Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
[flagged] The Moral Rot of the MIT Media Lab (slate.com)
74 points by DarkContinent 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 24 comments



I recently re-watched “The Internet’s Own Boy”, about Aaron Swartz and his tragic end.

Seeing how MIT had no problem ruining the life of one of the most brilliant members of my generation over commercial interest said a whole lot about MIT’s role in the world.

This clearly isn’t a new issue for MIT, they’ve been making ethically questionable decisions for years.


What are the major successes that came out of the lab? On top of my head I can think of: e-Ink, Lego mindstorms, Scratch. I bet there are hundreds more.


Over 150 spin-off companies, though the link seems recently disappeared from MITML's website:

https://web.archive.org/web/20171203200328/https://www.media...


I can appreciate that millions are alive thanks to Fritz Haber's work on chemical fertiliser and still think that it would have been for the best if someone had shot him in the head shortly after completing it. And then again to make sure.

edit to add the obligatory reference - 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' - https://www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf


For the downvoters: Fritz Haber co-invented (with Carl Bosch) the Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis process, without which most people on Earth would not be alive.

He is also credited as the father of chemical warfare, and directly ran and oversaw development of chlorine and other poison gas weapons for Germany in WWI.

His wife, Clara Immerwahr, committed suicide, using her husband's service revolver, and was found mortally wounded though not yet dead by her 12 year old son An act thought by many to have been a protest to her husband's work.

Parent comment is quite accurate.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Immerwahr

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Haber


Thanks for the understanding of what I am trying to get at.

I'd just like to add that for an athiest, I am a great believer in redemption.

I don't think that it is time reversible however, that theory was thouroughly tested during the crusades with the system of automatic indulgences and by all accounts it did not go well.

Also, redemption is unfortunately rare enough that you shouldn't cut people much slack over anything genuinely serious, while waiting for them to get around to redeeming themselves.


> Each year it hosted a sponsor week during which research groups were expected to dance for their big-money benefactors, corporations like ExxonMobil, Citigroup, PepsiCo, GlaxoSmithKline, and Verizon. Many of its scientists were also involved with private companies that had been founded to monetize their discoveries. A year after I turned in my masters’ thesis, the key members of the affective computing group I had studied founded a company that today partners with “1400+ brands,” builds “automotive AI,” and works with market research firms and other companies to “measure consumer emotion responses to digital content, such as ads and TV programming.” This was what the idea factory was incubating?

This article is rather ignorant and seems consistent with the author’s background as someone who has no background in technology or R&D.

MIT has always been this way. It has operated a billion dollar defense contractor, MIT Lincoln Labs, since the 1950s. The current MIT campus was built using a quarter-billion donation (in current dollars) of cash and Kodak stock by George Eastman in the 1910s. MIT, moreover, is the archetype of how America became a technological superpower. Collaborations between the military, universities, and large private corporations is how things like the Internet got built.

Trying to somehow tie Epstein together with all that, trying and taint MIT and American industry with some spurious connection to Epstein, is sophistry. It’s the easy prose of someone who has never tried to build a damn thing.


I don't see how it's sophistry, the author goes into great detail on the fact that MIT has long operated less as a university in the traditional sense than as a contract R&D organization. The linkage made to Epstein is that the school has long cared little for the moral implications of its research as long as it brought in revenue to MIT, so soliciting funding from morally deficient individuals was an easy extension of this ethos. You may agree or disagree with the author's argument, but I don't see it as disingenuous.


But that has been true since WWII, as was clear to anyone who attended the school (or worked there). It's a large government research lab with a small (14% of revenue/16% of expenses) school attached.


> But that has been true since WWII, as was clear to anyone who attended the school (or worked there)

Yeah, pretty sure that’s a tiny percentage of the general population. I don’t see how that invalidates anything.


That's pretty much true of any major US university. Other than small liberal arts schools, most US universities really run on NSF/NIH/DOE/DOD/Corporate funding.


Ito's innovation was to hide the source of the money and take a big slice of it for his own investment funds as a reputation laundering "service charge". Did he think to patent that business model?


Well, "always been this way" also seems fitting to the Epstein story in the sense that the rich and powerful got their ways, whatever they wanted.


If the only way to build things is collaboration with the military, you've got a big problem in your society. maybe other evidence of a problem would be a billionare-adjacent pedophile paying for influence in mainstream academic circles.


The sophistry is in claiming that it is this article that is trying to somehow tie Epstein together with all that.

MIT, along with a sizable subset of figures across academia, industry and government, have achieved that all by themselves.

And the real underlying sophistry is the pretence that this was all to do with wanting Epstein's money or business connections and not to do with any of the other 'services' he provided.

He very clearly kept his position of power and access because he pimped child prostitutes, not in spite of the fact.


If you remove corporate and private money from universities, you don't automatically receive more funding from government. A publication like Slate might like and lobby for this to be, but that's not reality. What you get is less students and professors, less research, less innovation, less progress, and less commercialization of new technologies that benefit us all. I'm sure Mr. Peters means well when he advocates for his conception of moral and academic purity, but he's implicitly advocating for gutting a part of our world-class research universities, which is unnecessarily destructive and not a trade we should be willing to make.


The author seems to flip flop on whether the "moral rot" is isolated to the Media Lab. First they write:

> Negroponte’s comments—even in light of his later clarification—indicate the structural rot at the heart of Ito’s choices. The Media Lab has long been academia’s fanciest glue trap for morally elastic rich people. ... In this, the Media Lab has apotheosized the capitalistic philosophy of its parent institution ... Theoretically, at least, professors are salaried and tenured so that they can conduct research pursuant to this communal scientific ethos free from any profit imperative. This is not how modern academic science often works in practice, and it is certainly not how things have worked at MIT for the past 100 years.

So the Media Lab, like the rest of MIT, is morally rotten because of its extreme reliance on private sector funding. But then:

> Over the course of the past century, MIT became one of the best brands in the world, a name that confers instant credibility and stature on all who are associated with it. Rather than protect the inherent specialness of this brand, the Media Lab soiled it again and again

So, MIT is credible and the moral rot is isolated to the Media Lab?

Well, overall, the article presents some facts and seems to want to make a larger point, but then fails to really make any point. The whole discussion of the 1919 "Technology Plan" goes nowhere and it's unclear if the author thinks it was a good or bad (or neutral) idea.

Given that the article seems to have been intended to be persuasive, it would have been better if the article clearly stated either that the Media Lab took the Technology Plan too far, or if the Technology Plan was flawed from the beginning. At least then there would be a clear point which readers could agree or disagree with.


I mean the juxtaposition here is pretty damning for the author's point:

> In this, the Media Lab has apotheosized the capitalistic philosophy of its parent institution ... Theoretically, at least, professors are salaried and tenured so that they can conduct research pursuant to this communal scientific ethos free from any profit imperative. This is not how modern academic science often works in practice, and it is certainly not how things have worked at MIT for the past 100 years.

> Over the course of the past century, MIT became one of the best brands in the world, a name that confers instant credibility and stature on all who are associated with it.

So MIT has followed the "capitalistic" approach instead of the "communal" approach for the last 100 years and it has been ... wildly successful? That doesn't seem to be the author's point, but it is the logical conclusion.


If the authors point is that the institution is morally rotten, then whether or not they have been successful and which particular economic system they have used to achieve any success, is neither here nor there. I don't know why you find it damning. Is orthoganal, if anything.


Many people conflate morals with your side vs my side, which seems to transcend any definition of morality.


The article is quite clear. The author is saying that the Media Lab has been corrupted by taking money, and this is an instance of the larger problem of MIT being similarly corrupted.


Nice hit piece


I especially enjoyed reading about how the lab is beholden to it's corporate sponsors, with every other paragraph interrupted by an advertisement from Ford or Chevy or HP.


If you think what is says is inaccurate, then you should provide some specifics.




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: