A few years ago, when I was living in Oakland and reporting from ground zero of the tech boom, I spent a weekend at a castle in the Napa Valley. Co-hosted by the Culinary Institute of America (to whom the castle belonged) and the MIT Media Lab (to whom the techie cultural caché belonged), I was covering the second-ever reThink Food Annual Leadership Conference, an event about the future of technology and food, replete with blue-chip corporate sponsors, New York Times panelists, and some excellent food tastings.
The experience was a little unsettling. As I left the castle — formally known as The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone — at the end of the first evening, I saw a bunch of khaki-clad business types filing into small cars and minibuses for a trip down the road to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry restaurant, where reservations cost $325 a head. I climbed into my Kia and drove 40 minutes to the Rodeway Inn in nearby Santa Rosa.
The conference itself was a waste of time. I learned very little about what “technologists” are “doing” to “food.” An executive from Campbell’s criticized how much the American government spends on its military, and I remember quite enjoying an hors d'oeuvre from a booth of the National Pork Board. The conference, which appears to have last taken place in 2018, served little other purpose than allowing for a group of well-off industry insiders to kibbitz under the guise of Doing Good and Asking Big Questions (the brief story I wrote about it said as much).
With the revelation last week that the prestigious MIT Media Lab maintained close ties with Jeffrey Epstein for more than six years after his conviction for soliciting sex from an underage girl, I thought back to that silly food conference in Napa. What was the Lab doing that was so essential that it required millions of dollars in funding, some of which was raised from a rich pedophile and his associates?
The Media Lab was founded in the mid-1980s by Nicholas Negroponte, the son of a Greek shipping magnate who served as its director until 2000, and a tech gadfly straight out of central casting (his 1995 bestselling book Being Digital prophesied a world in which digital “bits” would overtake our physical world of “atoms”). Though it’s branded a little less earnestly, the Media Lab is what happens when this techno-utopian sentiment congeals into an entire institution, a reputation launderer for corporate America and the billionaire class.
The Media Lab is a kind of hybrid research organization within MIT, blending “hard” science programs in robotics and biology with “softer” areas like its “Poetic Justice” program, which “creates work with rhythm and harmony that extends our perceptions and exposes the social-political systems affecting us as individuals” (okay!). Corporate and individual donors help underwrite scores of visiting fellows, students, and instructors with a range of academic qualifications. A 2012 essay in The Baffler illustrates the nuts and bolts of how the Lab operates:
In Negroponte’s scheme, there could be no point in giving the world’s most imaginative minds free rein unless that would also appeal to major corporations and venture capital. Hence his pioneering business plan, unique for a university lab at the time, under which corporate sponsors front most of the budget by kicking in a few hundred thousand dollars a year each for nonexclusive rights to the Lab’s intellectual property. This funding mechanism is fussily calibrated to rake in cash while preserving a façade of independence. A diversified industrial average of 70-odd sponsors — including Bank of America, Google, News Corporation, Northrop Grumman, and Hasbro — pay for access to a broad “consortium” of research groups but can’t direct their money to a particular project or dictate terms to a specific scientist.
These days, according to its own website, the Lab has an annual budget of around $75 million. Its “research” interests range from advanced prosthetics to thinly-veiled corporate advocacy like the Digital Currency Initiative, a cryptocurrency program underwritten by sponsors including Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group, and the central bank of Singapore. While the Media Lab is hardly alone in operating as a non-profit clearinghouse for the business community, its affiliation with MIT and futurist veneer lends it exceptional credibility.
This is, after all, what drew someone like Jeffrey Epstein into the Media Lab’s orbit in the first place. As the New Yorker reported this past Friday, Epstein would “meet with faculty members, apparently to allow him to give input on projects and to entice him to contribute further.” As recently as 2014, Epstein reportedly arranged for a $7.5 million contribution from Bill Gates and the private-equity investor Leon Black, an effort that Media Lab director Joichi Ito worked aggressively to conceal (Ito resigned on Saturday “after giving the matter a great deal of thought.”). Negroponte, according to the MIT Technology Review, recently told Media Lab staff that he advised Ito to take Epstein’s money at the time, and that if he were to “wind back the clock, I would still say, ‘Take it.’” This is not the official position of MIT, which on Monday announced that it had "retained the law firm Goodwin Procter to perform a thorough investigation of the facts surrounding Jeffrey Epstein’s interactions with MIT."
What, then, is the point of something like the MIT Media Lab? What is the justification for its continued existence? After all, elite academia is rotted through with corporate sponsorship these days, particularly from Silicon Valley; a 2017 Wall Street Journal report revealed that Google had funded “hundreds” of research papers written by professors from Harvard, UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois and elsewhere, which reached conclusions favorable to the company’s anti-regulation position. As the critic Evgeny Morozov notes in The Guardian, the purpose of the MIT Media Lab is something a little more grand, a little less visibly craven: to create a “third culture” of the elite, replacing “technophobic literary intellectuals with those coming from the world of science and technology.”
Put into action, the “third culture” is a safe haven for breathless bullshit, a place where the ultra-rich might fantasize about, say, administering a eugenics scheme in New Mexico with the semen of a convicted serial sexual predator. Whether or not “third culture” progenitors like the Media Lab actually go forward with such an insane idea is beside the point, as they’re just happy to help cash a check. What the Lab actually produces is something much dumber and more banal. It looks something like a conference about food sponsored by the pork lobby, during which soup company executives tell a moderator from the Times (where Joichi Ito, until this week, held a corporate directorship) that it’s an awful shame how many people in the world go hungry.
The latest Epstein news merely presents a convenient if not urgent reason to do what should have been done years ago. The Media Lab has always been a vanity project, and now that we know that it’s catered to a pedophile donor, its existence has been rendered not only moot but disgraceful. Its final, and most essential, project could be using its robots to destroy itself.