Higher learnings at MIT; Disobedience in action; and more.
Saturday, Joi Ito resigned his position as director of the MIT Media Lab, as well as his board director roles at the New York Times, the Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, after Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker that he and other top fundraising officials at the Lab were aware of billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s sordid history, that MIT had listed him as “disqualified” in the university’s official donor database, and that they thus took steps to insure that Epstein’s donations and his efforts to reel in other gifts would be hidden from public view. “The effort to conceal the lab’s contact with Epstein was so widely known that some staff in the office of the lab’s director, Joi Ito, referred to Epstein as Voldemort or ‘he who must not be named,’” Farrow writes. Farrow reports that Epstein not only continued to donate to the Lab after his Florida jail sentence was over, but he was also internally credited with securing at least $7.5 million in donations—$2 million from Bill Gates and $5.5 million from investor Leon Black.
The news of Ito’s downfall has reverberated deeply not just in the tech world, where his position at one of its pinnacles made him so influential, but also in civic tech, because so much of his persona and pedagogy was invested in the use of tech for good. Early in his career, back in 2006, for example, Ito chaired and then became CEO of Creative Commons, a highly successful project started by Harvard professor Larry Lessig in 2001 to foster greater free sharing of online content. At the Media Lab, Ito frequently touted his commitment to openness as a core value, but apparently the demands of fundraising and the opportunity to consort with Epstein, someone he described as “really fascinating,” corrupted that commitment. Like Icarus, Ito flew too close to the sun—but in this story, the people around him (with a few exceptions, like Ethan Zuckerman) weren’t warning him to avoid the flames, they were encouraging him to go higher.
No longer sparking Joi: The list of more than 250 people who signed the WeSupportJoi online statement started shrinking after the New Yorker story came out. Among those people who removed their names (according to the aptly named Used to support Joi site built by mySociety coder Matthew Somerville: Bruce Schneier, Jesse Dylan, Linda Stone, and Elliot Noss). The WeSupportJoi site has been taken down but is archived here.
One of the most prominent names still on that site, Larry Lessig (who used to run the Edmund Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard!) posted a self-embarrassing essay on Medium trying to explain why he still supported his friend Ito. Bizarrely, Lessig argues that Ito was right to take Epstein’s money and keep the donations secret, first because he was somehow convinced that Epstein had reformed himself, and second, because making his gifts anonymous would supposedly prevent the sex predator from getting any reputational benefit. As if being feted as a guest of the Lab, with his young female Eastern European assistants in tow, was somehow not something that Ito did for Epstein after obtaining his gifts, and as if Ito was blameless for also taking Epstein’s money into his personal investment fund and trying to profit from it.
This is not the first time that Lessig has made a tortured argument against transparency, but it surely is one of his worst. University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan tears a few more holes into Lessig’s argument here. (Note: We have yet to get a real accounting of Epstein’s ties to Harvard.)
Writing in The New York Times, tech columnist Kara Swisher trenchantly points out, “this story of looking-the-other-way morals should not be seen as an unusual cautionary tale of a few rogue players. These corner-cutting ethics have too often become part and parcel to the way business is done in the top echelons of tech, allowing those who violate clear rules and flout decent behavior to thrive and those who object to such behavior to endure exhausting pushback.”
I can’t help but note this irony: In Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, which Ito coauthored with Jeff Howe, Ito writes in his acknowledgments, “Thanks to Megan Smith, who turned to me on a bus trundling from Oxford to Cambridge and asked if I’d be interested in becoming the director of the Media Lab.” Ito became the director in 2011. From 2008 to 2018, Smith (who served in the Obama Administration after leaving Google) was married to Swisher. Small world!
(Full disclosure: I came to know Ito slightly after my smarter younger brother David hired him in 2004 to work at his Technorati start-up; I met him once at his MIT office in 2012 seeking his support for the Sunlight Foundation, and he was the main stage speaker at Personal Democracy Forum in 2013. Oh, and I picked up a signed copy of Whiplash at an event the Ford Foundation threw for him when it came out last year.)
Speaking of the problem of corner-cutting ethics at the pillars of the tech sector: In Whiplash‘s acknowledgements, Ito singles out one person by name for being his “‘thought partner’ for just about everything”: LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. It’s worth dwelling on this statement a bit more, for what it suggests about the darkness at the heart of what went wrong here. Ito and Hoffman, it’s worth noting, are probably among the most connected in the tech world, or as they say in the field: they have high network centrality. Here, for example, at the WIRED25 festival, where they sat on stage together admiring each other, we learn that one of the principles of “blitzscaling,” Hoffman’s word for the kind of rapid, market-dominating approach mastered by companies like Facebook, is “Let Fires Burn.” Meaning: pay no attention to your existing customer base while you race to acquire more. Another Hoffman rule: “Tolerate Bad Management.” Hmmmmmmmm….
Speaking of burning fires and power networks: Pulling on a few of the many threads leading to and from the Ito-Epstein nexus at MIT last weekend was writer Anand Giridharadas, who on Friday tweeted in depth about his efforts to get his fellow members of the awards jury for the Media Lab’s Disobedience Award—which Ito launched a few years ago with funding from, yes, tech billionaire Reid Hoffman—to get more transparency from Ito about his relationship with Epstein. As you can see from the thread, Giridharadas tried to get his fellow esteemed jurists to respond to his entreaties, but the only one to answer was Hoffman, who wrote him saying that “Your responses frankly make me concerned about your ability to serve on an awards committee.” With that, Giridharadas responded that “I am tired of this plutocratic back-rub chain of self-protection,” and resigned from the jury.
Very related: Sabrina Hirsi Issa is crowdfunding a “Bold Prize” to show support to Arwa Mboya, the MIT grad student who courageously spoke out early and publicly for Ito’s resignation .
Ah, what a tangled web we weave: Ito is an investor in WaitWhat, a content company that features Hoffman’s podcast Masters of Scale as one of its premiere offerings. Hoffman was a major donor to Larry Lessig‘s ill-fated MayDay PAC, giving $1.15 million to it, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (MayDay touted itself as the political action committee to end all PACs.) Hoffman and Ito are both investors in a gaming start-up called Klang, which according to this 2017 press release has teamed up with Lessig to “construct the political framework” of its multi-player game Seed. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.
To be clear, I am not saying that Ito did what he did because Hoffman or Lessig told him to; he alone has to answer for his decisions. Hoffman has funded many valuable projects in civic tech, like Code for America, and is trying to be a constructive actor in the larger public arena. But, as Swisher wrote in the Times, the pursuit of success and scale at dominating speed (“Move Fast and Break Things“), combined with human frailty in the face of blinding wealth, can be a recipe for disaster. A lot of people have been hurt these past few weeks, in addition to the girls and women, Epstein assaulted. Here’s hoping that everyone, including the titans who want to be seen as leaders in this field, take these lessons to heart.
Worth noting: Ito not only served on the NYTimes board, but he also sat on its audit committee, Vivian Schiller points out. Audit committees are usually in charge of making sure companies adhere to sound and ethical business practices.
In other news…
Dozens of Google employees have reportedly been retaliated against for pressing the company to address workplace issues, according to an internal company document obtained by Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary.
Beto O’Rourke‘s presidential campaign has sent letters to Google, Facebook and Twitter demanding that the platforms do more to block disinformation about the candidate, with little success, campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon tweets.
Leaked documents obtained by the Guardian’s Alex Hern show that Apple programmed its Siri voice assistant to avoid saying the word feminism and to avoid questions about women’s rights.
Privacy International took a close look at how menstruation apps share private user data with third parties including Facebook, discovering lots of problematic issues.
Facebook is letting dangerous misinformation about diabetes proliferate across the platform, Judd Legum of Popular.info charges.
Food for thought: This long-ish read from Alex Stamos on Lawfareblog about how the 2020 election could be effectively hacked is well worth pondering.