Have you ever sat through a “thought leadership” seminar that was nothing but platitudes?
Been asked to fund a demo that had no substance? Or been deluged in instant messenger chatter at work, because your company decreed that “open collaboration” was more valuable than your concentration?
You may be surprised that these modern phenomena owe something to the late Jeffrey Epstein’s thirst for respectability.
It has emerged that Epstein, a convicted paedophile who committed suicide in prison after being arrested for child sex trafficking, funded the intellectual vanguardistas of Big Tech, and the reputational fall out has sent a chill through this well-connected elite.
The scandal is also claiming some high-profile casualties.
Following an investigation by Ronan Farrow, the reporter who brought down Harvey Weinstein, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s world-famous Media Lab, Joichi Ito, resigned in disgrace last week.
The cherubic 53-year-old Japanese-American had also enjoyed board memberships of some 20 wealthy foundations and companies, including The New York Times. After Farrow’s devastating article, Ito relinquished these posts, along with his only British directorship, of LSE-listed PureTech Health.
Ito had used Epstein to procure funding both for his own investment vehicles, as well as the Media Lab, despite knowing of Epstein’s conviction and his toxic reputation.
Ito appears to have concealed the extent of his involvement to faculty and staff, referring to Epstein as Voldemort, the Harry Potter embodiment of evil: “he who must not be named”.
Appointed in 2011, in any other era Ito would have been be a bizarre choice to lead a prominent new department at MIT. Such prized roles at an institution that forged its reputation in the space race were traditionally occupied by distinguished engineers and scientists.
And before Silicon Valley, America’s computing industry was clustered around Boston and the university, with giants like DEC and IBM eager to snap up graduates.
Breaking the mould
Yet by his own admission, Ito wasn’t technical and wasn’t even a “reading or writing” kind of guy.
He had dropped out of a Harvard physics course in dismay, after being sternly told he couldn’t “intuit” a physics concept being taught that day but had to “learn” it instead. His venture capital fund (and blog) was called Neoteny, meaning extended childhood or the delaying of adulthood.
But the Media Lab was always an unusual and exotic flower in the MIT garden, producing graduates like Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed.
The institution’s legacy is less in its output – for very little has proved commercially successful let alone a landmark in human endeavour – and more in pioneering a new kind of glib futurist or networker.
It is a role that has crossed the Atlantic with ease, notes one British inventor and entrepreneur. “In Oxford at the moment, it seems that every other person is writing a book about ‘AI ethics’ or setting up a futurology institute,” laments Andrew Fentem, who pioneered the multi-touch technology that provided the foundation for the smartphone boom.
Fentem calls this “a new professional class of the innovation guru”, self-appointed experts in all things novel, who began to emerge from business schools and quangos in the early Nineties.
“They go to TED talks and business school events about disruptive innovation. While they love talking about AI and ‘the blockchain’, they’d struggle to connect up their hi-fi.”
Besides a puppyish enthusiasm for the internet, Ito’s calling card was a brief association with the late LSD guru Timothy Leary. Apple founder Steve Jobs had also been influenced by LSD and enthused about the personal computer as a “bicycle for the mind”.
Unlike Jobs, however, Ito viewed psychedelics and computers as a utopian instrument for reconfiguring society and politics, as intrinsically moral, and unambiguously good.
While Ito’s New Age musings scarcely amount to a coherent adult philosophy, he was consistent in battling what he saw as the shackles of intellectual property laws and steered the wealthy foundations to support the agenda.
“Ito was part of a circle that believed that intellectual property rights represented a barrier to innovation and were a legacy to be disrupted,” says Neil Turkewitz, a former executive for the recording industry lobby group RIAA, who locked horns with the techno utopians at international meetings.
“Consequences were irrelevant in Silicon Valley’s quest to be free from regulatory burdens or the rule of law,” he adds.
With Western companies facing the theft of their own ideas by piratical Chinese rivals, Ito’s radical attempts to dismantle intellectual property rights may appear less shrewd today.
Another more subtle consequence was organisational gurus’ enthusiasm for open collaboration – hence Slack chats, and design features such as open office plans.
According to the open collaboration enthusiasts, the sheer volume of communication is diagnostic for the health of a company. Only recently have other business experts questioned the idea that more chatter isn’t necessarily better.
The Media Lab story goes back 30 years to the height of the Reagan era. The institution was the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, then a well-connected professor at MIT.
Negroponte envisaged a new kind of academia. The Lab would be a flashy demo vehicle for new media. Whilst publishers were sceptical, it acquired the backing of the East Coast’s blue chip computer establishment, IBM and DEC, also nervous about missing the next big thing.
A shrewd networker, Negroponte had been a speaker at the first TED conference in 1984; it was at TED that he first met the husband and wife founders of Wired magazine. Negroponte became the first investor in the magazine, negotiating himself a backpage column to promote himself and the lab’s ideas.
The Lab earned Negroponte the reputation as the “PT Barnum of science”, in reference to the 19th century American circus owner credited with the aphorism “there’s a sucker born every minute”.
A short-lived Media Lab in Ireland ended in disaster, the Irish auditor condemning large severance packages, and only 12 worthless patents to show for $40m (£32m).
Negroponte brushed off the sneers, confident that his declamatory style of futurism was a potent social tool. “Once you have an impact… you become part of a new elite,” he said.
And Wired magazine proved its value to his project. The veteran tech journalist John Dvorak recalls being given a tour of the Media Lab with the publisher Will Hearst, and coming away unimpressed.
“It was a big scam from the beginning – I saw everything they were doing, but I didn’t see any original thinking going on.”
Today Dvorak is more charitable. He views Ito as a “fall guy” for an academic experiment that has outlived its original purpose.
The Lab’s impressive sounding list of achievements turn out to be much less spectacular on closer examination.
In a 2016 video, Ito claims the Lab pioneered today’s “wearables” such as the Fitbit and Apple Watch.
But it was the Japanese consumer electronics industry who pioneered this field; you can see a Seiko TV watch on Roger Moore’s wrist in the 1983 Bond movie Octopussy.
Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child initiative, intended to produce a $100 laptop for emerging countries, was the most public flop. On Media Lab’s own terms it hardly mattered. Ito was realising Negroponte’s dream of a new “elite”.
Fall guy or not, Ito’s reign is under fire for embodying the dubious morals of a technology industry now under much closer scrutiny.
MIT Media Lab researcher César Hidalgo called Ito “a fake scholar building an ‘academic’ career with blog posts and ghost writers”. His fall was “much deserved”, Kara Swisher wrote in The New York Times.
Faced with a China that increasingly innovates rather than copies, the Lab’s priorities seem oddly whimsical.
Under Ito, the Lab chased trends such as cryptocurrencies and a sideways move into indoor agriculture has come up short; one potential job applicant compared it to what the commercial industry had been doing almost 20 years ago.
“Those who do engineering have become completely separate from the people who are provided with a platform to pontificate about their future tech visions,” notes Fentem.
The Lab’s own future may depend more on rebuilding with adult supervision with a more rigorous engineer as director, rather than the whims of zeitgeist-chasing networker.
It may be time for less talk, more walk.
First published in The Sunday Telegraph.