HEWN, No. 319

The "lords of the laboratories" and the illusion of justice

There’s a line in Seymour Papert’s 1993 book The Children’s Machine that I’ve been thinking about lately — the part where he tells of his arrival at MIT and his first experiences using the PDP-1 computer there. Papert describes the playfulness and creativity he felt the computer had unleashed in him. What might this creativity do for children? “These questions,” he writes — and I’ve referred to this sentence a lot in my work, “launched me on a new quest guided by the Robin Hood-like idea of stealing technology from the lords of the laboratories and giving it to the children of the world.”

Funny though. I’d actually mis-remembered this line, something I realized when I pulled the book off the shelf in order to verify it. I was certain that Papert had referred to the military-industrial complex in the passage, which is at least how I’ve long construed those “lords of the laboratories” at MIT (and elsewhere).

I’m not sure how I came to that interpretation, or why I thought of a theft at MIT in terms of specifically military computational power. (I mean, other than the long history of MIT taking DoD money and building military technology.) The Robin Hood reference means stealing from the rich to give to the poor. But I interpreted Papert’s writing and his work to mean that this Robin Hood-like gesture was a redistribution of power, an act of social justice. My interpretation was wrong. Or at best, naive.

In light of all we’ve seen over the last few weeks about MIT and the Media Lab (where Papert was a founding faculty member), I have to wonder who those “lords of the laboratories” might actually be. Are they university administrators? Corporations? Scientists? Funders and philanthropists? I don't just mean who these lords are as sweeping categories or as job titles. I mean specific people.

Was this ever about a redistribution of power? What happens when people convince themselves that their subversion is progress? Can there be any sort of justice for children if the “lords of the laboratories” have ties to the pedophile Jeffrey Epstein?

Two essays from folks at the Media Lab: “Jeffrey Epstein’s influence in the science world is a symptom of larger problems” by Kate Darling and “Why Joi Ito needs to resign” by Arwa Mboya.

And then there’s this from the Media Lab too: AttentiveU (h/t Ben Williamson). “AttentiveU glasses use brain activity (electroencephalography - EEG) as well as eye movements (electrooculography - EOG) sensors to measure engagement of a person in real-time and provide either audio or haptic feedback to the user when their engagement is low, thereby nudging them to become engaged again.” There is absolutely nothing here that is liberatory or progressive. This isn’t the work of a Robin Hood. This is Clockwork Orange.

Incidentally, Anthony Burgess’s novel — a novel about a violent youth subculture, sure, but also one about behavioral modification — was published in 1962, a year after B. F. Skinner published his book The Analysis of Behavior, as well as his article “Teaching Machines.” The Stanley Kubrick film came out in 1971, the same year Skinner published Beyond Freedom and Dignity. (It’s odd, I find, when people today believe that behaviorism is wrong because it doesn’t work.)

Speaking of Skinner, I finally published my review of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. And WNYC has a three part series on “A History of Persuasion”: 1, 2, 3 (h/t Bryan Alexander).

Elsewhere, two articles by this week’s Winner of The Internet, David Karpf: “I made a joke about Bret Stephens and bedbugs. His response was never about civility” and “I Called Bret Stephens a Bedbug. Then He Tried to Squelch My Freedom of Speech. What a Day.”

This week’s pigeon is a carrier pigeon, or as Laurence Fishburne’s character, the Bowery King, calls a flock of the birds in John Wick 3, the “information superflyway.” (Image credits) The joke is funnier maybe if you consider that John Wick and the Bowery King might be in “the Matrix.”

Yours in struggle,