Media Lab’s Storied History of Courting the Rich and Powerful

How a tight-knit group of elites shaped the Media Lab

Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. Photo: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

This is a story about courting money from power. It’s about how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab was founded and funded, by whom, and how. It’s a story about Nicholas Negroponte before it was about Joi Ito and Jeffrey Epstein. And most of all, it’s a story about gall.

Last week, at a town hall meeting that was intended to reorient the Media Lab in the wake of revelations about convicted sex offender Epstein’s donations and investments, Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the Media Lab, stood up to speak about “his privilege as a ‘rich white man’ and how he had used that privilege to break into the social circles of billionaires.” He reportedly doubled down on the recommendation that now former Media Lab director Joi Ito take Epstein’s money:

“If you wind back the clock… I would still say, ‘Take it.’” And he repeated, more emphatically, ‘Take it.’”*

This should come as no surprise. Pursuing the most monied and most powerful has been central to how the Media Lab was founded and how it operates.

If you want to understand how or why this could happen, you need to look at defense funding culture and the Media Lab’s prehistory with something called the Architecture Machine Group (AMG), which Negroponte co-founded and led from 1967 to 1984 and became a part of the Media Lab when it opened.

AMG was primarily funded by the same longstanding relationships with powerful men and defense funding structures that supported the MIT A.I. Lab. The A.I. Lab was co-founded and led by Marvin Minsky—the same Marvin Minsky one of Epstein’s victims testified that she was forced to have sex with.

The defense funding culture kept its funding in a cozy “closed world” — a brain trust of people, money, and projects between the Department of Defense, industry, and education. It replicated and protected its power, and MIT pursued these power structures closely. Negroponte, who was an architecture professor, counted as mentors and friends the same members of those networks, people like J.C.R. Licklider, Marvin Minsky, Marvin Denicoff, Craig Fields, and others who were fundamental in determining what technologies got funded and launched and how. “It was through a real personality of someone who was betting on us as people, not the ideas,” Negroponte told me in an interview.

“The most Wired man we know” — Negroponte interviewed in Wired, November 1995.

Wired asked Negroponte in 1995 whether he felt any reservations or conflicts of interest about doing defense-funded work. Again, he doubled down. “For me and my peers, getting Department of Defense money to do research was a great honor,” he said in the interview that called him “the most Wired man we know.” He said, “There were no secrets. You were encouraged to publish. After all, it was military funding that developed the Internet, personal computers, multimedia, and artificial intelligence.” As Negroponte told Stewart Brand a few years earlier in the book The Media Lab, “ [Defense funding] was our bread and butter for a decade, and I wish it would become again.”

To realize something as big as the Media Lab, Negroponte and MIT president emeritus Jerome Wiesner needed to leverage corporate power to generate the $40 million they’d need. As Negroponte told me in 2010:

“Jerry Wiesner would always talk to CEOs, and that’s where I got my bad habit of only wanting to talk to CEOs,” he said. “So we started this somewhat fantasy world because we were talking to such high-level people.”

Negroponte extended his “bad habit” rule to talking only to heads of state where One Laptop Per Child was concerned — with one exception. He would also talk to defense ministers, as he told an audience at Princeton in 2010, because they were the ones still in power after the heads of state stepped down, four or eight years later, and because of their access to logistics. Logistics is power. Remember what Paul Virilio wrote: “Logistics is the procedure following which a nation’s potential is transferred to its armed forces, in times of peace as in times of war.”

To be sure, building an institution like the Media Lab requires outsize charisma and connections. That’s why Ito was hired to direct the Media Lab and why Negroponte wanted him for the job: Ito was “perfect” for the lab. Realizing such visions of the future, not to mention raising tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for an institution, is a matter of securing the emotional investment of funders and speaking to their egos. Indeed, in the town hall at the Media Lab, Negroponte said the lab “attracted edgy people,” and added, sounding like something out of the 19th century, that some of them were “scoundrels.”

Negroponte repeats a story about a professor from his first year of architecture school who told him, “What you lack in talent you make up in gall.” It’s an apocryphal story that he told me in 2010 and repeated in an interview for MIT’s 150th anniversary in 2016.

In the end, this is a story about who funds what, and how, and at what price.

It’s a story about what you make up for in gall.

Joi Ito and Nicholas Negroponte interviewed by Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes/CBS News, April 22, 2018.

*Note: MIT Technology Review published an update, including a link to Negroponte’s comments in the Boston Globe: “Given what we know today [about the recent sex-trafficking charges]… nobody would or should have taken his money. But wind the clock backwards, given what we knew then, I would have accepted his money now.”

K&L Gates Associate Professor of Ethics & Computational Technologies @ CMU/School of Design. Author of Architectural Intelligence (MIT Press 2017).

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