With Evgeny Morozov, the prophetic critic of techno-capitalism, we’re talking about the wide-ranging problems represented by the MIT Media Lab and its involvement with the predatory Jeffrey Epstein. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
We’ve all learned a lot about the MIT Media Lab lately. The lab’s fundraising, it’s now known, led to money from the late Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender. Joi Ito (director of the Media Lab) resigned just a few days ago, after it was revealed that he’d covered up his connection to Epstein. And the fallout continues.
The MIT situation says much about tech’s relationship to capital; it displays the specious thought and nefarious behavior that techno-capitalism can nurture. So we talked with perhaps techno-capitalism’s leading critic: Evgeny Morozov. He started off by telling us that he’s come to doubt the utopian narratives told by tech impresarios, that he’s come to suspect they were always just cover stories for their commercial and political pursuits.
The question I think that we have to start posing as soon as we can is to what extent the actors themselves believe that story or whether they actually made it up for external consumption while they in a very cynical manner acted the way they wanted and used that story as some kind of a publicity shill to make as much money as they could to get as many contracts as they could with foundations or the Defense Department or anyone else in that circle…Most of the people including myself who have been attacking this way of framing technology which strips it of politics and strips it of history — we took it we took it for granted that the actors themselves believe the narrative they were spinning. Now in 2019 I’m not sure anymore.
The more we start digging into bastions of this ideology like M.I.T. Media Lab or TED talks or this billionaire dinners which were happening on the edges of TED talks which were intimately tied to the publishing industry and the literary agent by the name of John Brockman. The more you dig into this world the more you realize just how cynical power, sex and money-oriented they were and the stories that they produce to clearly serve a certain function.
It might have been some kind of a whitewashing function for their side businesses or it might just have been a way to distract the public from understanding how power was being concentrated in their hands.
It’s a grim vision of the world, but Morozov shines a necessary, cold light on problems too long under-considered and under-critiqued. He describes the tech-world characters committed to almost ceaseless celebration of tech, to promoting the belief that technology will solve all problems, that technology exists separately from politics, and that we can simply invent things to fix our fundamental human problems.
So much of this thinking, in Morozov’s view, serves entrenched corporate interests (the interests of Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber). It’s obviously scary, and we should, obviously, be scared.
On Friday about 100 MIT students, grad students, alums, and local sympathizers turned up to demonstrate against the school’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, calling for president Rafael Reif’s resignation and more transparency about donations and gifts to MIT. On Thursday Reif issued a statement saying he had signed a note thanking Jeffrey Epstein for a contribution in 2012 but “didn’t recall it.” Students also called for the resignation of physicist Seth Lloyd who admitted visiting Epstein in prison (!), and they also called for the sacking of visiting scientist Richard Stallman, the free software activist and programming guru. Leaked emails show Stallman defended Epstein and said at least one of his victims was “willing.” (!!)
We mean to stay on this growing story. (Harvard has said it will investigate its Epstein ties as well, but the Harvard web might even be larger; the name of Leslie Wexner, who’s behind Victoria’s Secret and who for a long time was Epstein’s only known client, is all over the Kennedy School — buildings, commons, the Center for Public Leadership.) Next week we follow the dark money in and out of bio/tech/sci. Stay tuned!
Listen: Holly Herndon
When you hear Morozov discuss our disturbing and probably worsening techno-world, you might wonder about Morozov himself. What inspires him, what gives him hope, what influences him — or, what music does he like? We‘ve learned that he especially likes the music of Holly Herndon. And this led us to listen to some of Herndon’s music.
The following comes from Sasha Geffen’s Pitchfork review of Herndon’s album Proto:
Holly Herndon makes music with that most personal of instruments: her computer, a machine used not only to weave together complex electronic compositions but also to access the frightening and spectacular realm of the internet. In her work, the Berlin-based composer wrestles with systems, both the soft internal system of the psyche and the equally mysterious phenomena of social-media networks, recommendation algorithms, and panopticon surveillance . . . On her third album, PROTO, she opens her process to include not just her own voice but the voices of a choral ensemble. The group includes Spawn, a “nascent machine intelligence” . . . Trained to process audio, Spawn uses neural networks to riff on music she hears; Herndon, who uses she/her pronouns to refer to Spawn, considers the AI not as an instrument or a tool but as an ensemble member.
This seems like the perfect music for Morozov, who tells us he isn’t really a techno-pessimist, but rather a political realist about technology’s uses. He’s mindful of what tech might do, in general, and Herndon’s music is a glorious merging of human and technology for something better.
Over 200 years ago, Mary Shelley wrote the first science fiction novel, and she did so by exploring the terrifying ramifications of science pursued according to a man’s obsessive pursuit of power. The novel is Frankenstein, written when Shelley was nineteen, and it has plenty in common thematically with what’s been going on in the elite science and technology corners of Cambridge, MA. Here, as in Shelley’s novel, aspiring tech-masters imagine themselves conquering the and surpassing whatever is conventionally or reasonably human. And it’s becoming clearer that they can do quite a lot of harm. Here’s Victor Frankstein, reflecting on how his own relentless pursuit of his desires led to a monstrous reality:
I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
Watch: Ex Machina
Since Shelley invented science fiction, the genre has continued to explore narratives of men craving mastery of humanness. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina emphasizes the gendered nature of this craving, with Oscar Isaac playing an inventor-manipulator of AI beings who have the form of women. The film grasps the kind of abuses and many-faceted oppressions found in the wider world of tech “disruption.” It’s a reminder of what science fiction narratives have been telling us for centuries.
Coming Soon: Stephen Kinzer
Stephen Kinzer’s book about the CIA’s mind control program and its poisoner in chief is a mind blower! Chris talked with Steve on Friday, and we’ll post it ASAP.
RIP: Michael Haynes
If Open Source had ever had a chaplain, it would have been Reverend Michael Haynes, who went to glory on Thursday this week at the age of 92. Chris Lydon is forever quoting the preacher who baptized him in mid-life — citing him on matters musical, theological, political and Boston-historical. Open Source regulars will remember Haynes’ compelling testimony on the inspired life of his closest friend from student days, Martin Luther King Jr. Almost three years ago, Rev. Haynes presided over the Open Source Gospel Music Party — “good news for bad times” — between the election and inauguration of President Trump. It’s still good listening. Over almost seven decades Michael Haynes had earned well-nigh incomparable standing in Boston circles as a civic leader with spiritual influence. For which Chris was driven to say: Thank you, Michael Haynes!
Here’s a longer remembrance Chris wrote this week.
This Week’s Ephemeral Library:
Take a look at Evgeny Morozov’s alternative to Google: the-syllabus.com. From the Baffler archive: Future Schlock: Creating the Crap of Tomorrow at the MIT Media Lab. Alissa Quart remembers David Berman. See Alex Pareene on the closing of ThinkProgress. Julian Barnes considers the French Impressionist Berthe Morisot. Michael Chabon reflects on James Joyce’s Ulysses and anti-obscenity laws. Inside Warren’s War with the Obama team.
Stay tuned. Stay connected. Stay strong at least for another week!
-The Open Source Team