Tech-Master Disaster: Part One

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

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.

Evgeny Morozov.

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.

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.

Whoa:

The following comes from Sasha Geffen’s Pitchfork review of Herndon’s album Proto:

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.

Read: Frankenstein

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:

Watch: Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander in 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!

Michael Haynes (left) with his brother Roy

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

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org