Why We Still Need the MIT Media Lab

Despite the recent scandal, and the deserved resignation of its director, the lab does important work. But it can be better.

The exterior of the MIT media lab at 75 Amherst Street in Cambridge, MA is pictured on Aug. 23, 2019. Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images

If you are in the tech or science world, you’ve probably heard by now about the recent scandal involving convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and his donations to the MIT Media Lab. Some at MIT (including some faculty and students) pushed for Joi Ito, the director of the lab since 2011, to resign as soon as they learned that the lab took money from Epstein under Ito’s watch.

The recent revelations from the New Yorker ignited a larger firestorm of protests and changed all that. Ito resigned a day after the article was published, in the wake of the allegations that he and others concealed Epstein’s donations. MIT has initiated an independent investigation to determine what exactly happened.

Let me be clear: I think Ito resigning was a good thing. He should have done it sooner. (Kudos to those who called him out and shame on people like Lawrence Lessig and others in the academic community for standing up for Ito when they should’ve been asking him to resign).

In the wake of this scandal, there is no shortage of opinions being offered by the Technorati, and the story has made its way into the non-tech press as only juicy scandals can. An article in Slate declared “The Moral Rot of the Media Lab,” and one in Techcrunch asked “Would we miss the Media Lab if it were gone?” The tech journalist Kara Swisher wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled “He Who Must Not Be Tolerated,” condemning Ito just months after she was fawning all over him.

Should MIT consider shutting down the Media Lab itself?

In my opinion, even though the Media Lab is far from perfect and has many problems, some of which I’ve seen firsthand (and others which I’ve heard about in whispered and not-so-whispered tones from members of the MIT community), it should be fixed and not jettisoned.

Part of the underlying mission and purpose of the MIT Media Lab is to serve as a cross-disciplinary “hacker-type” lab where people build cool stuff in conjunction with industry, outside of normal academic departments. One scandal (a big one, to be sure) and one person’s bad judgement (very bad, to be sure) should not cause MIT to simply “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Generally speaking, there seem to be two arguments for shutting down the Media Lab. I’ll break these into the Non-Silicon Valley Argument and the Silicon Valley Argument:

  • The Non SV Argument — The Media Lab gets its budget from big companies — Google, Intel, Panasonic, and NTT Data Corporation are all members — and from individual wealthy donors (for example, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman). This money impacts the nature of their research. Big money shouldn’t influence scientific research, therefore the Media Lab (and any institution getting research money from these interests) should be shut down. As long as the Medial Lab accepts money from private corporations and wealthy individuals, it will be vulnerable.
  • The SV Argument — The Media Lab hasn’t been very productive in spinning out startups. In fact, more valuable startups have come out of Ycombinator and Silicon Valley, in general, and with a lot less investment. Given the large budget of the Lab (which has grown from $25 million to $75 million per year), donors should have gotten more for their money — more IPOs and more innovative startups. The Media Lab should have produced more industry startups and correspondingly, more wealth for the founders and for MIT.

You’ll notice, oddly enough, that these two arguments — though both favor shutting down the Media Lab — are almost diametrically opposed to one another. In one case the Media Lab isn’t being “academic” enough, and in the other case, it’s not producing enough “real world applications”.

Lost in the social media storm are over 1,000 graduate students studying at the Media Lab. They are the ones being hurt by calls to shut down the lab. I’ve seen the work of many of these students, including many interesting projects that may not fit into other academic departments very well (browse some here.)

In my opinion, even though the Media Lab is far from perfect and has many problems… it should be fixed and not jettisoned.

One faculty member from the Media Lab who recently left, Cesar Hidalgo, gave an account of the leadership of Ito. Even though he was the only Hispanic faculty member, he wasn’t invited to a “Minorities at the Media Lab” forum and in a decade, could barely get two meetings with Ito.

I am sympathetic. I tried to meet with Ito once but was told I’d have to wait months, and instead met with his deputy, Peter Cohen, who seemed very interested in whether I was going to donate money to the lab or not. When I said that wasn’t my purpose; Cohen (and Ito, presumably) seemed to lose interest. (Cohen has since moved on to Brown, and was recently put on administrative leave, but insists that he followed all MIT procedures for fund-raising and that MIT had approved the donations.)

Unlike the co-founder of the Media Lab, academic Nicholas Negroponte, Ito was an unusual choice to lead the lab. Ito had dropped out of school, ran a nightclub, had great Silicon Valley connections and had been an investor in Twitter, among other tech startups. His unique life story and connections were compelling enough for the Media Lab to choose him as its director.

The Media Lab has a budget that seems to go well beyond normal academic departments, even for a prestigious institution like MIT. In fact, during Ito’s time, he declared that it was “anti-disciplinary”–kind of a skunkworks on campus. It went on to become for many a symbol as much as an actual lab, a mecca for people wanting to study STEM–whether they were part of the lab or not.

I was first exposed to the Media Lab in the 1990s as an undergraduate student at MIT. Even then the building was considered “unique,” and this was before they built the new, improved and much more expensive Media Lab. As an undergraduate, I was intrigued by a place that wasn’t just doing traditional computer science, but was crossing disciplines. So I did my undergraduate thesis with a professor there who was one of the pioneers of interactive cinema, Glorianna Davenport. It was a unique opportunity to sit at the edges of traditional computer science and film-making.

One complaint I heard often from others at MIT was that the Media Lab was hard to work with; the faculty exuded an arrogance and showiness that was at odds with MIT’s humble engineering culture. Like so many startups that raise gobs and gobs of money, I think the Media Lab became addicted to both the money and media exposure, turning it into a fairly arrogant place.

Rather than just publishing papers (“Publish or Perish”) like the rest of academia, they wanted to build stuff, or at least demos. (“Demo or Die” was their alternative mantra.) This is a still a worthy goal in stodgy academia. This is the spirt that attracted me and many others to the lab.

So, is it a problem that the Media Lab takes money from big corporations and wealthy donors? If that’s the case then we have a problem with academia; most universities take money from corporations and wealthy donors. Stanford and many other college campuses have a “Gates” building for computer science. The funding received from federal programs is a fraction of what’s needed for research, so what would happen to research if money from private companies or individuals was made off-limits?

To insist that there shouldn’t be any practical research done on campus on problems that industry cares about also doesn’t make sense. Too often, basic science doesn’t find applications and having a place that brings together different disciplines is still a great idea. Most universities take funding from the Department of Defense and the federal government that some may find objectionable. MIT in particular participated in the war effort during WWII (radar was invented in another skunkworks lab there). This is pretty much unavoidable.

But getting funding from only one source is more problematic than getting funding from many sources. Imagine a world where a President Donald Trump could shut off all funding for clean-energy projects and there were no other sources of funding available?

It’s not just a problem with the government. For science to truly proceed and for technology to develop, sometimes research has to be done in areas that aren’t viewed “favorably” in the current academic environment. Approximately 10 years ago, research into neural nets, machine learning, and A.I. was considered a “dead end,” with very few computer scientists pursuing it. Some preserved, despite a lack of funding and limited their career prospects — and now it’s blossomed into a very large field.

Research funding must come from somewhere. The best approach is probably to make sure all of the funding isn’t coming from one place or one agenda so there’s a diversity of goals and perspectives and less groupthink about what academics should be doing. Obviously, though, there should be limits on where the funding comes from, as the Epstein scandal has shown very clearly.

So should the MIT Media lab be more entrepreneurial and commercial, spinning off more companies, or should it be more “pure” and more academic?

Some have described the environment at MIT Media Lab as being closer to a startup than a college campus, given all the tinkering that’s going on. Some have said (including myself) that the Media Lab should’ve produced more practical applications, not less. When I graduated from MIT, I worked for a time at one of the very first startups that spun out from the Media Lab, a company called DiVA that made a video editor. Back in 1993, it wasn’t at all clear that end users would want to edit video or which digital video formats would become dominant. Why would end users need a digital video editor? Today, any smartphone can edit digital video and the answer is obvious.

Like much of what happens in the Media Lab, the thinking was ahead of its time. There are many useful innovations that have come through the Lab, including: Scratch, a language now used by over a million children to learn to code; eInk, which was used in the Kindle; Guitar Hero, one of the most successful video game franchises of all time.

So should the MIT Media lab be more entrepreneurial and commercial, spinning off more companies, or should it be more “pure” and more academic?

The fact that both of these opinions are being expressed now, in the heat of this current scandal, might mean that maybe there needs to be a delicate balance between the two. Different groups can and should have different priorities. Ito clearly crossed a line, but that doesn’t mean that having a cross-disciplinary, world-class lab for tinkerers and hackers from media, design, computer science, hardware (and now, biology and even space travel) isn’t worth having.

One writer, Anand Giridharadas, was on the committee to award the MIT Media Lab’s new Disobedience Award, funded by LinkedIn’s Hoffman. Giridharadas, who resigned when he saw that the Lab had accepted money from Epstein, has suggested that the next director of the Lab should be a woman. I think this is a great idea and it might help in ensuring another Epstein doesn’t donate to the Media Lab, and might increase sensitivity to sexual harassment issues and victims. Still, I’m not sure it will solve the problem if the director of the lab is still primarily a fund-raiser trying to raise large amounts of money, rather than a tinkerer trying to build cool stuff.

I’ve had professors at other parts of MIT roll their eyes when I mention the Media Lab, as if it were only lots of flash and arrogance but very little substance. I’ve also seen some expressions of envy at the amount of money that the Media Lab gets for its budgets compared to other departments. Today, there are other parts of MIT and other universities that are also building cool stuff, departments which are underfunded and could benefit from collaboration with the Media Lab, if they were willing to work together.

The MIT Media Lab needs to get back to its original mission, which is not simply about raising more money than any other department, but providing an environment where freethinkers can create technology that might predict the future, and bring in people from different disciplines to think differently about where the world is going.

That’s how to fix the Media Lab. Less arrogance, less focus on fund-raising, more emphasis on cross-disciplinary work, and more focus on building cool, new, unusual stuff.

The Media Lab was a great idea and it still can be–but simply declaring it “anti-disciplinary” while giving time and attention only to the big funders isn’t the way to accomplish this. Working with other MIT departments would go a long way to making sure at least some of the norms around fund-raising are respected, while clearly having a mission that is different from other departments.

And that’s why I think other campuses need something like the MIT Media Lab, to get around the internal politics and groupthink that plagues much of academia, but also to give students and researchers the chance to build technology that cuts across disciplines.

So even in the midst of this terrible scandal, I say, let’s fix the Media Lab, not get rid of it.

The Simulation Hypothesis, Play Labs @ MIT, Startups/VC, Sci Fi, Bitcoin, Consciousness, Space, Video Games: visit www.zenentrepreneur.com

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