Joi Ito et al.'s Other Sins
Updated: Jan 17
Note: there is a more recent version of this essay entitled "What Do You Have To Do To Get Fired From MIT?"
Joi Ito, the disgraced former director of the MIT Media Lab, was one of several MIT employees involved in taking blood money from Jeffery Epstein or helping cover it up. This abhorrent behavior and institutional failure has been well-covered. It also hides another scandal hiding in plain sight: he was a fraudulent leader long before taking Epstein's money.
Specifically, the Media Lab had an annual budget of 75 million dollars (now 80 million), access to incredibly well-educated minds, experts who weren’t directly working in the lab, fantastic name recognition, a strong interdisciplinary ethos, and the benefit of being situated in what we've been lead to believe is one of the best universities on the planet. So how irresponsible of a director does one have to be to not use this opportunity to work on the profound challenges facing the planet? If the Epstein scandal is a sin of commission, then what Ito and MIT failed to do in the face of Climate Change, to pick one, is a sin of omission.
In terms of incentives, relatively independent R&D idea laboratories at universities are in some of the best positions to address climate change. They aren’t beholden to short-term fiduciary pressures, shareholders, constituents, re-election concerns, and so on. They are composed of people who are in the best positions to understand what, exactly, needs to be done. Even people in non-STEM fields can, nay must, find ways to contribute. What is going to get us through the next century is a combination of technological-scientific breakthroughs and cultural shifts. Won’t these respectively be affected by STEM and Non-STEM types?
Look. Joi Ito's 2018 Ph.D. thesis (“The Practice of Change, How I survived being interested in everything”) is, to put it mildly, very far from containing any novel ideas. It is so patently vacuous that it is impossible to believe that Ito's thinking style and capacity for critical thought (or lack thereof) could not be detected by administrators and professors. I've read through his thesis. Most of it consists of self-absorbed pabulum in which Ito summarizes one position on a topic, then another, and which cannibalizes past historical trends and developments as his ideas.
For example, here’s a quote from the abstract: “I propose an architecture of layers of interoperability to unbundle complex, inflexible, and monolithic systems and increase competition, cooperation, generativity, and flexibility.” He ultimately goes on to identify the internet as a Good Thing™ as well as an amazing implementation of his exact idea of “an architecture of layers.” We all know which came first.
Or take this road-posting sentence from the introductory chapter: “The dissertation begins by describing five primary problem [sic]: the peril of silos; the problem of monolithic and centralized systems; the opportunity and need to rethink democracy in the post-Internet era; the need to rethink health and medicine; and how to address climate and environmental issues, in Chapter 2.” Setting aside the typo, there is an obvious red flag. Namely that anyone who understands all of these problems as well enough as Ito makes out to would not fail to identify a property common to each issue, like “perverse incentives.”
Which is to say that Ito is not so much recasting all of these issues as stemming from a similar set of causes, or identifying a common contributor to each as he is throwing them together without a coherent framework, thus obviating any reason for mentioning them together. It’s a strategy commonly employed when people want to seem smart and important.
It’d be as if I said “The next part of this essay describes a) the life of Marcellus G. Edson (one of peanut-butter’s early inventors) and his impact on the American diet, b) how global 21st century psychosocial developments are influenced by the maker movement in Tel Aviv, c) what I’m having for lunch tomorrow, and d) how to completely fix greed, the tendency for violence and corruption, and the problem of loneliness in four easy steps.”
Now one of my personal heros, Marcellus Gilmore Edson, was born in 1849 in Bedford, a town in in the Canadian province of Quebec, and has secretly had an outsized impact on modern American dietary habits… Just kidding.
Furthermore, in terms of his thesis, Ito’s main accomplishment seems to be pushing the degree to which one can quote oneself. Not only does he quote from his previously published Wired Articles and other essays at great length, he also includes quotes from his thesis as the sidebars on the very pages from which the quotes originate.
There are many more details — including a dearth of citations for the claims he makes, a corresponding lack of synthesis, nuance, and original conclusions, a large number of personal anecdotes about his life (including accounts of being a DJ and running a World of Warcraft Guild (?)) from which no lessons are drawn, the fact that he taught a class entitled “Principles of Awareness” multiple times, seven Wikipedia citations, implying that well-thought-out trial and error is a bad way to do research when in fact it is the only way — but I think you get the picture. Namely that he’s not a deep thinker, and though he had enough awareness to know that taking money from Epstein was bad (he referred to Epstein as “Voldemort”), he did not have enough self-awareness to avoid one of the basic lessons of morality: don’t take money from pedophiles.
I’d say that Ito seems to, at the very least, need years worth of remedial principles of awareness classes, but I’m afraid that inappropriately makes light of the situation. So much for someone who puts the word “ethics” in his Media Lab profile page, twice. Not only were Ito et al.’s actions immoral, they were also stupid. Ito’s reputation has been destroyed, the reputation of the MIT Media lab damaged, and the MIT name tarnished.
The near-total vacuity of Ito’s thesis suggests that whether or not the MIT leadership knew about Ito’s actions and concealment, they likely knew that Ito was not a true leader (one with vision) in any real sense of the word. Anyone who knows enough to publish a peer reviewed paper (and thus get hired in a research capacity MIT, and who might plausibly be on a hiring or re-evaluation committee) or who knows what they are looking for should be able to spot some aspect of this from the abstract alone.
Since finishing his thesis, I keep asking myself: to what end? What did the MIT administration gain from having such a person in charge? Surely it is in MIT’s interest to have their Media Lab exceptionally well managed. We don’t yet know whether Ito’s hiring (and the fact that he was never fired!) was because the higher-ups were all so busy making so much money they never questioned the hype, they aren’t actually that competent, they just didn’t care (which, in some people’s books, implies that they aren’t that competent), there standards were too low, or they were truly in the dark. The latter possibilities raises questions of their own as well.
Regardless of the immediate causes, one conclusion is that Joi Ito is a symptom of the university leadership's profound irresponsibility. The opportunities that Ito and MIT squandered are astounding. Surely being recognized as a leader in the fight against climate change — or any other pressing issue — would have done them a great deal of good. (Either that, or they are so out of touch with the views of young people and future students they should all be sacked anyways, over and above for their role in enabling Epstein’s money.) It beggars belief that there is not some way to generate useful IP for lab sponsors and simultaneously come up with well-researched ideas for much needed systemic changes, or breakthroughs and inventions that enable them.
The section of Ito’s thesis that discusses Climate Change (section 4.4.3) talks about two things: a project Ito was involved in to make cheap Geiger counters following the Fukushima, ultimately resulting in the Safecast organization, and how he helped organized two gatherings about climate change as a result of the fact he, at the time, was on the board of the MacArthur Foundation. That’s it.
To be fair, it is not nothing to play a part in founding an organization, and I believe that one reason Ito was never fired was that people were convinced he must have had a certain amount of entrepreneurial gumption about him. Perhaps they were right. But the immediate next question is how come he never applied that to tackling climate change, or the Anti-vax movement (it is called the “media lab” after all), or traffic reduction, and so on?
No doubt there are people who say it can’t be done. But given that it is generally possible to find an angle that connects any two topics or ideas (haven’t we all played that game on Wikipedia?), and that MIT bills itself as composed of some of the more ambitious minds humanity produces, surely they could find a way.
One of the things going on here is a special type of confirmation bias. Normally, confirmation bias means seeking out information that confirms one’s ideas. Call this confirmation bias by commission. The more interesting form, to me, is confirmation bias by omission. It is best explained via a few examples. MIT is a competitive school, and the admissions officers will never even see the applications of morally concerned students who don’t apply. It’s their loss that they might never know about, even though the evidence they see before them suggests they are doing something right. Similarly, Joi Ito’s media lab made a great name for itself producing research and IP, and thus it must have seemed like something good was happening. Especially if you think Guitar Hero was some pinnacle of human achievement. On a technical level, instead of over-relying on positive evidence (as in confirmation bias by commission), omissive confirmation bias involves not actively seeking out “negative evidence” that could disprove your ideas. In both cases, the trouble stems from being overly attached to what you are trying to prove. More simply, if you’ve bought into your own hype, you might never know what you are missing.
For example, here is a short list of things universities could be doing (and have largely failed to do) in regards to climate change. They have yet to establish new interdisciplinary departments and degrees in climate change amelioration, they have failed to establish dedicated climate change R&D (not just R) centers, they have failed to change the culture of Undirected Basic Research, they have been very late to establish climate change consortiums, and to my knowledge, there are no cross-campus united initiatives. (Edit on 9/25/2019: The recently announced California-China Climate Initiative is the only one that I know of.) While individual departments have been working on climate change, from the university’s point of view, their efforts have been treated just as important as any other department. I’d like to say that time will tell whether future generations will read the previous sentence with shame, but I think we all know the answer to that question already.
Given the wide-spread global issues facing all human societies, like Climate Change, it is hard to see how completely Undirected Basic Research – one of the organizing principles of academia – is appropriate anymore. Students, researchers, and professors should ideally be working to apply their expertise to some aspect of either climate change, or some other important issue. Moreover, there shouldn't have to be any top-down mandates or dictums that coerce people to start to orient their research to something in the intersection of their field and something like climate change. Sure, such a thing may be useful a last-ditch Hail Mary effort once things get worse. But top-down mandates are indicative of the problem: too few of us believe in climate change enough to do something about it, even if we have the opportunity to do so.
My initial thought is that perhaps university staff, professors and graduate students are either deeply stuck in a system of perverse incentives, or not too far along in the mourning process (for, say, the environment). Perhaps they deal with everything on an abstract level; perhaps they are lonely enough already, perhaps they’ve forgotten how to cry. The majority of them can’t all be frauds, right? Because though some of the individuals who comprise them are no doubt concerned with climate change on some level, our universities as institutions are not behaving as if they believe the IPCC’s 2-degree degree report, or anything published in Nature Climate Change. Where are the interdisciplinary departments or consortiums for rethinking basic social systems? How is it not possible to get degrees in improving societal organization schemes? How have the majority of business schools not started climate-change-combating organizations, run by the staff and students as a learning opportunity?
On the off chance Ito or the MIT leadership end up reading this, atone for your sins. Work for our forgiveness, even if we are stingy. Give us an authentic, unvarnished account: what on earth were you thinking? Don’t run it by your PR people; we are much better at seeing through hype and branding than you appear to be. Take action. Even this terrible situation is a learning experience that can be applied. Don’t waste it, we can’t afford that anymore. Learn how to grieve again, if you need to. And for all of our sakes, do something about climate change.