On me, and the Media Lab

(Please be sure to read the addendum at the end of this post.)

A week ago last Friday, I spoke to Joi Ito about the release of documents that accuse Media Lab co-founder Marvin Minsky of involvement in Jeffrey Epstein’s horrific crimes.* Joi told me that evening that the Media Lab’s ties to Epstein went much deeper, and included a business relationship between Joi and Epstein, investments in companies Joi’s VC fund was supporting, gifts and visits by Epstein to the Media Lab and by Joi to Epstein’s properties. As the scale of Joi’s involvement with Epstein became clear to me, I began to understand that I had to end my relationship with the MIT Media Lab. The following day, Saturday the 10th, I told Joi that I planned to move my work out of the MIT Media Lab by the end of this academic year, May 2020.

My logic was simple: the work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view. It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship.

I waited until Thursday the 15th for Joi’s apology to share the information with my students, staff, and a few trusted friends. My hope was to work with my team, who now have great uncertainty about their academic and professional futures, before sharing that news widely. I also wrote notes of apology to the recipients of the Media Lab Disobedience Prize, three women who were recognized for their work on the #MeToo in STEM movement. It struck me as a terrible irony that their work on combatting sexual harassment and assault in science and tech might be damaged by their association with the Media Lab. The note I sent to those recipients made its way to the Boston Globe, which ran a story about it this evening. And so, my decision to leave the Media Lab has become public well before I had intended it to.

That’s okay. I feel good about my decision, and I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what it’s appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been part of has made terrible errors. My guess is that the decision is different for everyone involved. I know that some friends are committed to staying within the lab and working to make it a better, fairer and more transparent place, and I will do my best to support them over the months I remain at the Lab. For me, the deep involvement of Epstein in the life of the Media Lab is something that makes my work impossible to carry forward there.**

To clarify a couple of things, since I haven’t actually been able to control the release of information here:

– I am not resigning because I had any involvement with Epstein. Joi asked me in 2014 if I wanted to meet Epstein, and I refused and urged him not to meet with him. We didn’t speak about Epstein again until last Friday.

– I don’t have another university that I’m moving to or another job offer. I just knew that I couldn’t continue the work under the Media Lab banner. I’ll be spending much of this year – and perhaps years to come – seeing if there’s another place to continue this work. Before I would commit to moving the work elsewhere at MIT, I would need to understand better whether the Institute knew about the relationship with Epstein and whether they approved of his gifts.

– I’m not leaving tomorrow. That wouldn’t be responsible – I have classes I am committed to teaching and students who are finishing their degrees. I plan to leave at the end of this academic year.

– My first priority is taking care of my students and staff, who shouldn’t have to suffer because Joi made a bad decision and I decided I couldn’t live with it. My second priority is to help anyone at the Media Lab who wants to turn this terrible situation into a chance to make the Lab a better place. That includes Joi, if he’s able to do the work necessary to transform the Media Lab into a place that’s more consistent with its stated values.

I’m aware of the privilege*** that it’s been to work at a place filled with as much creativity and brilliance as the Media Lab. But I’m also aware that privilege can be blinding, and can cause people to ignore situations that should be simple matters of right and wrong. Everyone at the Media Lab is going through a process of figuring out how they should react to the news of Epstein and his engagement with the Lab. I hope that everyone else gets to do it first with their students and teams before doing it in the press.

Addendum, August 21, 2019:

* A friend of Marvin Minsky’s objected to this sentence opening this post, noting that Marvin, who died in 2016, cannot respond to these accusations. While that is true, the accusations made by Virginia Giuffre are a matter of public record and have been widely reported. I mention these accusations both because they were what motivated me to speak with Joi about Epstein and, more importantly, because unanswered questions about Minsky are part of the horror of this situation for some of my colleagues at the Media Lab. To be clear, I have no knowledge of whether any of these charges are true – they happened long before my time at the Media Lab.

I changed the word “implicate” to “accuse” as a result and added “of involvement” before the phrase about Epstein’s crimes.

** My original version of this post had two additional sentences here, describing my dismay about the implications of the Epstein revelations for one of my students and her research. She is not ready to talk about that subject, and I’ve withdrawn those sentences at her request.

*** A friend pointed out that I was able to choose to step away from the Media Lab because of my privilege: I’ve got money in the bank, I’ve got a supportive partner, I am at a stage of my career where I can reasonably believe I’ll find another high prestige job, I’m a cis-gendered straight white dude. She wanted me to be clearer about the fact that not everyone is going to be able to make the same decision I did.

She’s right. There are people who are going to remain working at the Media Lab because they sincerely believe that we finally have the opportunity to fix some of the deep structural problems of the place – I respect them and I will work hard to support them. But there’s also people who are going to continue at the lab because it’s the best opportunity they have to develop their own careers and reach a point where they’ve got more flexibility to make decisions like the one I made. I respect them too – they are the people doing the work that makes institutions work, but they rarely have the power to make decisions that steer an institution towards its values.

So thank you for all the kind words about bravery. Truth is I’m privileged enough to afford to be brave. For those of you who love the Media Lab and want to see it sail through these rough waters, please take time to reach out to people who may not be able to be as visible in their next steps. Make sure they’re doing okay. Support them whether their decision is to leave or to stay. So many of my colleagues at the Media Lab right now are hurting, and they need your support and love too. Hope we can redirect some of that love folks are sharing with me to them too.


Also published on Medium.

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2 Responses to On me, and the Media Lab

  1. This sure has been a tough decision.
    I’m sure you wonder whether it would be better to stay and try to renew the Lab from within.
    I don’t think there is a “good” option, but only chosing bad from worse.
    If I may, I hope you consider your decision a “dynamic” one, and are able to adapt it as events unfold in the upcoming months: your actual work at the Lab is terrific and does deserve, IMHO, this constant reconsideration.

    If, in the end, you are to definitely leave, I’m sure your energies will find an appropriate path were to positively flow.

    All the best,

    ismael

  2. Perhaps the #MeToo STEM prize redeems the association with Epstein and the controversy around Joi Ito, but I suppose it will always look like reputational laundering.

    Could you explain — if you know — why MIT fund-raisers would even have to deal with a figure like Epstein, and couldn’t back away from him years ago? Wouldn’t a prestigious outfit like MIT have their pick of donors? This is what puzzles me.

    An even more puzzling is that MIT would need Epstein as any kind of go-between to Bill Gates. They couldn’t reach Bill Gates on their own?

    Fund-raising for non-profits always involves the dark side, to some degree, and always seems to have strings attached of some kind. It’s a bad business. This is why I don’t do any of it anymore myself. Still, it’s necessary and it should be made as decent and free as possible. Why MIT, with all its prestige, couldn’t achieve this remains a mystery. Does MIT not feel kinship with its Media Lab?

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