Do we throw Joi Ito under the bus?

Mary Lou Jepsen
Sep 2 · 14 min read

By Mary Lou Jepsen — September 1 2019

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What to do about Joi Ito, the head of the MIT Media Lab, whose tenure is at risk because of his connections to the disgraced and disgraceful Jeffrey Epstein.

Women, we are angry at Joi, at MIT, at Harvard. Because of Epstein, but also because the dirty underbelly of exclusion of women in science and tech is being exposed. It rawly reminds us of all the times we could see the billionaires’ dinners and the select trips to resorts; we knew decisions on funding and promotions were being made; we weren’t invited or for the few of us who were, it was superficial or calculated. We knew all of this already. Now we understand that debauchery was integral also. That too many participants acted as though they really don’t value women’s brains at all.

So, perhaps MIT will boot Ito out. But doing so won’t solve the major problems. Indeed, pinning the blame on Ito only enables a cover-up of the bigger problems. (For MIT, for Harvard, this might be a feature, not a bug.)

This is a far more complex, a much more interesting ethics issue than the Trolley Problem. These issues are what I’m going to, at some length, wade into here. Bear with me.

What was he thinking?

Putting Joi’s head on a stick can help address some of the anger women are feeling right now. For the record, It’s not just women that are angry but especially them. Firing Joi now will discourage other university directors from taking money from rapists, ever, period. That’s good.

So, what the hell was Ito thinking? Epstein was not just a rapist but one on a huge scale capturing teenage girls by the score, raping and trafficking them. This we now know thanks to the persistent, terrific reporting by Julie Brown for the Miami Herald. I would nominate her for the MIT Media Lab Disobedience Prize, but what’s the point, when Epstein got the same trophy? Literally the same trophy as the awardees this year, the founders of #metoo and #metooSTEM. Epstein threw lavish parties that were filled with warning signals. Joi says he didn’t notice the warning signals. I believe him, and that is part of the problem.

Here is the thing — Many men and a few women I know were at some of these events, and the vast majority of them are silent. Silent even today. Why? Is it really Joi or is it something much larger that needs to be addressed? For me the latter rings far more true. Joi’s head on a stick doesn’t solve the funding and gifts issue and the corrupt money coming into universities everywhere. I believe it’s a moment to solve the bigger problem.

Why me?

But first — why am I writing this? I’ve been connected to the MIT Media lab for decades. I was a graduate student at the Media Lab in the late-80s and a professor at the Media Lab in the mid-2000s. I get it about the Media Lab, and yet I’ve never taken a dime from Joi or been employed by him, I’ve not taken any money from MIT since leaving it in the mid-2000s. I’m independent, in contrast to the mostly silent — those closer to this, and/or more senior at MIT. I’ve spoken to many of them privately in past weeks. They aren’t comfortable speaking up publicly; a few have, but most haven’t and likely won’t. Perhaps they view it as airing dirty laundry, or biting the hand that feeds/fed them, or perhaps they’re simply waiting to see where this falls so they can pledge unchallenged allegiance to the new or old king. Maybe it’s a combination. I hope it’s not the third of these for them, but I realize that it may be for many. Universities are designed to change very very slowly. Tenure is part of that. Joi does not** have tenure and he’s brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to MIT. The Epstein money was less than $1M total.

I’ve been tweeting lots on this topic, but tweeting for me isn’t the way to get the whole idea out. And I’ve been maligned. Thus, this essay. I’m stringing together in a more coherent way the sparring, discussing, expressing dissent, commiserating, and learning I’ve had over the last couple of weeks on Twitter and Facebook talking with the vocal about these issues. I want to especially thank @xeni for her Twitter feed which opened my eyes. I also want to point out — in contrast — we are hearing crickets from Harvard. It reminds me of a t-shirt from the 80s “Silence = Death” (about HIV/AIDS). It’s with that thought that I’m writing. Too many in high positions of power, with oversight roles at MIT and beyond are being silent.

More threads than a trolley problem

The four threads of thoughts I have on this, and their conclusions:

  1. Joi Ito’s job as MIT Media Lab director: his success at bringing funds to the Media Lab, as it would for any prestigious institution**, necessarily put him in contact with some dirty money.
  2. MIT Media Lab rules about funding/gift acceptance and their conflict of interest rules: the rules here are unusual, evolving — and, in the recent past, forced me to leave MIT.
  3. The fact that Joi Ito took this money from Epstein during the height of #metoo. This, surely, is the WTF of this whole saga.
  4. Joi and his push for rights for those that have served their jail time. Ito’s worthy efforts here may have blinded him to Epstein’s failings, or perhaps Epstein ruthlessly used Ito’s championing of this issue.

Ito’s job

Let’s start with Joi’s job. In the most succinct way, following a decade of lackluster fundraising (after Nicholas Negroponte, the Media Lab’s founding director, left the role) a major job for Joi as he joined the lab was to bring in money. That he did. He did it exceptionally well.

When a main job of a lab director is securing large-scale funding, it’s inevitable Ito had to rub elbows with billionaires, industry titans, and government bigwigs, some with images to burnish. So the question is: how pervasive is tainted money? Is all or most big gift money at best like Switzerland’s fortunes: laundered to a shiny luster but based on things like fraud, tax avoidance or Nazi thefts, etc? Are all large sums dirty? Does money have no clean/dirty connotation, like science? Are there only clean and dirty people? Dirty money and dirty people. How do they transpose and communicate?**

That doesn’t get a yes / no answer. Don’t we need a multi-axis scale to rank ethical sources? Clearly, Epstein would come near the bad end of any scale, but we need to know what was known and when. We need a time axis. I think that we should consider some others in making the scale: the Sacklers, J & J, the Koch brothers, the Saudis, the Catholic Church, etc. And should the sources of the funding be normally transparent? What money does MIT and the Media Lab accept, and when does a funder’s after-the-fact behavior force us to rethink?**

Is the Epstein-MIT-Harvard scandal a consequence of inadequate funding of our research establishments? Should we then stop funding for universities outside of state funding? Harvard and MIT, the two schools most now tainted with Epstein are also often seen as the world’s best universities. However, Cambridge and Oxford in the UK, and the great German research institutes, seem to thrive and innovate without the US-style begging bowl funding model. That way this problem could go away. Isn’t Europe at least closer to this model? Suppose we do that. Warnings here, also: does a researcher writing a grant to DARPA truly get to work on the most impactful thing she can think of? And then one would be working for the military with its own moral and ethical issues. Where is the academic freedom?

The Media Lab was created to be a place for those that beat to a different drum to have more academic freedom. Demo or Die (instead of Publish or Perish). The fresh new idea of the MIT Media Lab in the mid-80s created a great diversity of ideas with far reaching impact that has been well documented. It also created an innovative funding and intellectual rights model to enable fast deployment of these new media ideas directly to industry. Something unusual in the 80s and 90s: women faculty at the lab: among them the amazing Glorianna Davenport, Muriel Cooper, Pattie Maes, Ros Picard, Judith Donath and more. It was THE place to be as a woman in tech.

MIT / Media Lab funding and conflicts rules

History might be relevant here. To get approval from MIT to start the Media Lab in 1985 Nicholas Negroponte and Jerome Weisner had to agree to tap new sources of funding, sources of funding that MIT was not already receiving. This was so that other labs would not be in head-to-head competition for funding sources with the Media Lab. Weisner and Negroponte went to Japan and won enormous funding.

The rules set up for the Media Lab were different from the rest of MIT, and I’ve heard from multiple MIT Media Lab people that these rules explicitly allowed professors to negotiate for money for their own funds and for MIT with the same sources. And yet the conflict of interest rules are strong in other situations.

I got ensnared in MIT’s rules in the mid-2000s. Another Media Lab director (and myself) had to choose: stay at MIT or spend time on a not-for-profit. Nicholas Negroponte and I started One Laptop per Child as a not-for-profit in 2005 to deliver a laptop 10–20x cheaper than existing options to enable better educational opportunities for the vast majority of children in the world that lacked access to information, and to the tools of our time — the Internet and computers.

The then-President of MIT sent me, and Nicholas Negroponte, a letter: we had to choose to either stay at MIT or work part-time on our not-for-profit. Not both. We both felt we could have bigger positive impact on the world pursuing the not-for-profit. It was a nice way to get fired — after choosing OLPC, the MIT president told me to “get it out of my system” and then come back. Later we even took money from Libya’s head of state — Muammar Khaddafi. We also received money from some of the countries topping Transparency International’s most corrupt countries in the world. Why would we do that? I thought it was ethical — we reached out to high level officials at State, UN, WEF; they agreed and encouraged.

Why Libya? My then boyfriend, now husband, was at Monitor Group, and part of his work was reforming telecoms in Libya after it had agreed to align with the USA. A meeting with Khaddafi in southern Libya was arranged by him and his company. Khaddafi at that meeting declared that Libya would be the first country in the world where each child would have a laptop, bought at-cost from our not-for-profit and distributed like textbooks through the Libyan Ministry of Education. We believed that this was the best thing we could do for Libyan children — to enable better education with Internet access. We didn’t end up shipping many units in Libya, but did in Rwanda, Peru, Uruguay, and dozens of other countries.

We made a not-for-profit organization with over a billion dollars in revenue, catalyzed over $30 billion dollars of revenue for our for-profit partners, became the fastest growing consumer electronic category ever recorded, and most importantly catalyzed a change in educational opportunities for over a hundred million children.

And — yes I got pushed out of the MIT Media Lab where I was a professor, as did its founding director — Nicholas Negroponte — for doing this. I gave up my professor position despite being “welcome back” because I would have to give up what I was good at — going from invention to mass production quickly by leveraging processes not in the research labs of MIT but in the multi-billion dollar factories of Asia** Yet MIT made it clear — papers and students are a professor’s product — not hardware shipping straight from first prototype into high volume mass production.

My point here is — MIT and the MIT Media Lab have strong rules. They need to create better ones here that deal with gifts. NOW.

Gift ethics in the era of #metoo

On the other hand — Joi took Epstein’s money during #metoo — WTF!!!! I would never have done that. Joi’s doing this shows a complete moral blindness. So what is going on? Here are some thoughts.

Joi is from Japan. He grew up in a culture that tolerates hostess bars and pervasive subjugation of women. He’s traveled far but he was born in it. And then he lived in Dubai. Three quarters of the inhabitants of Dubai are male. Think about what that does to a culture. He seemed blind to it when he first got the Media Lab. At the lab’s 30th anniversary in 2015 Megan Smith (then CTO of the USA for President Obama) brought together ~15 women in the lab and alums to talk to Joi about the extreme problem. I was there. It was a tough, loud, long and angry meeting. He did move more after that: the Lab, under Ito’s leadership has gone from 20% women students to 50%.** With facts and explanation of what’s wrong Joi does move. But he was taking Epstein money then? It’s shocking. Maybe he can’t lead because he’s lost moral authority.

Another example — a couple of years ago, Ito invited me to a dinner, a Media Lab event focused on ethics in technology. There were ~30 people at the dinner — and as I remember it I was the only woman. Perhaps the guest list was directed by a funder or another professor, but the flashing red message I got was the Media Lab excluding women from the table. At the time I was considering collaborating with the lab. I didn’t push it because it felt too much to me like the culture I had barely survived in the early 80s and it would have been me pushing — and pushing hard — to get in. Meanwhile venture capital was pulling on me and wanting to support my work. Yes, I’m one of the 2% of venture capital backed companies with a women founder. In addition — I’m also the CEO and the sole founder which makes the numbers even worse. Far worse than at that Media Lab dinner table. I can do the math.

So this brings me to one of the main issues — Women don’t get to the top in tech in anything but rare numbers. This is despite all the academic achievements for decades. Even in the 1980s women were ~40% of undergrads at MIT. Today ~60% of college degrees in the US go to women. It’s not a pipeline problem. Women of color even more so. I listed some of dazzling women faculty of the Media Lab in the last century earlier in this piece. The list lacks any women of color. **

Women are systematically cut down such that a scant few reach the top despite the vast improvements in the pipeline, and it’s worse for women of color.

On systemic cut downs: taking money and going to events sponsored by someone that built a monstrous machine to engineer rapes of teenagers and to traffic them. Silicon Valley’s venture funds have been excoriated for patterns better only by degree — with parties notable for their debauchery. And, for at least some, Burning Man’s anything-goes culture is the elephant in the room: the High Holiday of Silicon Valley that many see as sanctifying behaviors that don’t make sense once you’re off the Playa.

So, of course the events and the consequent networks excluded many women. It’s not the only way they are excluded, but it’s an additional, and particularly creepy way they are excluded.

I’ve made do with crumbs from the boys’ groaning tables for years now. Yes, deca-billionaires have hired me, they have invested in me and in turn I have executed well for them, but with a small portion of the resources my male peers received. I’ve been lucky and I’ve also made huge personal sacrifices & have worked my ass off. With that I’ve been able to get far further than most women in tech.

Some opponents of the Media Lab assert that Marvin Minsky singlehandedly blocked women en-masse from AI. I’m sure that’s untrue: it took far more men to accomplish that. For the record I know several powerful men in AI that have worked closely with and elevated women in AI for decades. These are the good guys.

But then there’s John Brockman, the enabler and go-between, bringing tech leaders to Epstein: Ito and Minsky from MIT, and a long list of Harvard luminaries — Pinker, Church, Nowak, and more. Some of the good guys I just mentioned used and still use John Brockman as their literary agent. I know many Brockmanites — didn’t they see it? Why didn’t they stop it?

Here’s a good guys’ primer: alarm bells should go off a) if the only females at an event are pretty and young women (especially if they are scantily clad) b) they’re clearly never valued for their sparkling intellects; c) they’re offering massages of any type and d) there are otherwise only guys at any meeting, dinner, event. In all of these cases whiskers should twitch, antennae should go up, lights flash, smoke detectors sound, and you need to ask questions. Directly and immediately.

On backrubs and massages. It might be relevant to point out one of the first names of Google was Backrub. Get it? And free massages at work certainly until I left Google ~5 years ago. One of the best ‘good guys’ I know in tech only recently stopped asking to exchange massages when I’d go over his house. For the record, I always declined. But now don’t have to — #metoo opened his eyes. He no longer asks.

Ito’s campaign for rights of ex-felons

For a moment we should consider another reason that Joi might have been blindsided. He helped recently released convicted felons. Specifically, he championed Shaka Senghor who spent 19 years in jail. Like many US felons, upon release he was statistically most likely to end up back in jail within 6 months. Shaka started The Atonement Project to address this after release from jail and Joi supported it. Joi might have “pattern matched” with Epstein. For reference, Michael Milken, jailed for financial felonies, is now lauded for his post-jail efforts to raise vast sums for childrens’ medical and other good causes. Martha Stewart, similarly jailed and then rehabilitated, has been a long term friend and supporter of the Media Lab.

I want, we all need, to know what illegal things Epstein did after coming out of jail and what Joi could have, should have seen.

The bottom line

Epstein seems to have been a monster on a Harvey Weinstein level (allegedly). Forcing someone to resign doesn’t fix the issue: MIT and Harvard both approved large donations from Epstein based on what they knew at the time. Vision is 20/20 in hindsight they say. Without the reporting by Julie Brown who blew-up the cover-up we wouldn’t know all this about Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein convinced MIT that he had reformed.

We need to answer the question of what we know in time with a reasonable search. It seems necessary, based on this train-wreck of Epstein, to change the way we vet gifts and funding with a kind “transparency international” which evolves, updates in time, and is made public.

Transparency is necessary as an antidote to the moral “flexibility” otherwise necessary to accommodate either dirty money and/or dirty people, with acceptance decisions behind closed doors, with a small, closed group of trusted confidantes, without sufficient tracking in time — and the money itself from a powerful few, some with dark secrets to hide.

To underline the complexity of this issue — The Nobel Peace Prize is perhaps the highest honor a human can attain. But: the Nobel prizes were Alfred Nobel’s way to atone for making great profits on the unspeakable numbers of deaths caused by his invention and manufacture of explosives (dynamite and gelignite, among others). Should he have been banned from creating the prize? Should we shun his prize and his name?


note: a ** tag denotes content corrected based on comments from readers

Acknowledgements: Too many anonymous voices, but to those I can mention publicly: to Xeni Jardin and Sarah Szalavatz for fostering important eye-opening discourse on Twitter. And to my husband John Ryan who edited this piece and helped me write some of it.

Keywords: MIT, Jeffrey Epstein, Joi Ito, Harvard, Trolley Problem, Ethics, Women in Tech,, John Brockman

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Update Sept 7 2019 : Joi Ito fooled me, as did those close to him — as shown in this New Yorker piece published last night. I have posted an update here

Update Sept 12 2019: MIT also fooled me, The president of MIT — Rafael Reif admitted today, as did Signe Swenson (the whistleblower formerly at the Media Lab) that “the disqualified donors list didn’t usually mean a donor’s money was off limits under MIT’s rules, but just that the person was considered unlikely to donate.” and more… Google it…. It seems that what we thought was wrong, again….more developing.

Mary Lou Jepsen

Written by

CEO and Founder of Openwater. Former exec at Google and Facebook, Co-founder & CTO of One Laptop per Child. MIT Professor. Deeply technical w/ 200+ patents

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