HEWN, No. 318

Some whisper networks warn women about dangerous men; other whisper networks protect those men and target the women not in the know. I wonder which whisper networks dominate ed-tech?

As I noted in last week’s HEWN, I’d planned this week to write and publish my review of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. And I have written about 600 words towards that end. But my mind has been elsewhere this week as I’ve been stewing almost constantly over the news out of the MIT Media Lab.

On Thursday of last week, the director of the Media Lab Joi Ito issued “My apology regarding Jeffrey Epstein,” admitting that he’d taken investment — both in his capacity as the head of the lab and for his personal startup — from the pedophile-financier.

This week, professor Ethan Zuckerman and visiting scholar Nathan Matias both announced their departures from the lab. (Read Zuckerman’s resignation. And Matias’s.) MIT finally weighed in at the end of the week with a letter from President L. Rafael Reif, admitting the university had received some $800,000 from Epstein and would, as a result, “convene a group to examine the facts around the Epstein donations and identify any lessons for the future.”

That’s not enough. That’s not nearly enough.

I think Joi Ito needs to resign. And I’ll repeat what some of what I said on Twitter: I want details about where Epstein’s money went in the Media Lab, yes. But I want transparency into all the Lab’s funding. I also want a timeline of major events surrounding Epstein’s relationship with the university — the whole university. Because this isn’t just about Joi Ito, and this isn’t just about the Media Lab. Epstein’s relationship with the school pre-dates Ito’s tenure. Most notably, Marvin Minsky, the co-founder of MIT’s AI Lab, is named in court documents as having sex with a sex trafficking victims on Epstein’s private island. It is important that MIT address all of this — all the connections — even if the university’s luminaries and legacies are implicated. It’s crucial — to my mind at the very least — because of the work done at MIT on children and coding and on the future of machine and human learning.

Zuckerman and Matias’s work on social justice prompted them to resign in the face of the Epstein connection. I applaud them for it. Others’ silence is deafening. I have wondered all week what those in education technology would and will do with the news about the Media Lab, particularly if it was revealed that Epstein’s money has funded their favorites. (His foundation issued a press release several years ago touting its backing of Scratch Jr, but later as the press began to inquire into Epstein’s philanthropy, MIT denied it.)

Much of my work in the past has been to uncover the networks of powerful people who fund education technology and education reform. I believe that money shapes a product; it doesn’t just underwrite it. And I’ve hoped that educators and administrators would think more critically about the affinities that lay beneath and within the tools they mandate students and school use. (Like, say, if a “personalized learning” platform is backed by a dude who thinks the Nineteenth Amendment was a bad idea. I mean, WTF.)

But mostly folks don’t seem to care. Maybe they just can’t imagine a world in which Big Ideas and Big Ideas Men aren’t terrible. Maybe — and this is what I do fear — a great many folks simply benefit from things being this way.

In other news:

This week’s pigeon is a Saxon Shield pigeon. (Image credits) Saxon Shields are well-behaved birds. Or so I’m told.

Yours in struggle,
~Audrey