HEWN, No. 320

It's always worse than it seems...

This weeks Columbidae is a Luzon-bleeding heart. The bird, with a striking patch of red feathers that resembles a stab wound in its breast, is endemic to the Philippines and is on the near-threatened species list due to deforestation. (Image credits)

Yes. The bird is a goddamn metaphor. I honestly don’t have much to say this week that I haven’t said elsewhere before.

There are updates to the ongoing saga at the MIT Media Lab, of course: its founder, Nicholas Negroponte, telling those gathered for an all-hands meeting that, knowing what we know now, he’d still urge Joi Ito to take Jeffrey Epstein’s money; an update from Mitch Resnick, the head of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group (the makers of the children’s coding program Scratch), insisting that his team has never taken any money from Epstein; and finally, a devastating late-Friday-night article by Ronan Farrow that shows that the Media Lab was aware of Epstein’s status as a convicted sex offender, took his money away, and made efforts to obscure where the billionaire’s funds went, marking the donations as anonymous. (For what it’s worth, I appreciate Resnick’s public statement, but as it predates Farrow’s reporting — reporting that calls into question the amount, the origins, and the transparency of Epstein’s funding, I think we all deserve more information.)

Joi Ito needs to go, and frankly Nicholas Negroponte does too. But the problem with the Media Lab is not simply this particular moral failure of its leadership; the issues go much deeper than that. From a 2012 article in The Baffler by Will Boisvert:

Whether the Lab dances to the sponsors’ tune or has internalized a virtual corporate overseer in the form of a business-friendly philosophy, the outcome is the same: a betrayal of the public mission of a great research university. There’s a long history of businesses funding academic research in science and engineering, but the Media Lab, with its corporate mentoring and steering and consulting and all-around buddying, and its fanatical packaging of research projects as launchable products, has taken such relationships to a new level of intellectual barrenness. ...Media Lab projects rarely generate such public benefits or add anything significant to our understanding of the world; their contributions usually end with the electric tambourines and karaoke machines they spin off. The result is a diversion of resources away from the pursuit of science of lasting value into projects that belong in Hasbro’s marketing department.

And to be clear, the problem isn’t just the Media Lab either. (Although my god, let’s address this one right now. Is there any reason it should continue to exist in its current state?) Nor is the problem MIT, an institution that’s repeatedly shown it’s willing to take money from just about anyone to do just about anything, no matter how militaristic, authoritarian, or stupid. The plutocrat-backed neoliberal technocracy is being manufactured at universities around the world, and its corrupt ideology is being laundered by publications and think tanks funded by these same, unethical billionaires. And plenty of folks look the other way because they’re more committed to being in networks with the “innovators” than they are in building a world that is caring and just.


“We have to dismantle ‘The Fountainhead’ brick by brick. It’s like the aristocrats’ bible. It’s a compound of problems. They basically want to eliminate paradise.” — Prince

Yours in struggle,

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