said that he met Epstein in 2013 “through a trusted business friend,” that he is “deeply sorry” to Epstein’s survivors, to the lab and the larger MIT community “for bringing such a person into our network” and he has promised to raise an amount equivalent to the donations that Epstein made to MIT to support groups that focus on supporting survivors of trafficking. He also said he would “return the money that Epstein has invested in my investment funds.” Joi is, like Ethan, one of tech’s pioneering makers and connectors; just take a look at the stream of friends and acquaintances he’s photographed and shared on his Flickr page for more than 15 years.

It’s worth remembering that in 2008 Epstein pled guilty to procuring for prostitution a girl below the age of 18, a fact that would not have been hard to discover with a Google search—something Ethan notes in explaining why he passed on Ito’s offer that they meet back in 2014.

This is an important moment. As you can see from the outpouring of people who have expressed support for Ethan (and also raised important points about the privilege he has that enabled him to make such a bold statement, which he gracefully acknowledges in footnotes to his original statement), the revelations about Ito’s relationship to Epstein (and the larger set of men in tech and science and media who broke bread with Epstein) are deeply upsetting. They force, yet again, critical questions about who has the power to set society’s agenda and shake, yet again, the assumption that the men who still dominate powerful sectors including tech, finance, media, philanthropy, and government, deserve the power they wield.

From microcosm to macrocosm: If the situation at MIT encapsulates our times writ small, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg‘s Tuesday essay riffing on Peter Pomerantsev‘s new book, “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” is the perfect counterpoint. Pomerantsev is concerned with the collapse of fact-based societies and the rise of political strongmen fueled by nostalgia for mythical pasts, and Goldberg artfully connects his insights about Russia to our present-day reality in America. She writes (channeling a bit of our friend Douglas Rushkoff‘s book Present Shock):

So much of the culture feels stuck. Social media creates a sense of eternal present; things that happened two weeks ago feel like half-forgotten history. Internet technology, once imbued with futuristic idealism, has become a source of destruction and dread….To move beyond this horrible moment, we’ll need to reform the algorithms that turn YouTube into a machine for radicalization and make Facebook an accessory to ethnic cleansing.

But the bigger challenge may be to create belief in a future that doesn’t seem nightmarish, to restore faith in a rational path forward, to give people a sense of control over their destiny. “The need for facts is predicated on the notion of an evidence-based future,” writes Pomerantsev. A society invested in real, tangible common projects needs objective truths. One organized around a desperate longing for a mythologized past does not. Pomerantsev’s book suggests that the authoritarian darkness that’s descended on so much of the globe is a hangover from the so-called end of history after the Cold War. If that’s true, perhaps one way to dispel it is to get history moving again.

Goldberg’s point about needing a larger narrative that orients us forward in common purpose should be read as a challenge and an opportunity, and as we head into the last week of summer (and I disappear into a week’s vacation) here’s something to chew on. I think a lot of the people reading this newsletter and connected to Civic Hall or the larger civic tech movement sense that we are already acting in service to a larger and more hopeful narrative of progress, that is rooted in the belief that we can build a future that works for everyone. But the news from the world—both the real news about ongoing inequities and the growing climate crisis and the daily spectacle of noise, trivia, advertising, huckstering, influencing and distractions (sometimes delicious or desperately needed)—keeps us from seeing that larger narrative in bold relief. Also, nothing is as simple anymore as the utopian visions of old or the ideologies that gave previous generations faith in their promises. A complicated view of a possible future doesn’t travel as easily as a simplistic call to a flawed past.

But history is moving, to echo Goldberg’s call, though you have to pay attention to see the swarm moving in the whirlwind. The new forms of state power and corporate surveillance make it harder to “see” this history in the making because many places it’s become dangerous to organizers to make themselves too visible. But it is moving most visibly right now in the streets of Hong Kong, and not long ago it was on the move in the highways of Puerto Rico. It’s in motion in the rolling anti-corruption protests that keep breaking out in Russia, and in a different form it’s in motion in the massive wave of civic engagement we’ve been experiencing in America since 2016 (from teachers to coal miners to women in pussy hats and tech workers walking out of their posh offices). It’s also still very much on the march in fields that rarely if ever define themselves as political, in education and public health and environmental resilience efforts, to name just three. And in our corner of the world, it’s in motion too in efforts to make tech more civic, more inclusive, diverse and equitable. Every time one of us, like Ethan Zuckerman and Nate Matias, finds a way to take action in accordance with those values and against forces that corrupt and undermine common purpose, it’s in motion. Those actions must give us hope.

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