Over the last few weeks the degree of complicity between the technology community and the financier Jeffrey Epstein has started to become apparent, and it makes difficult reading for all of us in that community, because it shows that many of the people we believed were sincere in their attempts to develop technologies that could sustain humanity were happy to have a convicted paedophile in their midst and listen to his ill-formed ideas, take his money, burnish his reputation and even lie about his involvement in their work.
It’s hard to believe we’re all working to enhance the human condition when that’s the case, and the awareness of our involvement should be the occasion for some serious reflection and changes to our assumptions and behaviour.
My awareness of Epstein came from news coverage of his crime, especially the reporting of Julie Brown in the Miami Herald. He appeared to be another man who used his power – in his case derived from wealth rather than celebrity – to exploit and abuse children, another predator whose behaviour was odious and yet tolerated by those around him, and who used his influence to gain immunity.
I had been through this before, working at the BBC when the crimes of Jimmy Savile were finally acknowledged after his death – I’d met Savile once, and seen how he used his celebrity to control those around him.
Savile report: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19984684
It is only in the last few months that I have realised just how much Epstein’s influence spread over the technology community – my technology community – and how willing so many people were to provide support and credibility to his views, allowing him to use them to burnish his reputation and, through his engagement and funding, influence the development of the systems we all use.
We nearly didn’t find out. There was a danger that after Epstein’s death the establishment that welcomed him would effectively close down any further investigation, and this may indeed happen when it comes to his connections to politics and power – not least the British Royal Family – but fortunately the connections to the tech world are now coming out.
Prince Andrew and Epstein: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49411215
It began with the news that Epstein had funded projects at the MIT Media Lab, one the most significant institutions in shaping today’s online spaces, and an apology from the Lab’s director at the time, Joi Ito. Ethan Zuckerman, who I know and respect enormously, left the lab and wrote eloquently about his decision.
Evgeny Morozov and Kate Darling both shared their stories, with a lot more detail about how Epstein funded and infiuenced research. Evgeny revealed more about Epstein’s close relationship with New York literary agent John Brockman and his ‘exclusive’ Edge Foundation – an ‘association of science and technology intellectuals’ which has done much to promote the techno-solutionist approach to social and political problems that has characterised many Silicon Valley interventions in the world away from the screen and the network.
Evgeny Morozov on Brockman; https://newrepublic.com/article/154826/jeffrey-epsteins-intellectual-enabler
Xeni Jardin pushed hard on Twitter and elsewhere to ensure that the investigations continued and that the story wasn’t buried. And now we have Ronan Farrow’s detailed investigation in the New Yorker, with testimony from some of those involved, most notably Signe Swenson, a former development associate at the lab, who deserves our thanks for speaking out.
Xeni Jardin: https://twitter.com/xeni/status/1165391840914227200
As a result Joi Ito has resigned from the MIT Media Lab and the boards of the New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation. He will surely also step down from the Knight Foundation, which funds innovation in journalism. It’s unfortunate that he was allowed to resign before he could be dismissed, but once the details of his complicity in working with Epstein, and the efforts that he put into covering it, were made public he could not pretend that this was a misjudgement, apologise, and try to move on.
Of course, some see things differently, and Lawrence Lessig has written a long article which seeks to justify the decisions made by Ito and MIT, even trying to argue that taking money from an evil person who gained it through legitimate means (something, by the way, that we cannot assert with confidence about Epstein) is acceptable as long as it is anonymous and therefore brings the donor no credit. It’s a disappointing move from Lessig, whose work on copyright and political corruption I have long admired, and a completely unconvincing argument that seems to accept that bad people and bad money are inevitably going to find their way into research and we just need to find ways to sanitize them.
Lessig on MIT: https://medium.com/@lessig/on-joi-and-mit-3cb422fe5ae7
Whatever happens with the Media Lab – and there are calls for it be closed – the problems go deeper than one organisation, one criminal billionaire and one director desperate for funding. As Kate Darling notes: ‘If we end this with one person falling on their sword, nothing will change. There is so much work to do to fight the systemic problems at the Media Lab, MIT, and beyond.’ [ https://twitter.com/grok_/status/1170482438914609152 ]
She’s right, and we need to accept not just the damage that association with Epstein may have done to the organisations and individuals he engaged with, but the deeper problem that this reveals a willingness on the part of some of the major figures in the modern world – the founders and CEOs of Amazon, Tesla, Google and others – to associate with someone who has been convicted of ‘child prostitution’ – sex with children – and to take funding from him, giving them sufficient reason to look away when they see anything uncomfortable.
I don’t move in Epstein’s circles, but I move in some of the circles around them, and know some of those involved, and have interviewed them or met them at conferences and events.
Thanks to his funding for US academic institutions including Harvard and MIT, his ability to bring key actors from Google and Facebook and Tesla into his orbit, and, crucially, his close relationship to Brockman and the Edge Foundation, Epstein has been able to shape the modern world more than many.
It’s reported that Epstein was interested in transhumanism, eugenics and using technology to enhance humanity, and his interests, ideas and obsessions may have had some influence on research progammes, product development and the beliefs of some of the major figures in technology, helping to shape the activities of companies and organisations I engage with daily, as well as influencing the development of the tools that define the modern world.
Those of us working in technology – and I am a commentator, reporter, researcher and academic in this area – need to ask ourselves how we enabled Epstein’s desire for legitimacy, influence, and credibility within the scientific and technical communities. We need to ask ourselves how his offer of resources but also ‘glamour’ gave him such easy access to our world, and we need to confront the fact that his power came at enormous cost to the women who he exploited in private and at events hosted in his properties around the world, and that some of us were close enough to know what was going on or even participate in this evil.
As Xeni notes, this is not over yet, and we don’t know how far it will go. But it is not just about Epstein but about others like him. We need to ask what we can do to call them all out.
If the tech community had shunned Jeffrey Epstein it may not have saved the women who he abused, because he did not rely on that world for his resources. But once he was in our world we could have called him out, and that might have made a difference.
But there’s another aspect: the culture around Epstein was misogynistic and exploitative and excluded women, and just as in so many spheres of activity that means we have lost the enormous contributions they could have made. I no longer watch the films of Woody Allen, but I don’t regret their loss – I wonder instead what great movies could have been made by the female directors who never got a chance because he took up the space they could have occupied. What great insights could we have had from other academics if Nicholas Negroponte and Joi Ito hadn’t been cosying up to a paedophile to get funds for the MIT Media Lab?
I also think we should ask what a technology sector influenced by the desires of a brutal paedophile looks like – and whether some of the choices made around the development of social media, privacy, recommendations and the other core elements of the modern networked world reflect the attitudes and desires of a man who saw power and influence as ways to achieve his own desires with no thought to the cost to those abused and damaged by his behaviour.
As we reflect on Epstein’s involvement in the technology world, I hope we can use this opportunity to ask whether the research programmes, products and platforms that have come from those who were willing to associate with him are doing harm or good, and begin to look for healthier options that aren’t drawn from the current intellectual monoculture.