And yet, for all the growing skepticism about Silicon Valley, many still believe that the digital revolution has a serious intellectual dimension, hashed out at conferences like Ted, online salons like Edge.org, publications like Wired, and institutions like the MIT Media Lab. The ideas of the digerati might be wrong, they might be overly utopian, but, at least, they are sincere.
The Epstein scandal – including the latest revelation that Epstein might have channeled up to $8m dollars (some of it, apparently, on behalf of Bill Gates) to the MIT Media Lab, while its executives were fully aware of his problematic background – has cast the digerati in a very different light. It has already led to the resignation of the lab’s director, Joi Ito.
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Evgeny Morozov: The Epstein scandal at MIT shows the moral bankruptcy of techno-elites
Posted 08 September 2019 - 02:27 AM
Posted 08 September 2019 - 11:15 AM
Morality is a human construct. Doesn't exist in real life.
Trillions of dollars spent on the military, police and secret services, clearly demonstrate this.
Posted 08 September 2019 - 03:30 PM
A few thoughts on the continuing Epstein debacle: I've been adjacent to a lot of the action over my career, (thankfully) without being close enough that I ever had to deal with it directly. I'm a bit surprised that everyone is so surprised this happened.
Before I left Harvard, I was just starting to get involved in donor fundraising. In all humility, I had a natural aptitude for it, and I was starting to get invited to places like Davos, where the big fish swim.
But I left while I was still basically playing "junior varsity" level. Harvard would mostly let me talk to folks might be able to give $1m or less, which was considered nice, but not large enough to move the needle.
I'd fly to SF and run a salon-style evening for rich alumni at one of their mansions. They all seemed nice and genuinely curious. One even invested in one of my startups.
I am grateful that I never had to make a hard decision (indeed, I wasn't flying high enough for that to even be option), but I was close enough to the radiation field to see how people get to that point.
Getting federal funding for your research is a grueling, soul-destroying process these days. The allure of philanthropic funding is clear: easy money, few strings. If you're good at translating your work for donors and exciting them, it's a no-brainer.
But the people who fly really high are the ones who build personal relationships with donors. And of course, some of those donors aren't good people.
Direct donor relationships are power within a university. If you're in the rainmaker class at a university, that's real power. The grind of grant writing is for the plebeians.
And I can understand how the heuristic of "but I'll do good things with their bad money" could rationalize many things. A lot of the money isn't even particularly problematic (and certainly not as problematic as Epstein's).
Everyone tied up with Epstein was very clearly on the wrong side of a very bright line, but I bet they got to that point very gradually.
I doubt the moral hazard was suddenly sprung on them; they probably already had bought deeply into the game and the power, and had become addicted to it.
The Joi Ito situation is the same thing writ large. I am still a little bit foggy what Joi's claim to fame is. He didn't invent anything or start any companies. As far as I can tell, he was just really, really talented at the power-brokering game.
Is it really so surprising that he was mixed up with people like Epstein?
What's the solution? As unglamorous as federal funding is, government funding of science has been, and should continue to be the bedrock of innovation at universities. Public funding has been drying up for years.
And as much as some people decried the Media Lab's corporate funding model, corporate money in tech is usually pretty boring and uncontroversial—as long as a company isn't e.g. trying to fund misinformation about potential harms of their products.
All of this will be a wake-up call for universities, but it should also be a wake up call for society and how we decide we want to fund innovation.
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