Of all the terrible details of the gross fraud that the former head of the M.I.T. Media Lab, Joichi Ito, and his minions perpetrated in trying to cover up donations by Jeffrey Epstein to the high-profile tech research lab, perhaps giving a pedophile a nickname of a character in a book aimed at children was the most awful.
“The effort to conceal the lab’s contact with Epstein was so widely known that some staff in the office of the lab’s director, Joi Ito, referred to Epstein as Voldemort or ‘he who must not be named,’ ” wrote Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker, in his eviscerating account of the moral and leadership failings of one of the digital industry’s top figures.
Mr. Ito’s plummet this weekend was much deserved, certainly swift, and also shocking. Along with the fall from his aerie at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he also stepped down from the boards of The New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation. These steps came hours after Mr. Farrow gored him expertly using the M.I.T. Media Lab’s own appalling emails outlining the scheme to hide money given by Mr. Epstein.
But make no mistake, this story of looking-the-other-way morals should not be seen as an unusual cautionary tale of a few rogue players. These corner-cutting ethics have too often become part and parcel to the way business is done in the top echelons of tech, allowing those who violate clear rules and flout decent behavior to thrive and those who object to such behavior to endure exhausting pushback.
Every week, there seems to be another tech-themed horror, unleashing damage and never-realized intentions of cleaning up the mess. Whether it be to allow data from a powerful platform to leak like a sieve to malignant forces, or to ignore promises to behave and then pay only minuscule fines as recompense, or to feed endless greed by foisting underbaked companies upon the investing public, or to allow hate and lies to flow across important communications streams with only an afterthought for controlling their toxic impact, or … well, you get the idea.
Mr. Ito took this ends-justify-the-mean attitude that ignores consequences to the nth degree, moving from the tech industry’s usual weak excuse for bad policies — “unintended consequences” — to behaving in a way that was designed to deploy Mr. Epstein’s filthy money at whatever the cost to M.I.T.’s soul. After all, funding the magical inventors in Cambridge was the prime directive, right?
Worse, right in the middle of doing it, Mr. Ito had bemoaned what had happened to the tech industry in a Recode Decode podcast I did with him with earlier this summer following the release of his book of essays, “Resisting Reduction: Designing Our Complex Future With Machines.”
Mr. Ito appears to have resisted nothing, although he was adept at chastising others in the industry who are grappling with thorny moral and societal issues around things like artificial intelligence. In fact, he tsk-tsked with the urgency of a temperance activist.
“You know that little girl in ‘The Exorcist’? That’s what the internet feels like to me,” Mr. Ito said. “You have this little girl and you think she’s going to become this wonderful kid and then she gets possessed and starts becoming this demon. And we have to exorcise her and we have to kind of bring her back.”
It turns out the demon was himself. I am perplexed at his behavior as is everyone else who has known him for a long time. I met him almost 20 years ago in Japan through my ex-wife Megan Smith, who went to M.I.T. and now serves on its corporate board and is also part of a large, luminary-packed advisory committee to the Media Lab. He stood out for his enthusiasm for new internet developments. A longtime expert networker, gadfly and investor, he was always touting fascinating then-groundbreaking mobile start-ups, and he had a great eye for the future. He was early to companies like Twitter, for example.
I saw very little of him over the years, but when he landed at the M.I.T. Media Lab as its director in 2011, it was not a surprise, since the place had that eclectic and shaggy vibe that was less college than start-up. The Media Lab, unlike other parts of the university, was funded by a consortium of some 80 companies who paid for the creativity and brilliance regardless of the outcome.
“I think the Media Lab was very techno-utopian when it first started but I think there’s a huge chunk of the Media Lab that’s critical of technology these days,” he said to me in the podcast. “So we’re often criticizing the companies that support us.”
That has been true of the academic staff and its students, most of whom have been dragged into this mire by Mr. Ito’s broken ethical compass. The emails published by Mr. Farrow show a man in full denial of why taking money from a felon, one whom M.I.T. had disqualified as a donor, was wrong.
When the malfeasance was discovered, Mr. Ito was full of I’m-so-sorrys and bad-judgment excuses, and he even allowed prominent friends and colleagues to put up a now-embarrassing letter in support of him.
“Joi lied to me, and to many others including, obviously, M.I.T.,” wrote the well-known techie Mary Lou Jepsen on Medium, who had signed that letter and even posted a defense of him. “I was too trusting and I was wrong.”
Not everyone had come to Mr. Ito’s defense. Xeni Jardin had taken to Twitter in a fury when the first news of Mr. Epstein’s donations to M.I.T. were revealed, and she kept banging on the drum of common sense and pointing out that the whole thing smelled badly.
“It’s 2019. Jeffrey Epstein’s tech philanthropy tour was 2013. Took 5+ years for science & tech Jeffrey Epstein $ recipients to realize it was bad to take millions from a convicted sex offender,” she tweeted two weeks ago. “He wiped his reputation off with the dirty money you took. Then he raped more kids.”
For this truth telling, Ms. Jardin was pilloried by many online and offline who should be ashamed of themselves. And while sources tell me that the higher-ups at the university were also planning to rid themselves of Mr. Ito, the M.I.T. president, L. Rafael Reif, only announced an independent investigation of the process after Mr. Farrow’s article was published.
“We are actively assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect M.I.T.’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future,” he wrote.
Too little? Absolutely. Too late? Definitely. Because there is still very dirty money sloshing around everywhere. And because there are people who need to be flushed out of the system for their go-along-get-along attitudes and worse behaviors.
They will be revealed, I hope, although I have become cynical. A year ago in an article about how easily tech has taken piles of thuggish money from Saudi Arabia, whose leader has been clearly implicated in the murder of the Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, I wrote that “there are no signs that the industry that considers itself the most woke on the planet is thinking about giving the money back or talking about not taking it in the future.”
Nothing has changed. I get that not every fortune is clean and that it is impossible for every donor or investor or adviser or leader in tech to be perfectly pure. But if you can’t manage to say a hard no to those responsible for the dismemberment of a journalist or to a predator of young girls, I am not sure what to say.
So, let’s let the wise Ms. Jardin, who deserves our thanks for being brutally honest and who was kind to those who doubted her, speak via her tweet after Mr. Ito’s fall: “Gratitude. That the truth still matters. That others share the same belief. Grateful others are willing to deal with the punishment that comes before most folks come around to accepting reality.”
Accept reality? Now there’s an innovative concept. Someone decent should fund that.
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