September 23, 2019
Like many of you, we at the MIT Open Documentary Lab and Co-Creation Studio are closely following the shocking revelations unfolding at our neighbors, the MIT Media Lab, regarding the longstanding and harmful affiliations between MIT, Media Lab, Joi Ito and Jeffrey Epstein. We have received many inquiries about our connection to the Media Lab. For clarification, we are not part of the Media Lab. We, as the Open Doc Lab and the Co-Creation Studio, reside under the department of Comparative Media Studies/Writing which is situated in the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. The Media Lab is in the School of Architecture. We have no financial or governance ties with the Media Lab. Nonetheless, we want to address key issues and contexts, with the understanding that investigations continue to reveal new evidence in real-time.
First and foremost, our greatest concern is with the victims and survivors of Epstein’s crimes. We also support and respect those who have gone public— often at great personal expense — to expose the web of deceit and profits directly connected to these horrific crimes.
We support a full investigation at MIT and we also insist that these investigations be framed by a deeper analysis of the systemic conditions — financial, cultural, social — that cement cultures of harm in the technology industry and at academic institutions.
We must also come to terms with the ways, even if unknowingly, we benefited from these relationships while other people suffered. The acceptance speech that danah boyd delivered at the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a profound example of the kind of self-examination that we all must undertake.
These revelations are part of larger systemic problems. Our colleague Seth Mnookin, director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing, wrote about the problematic relationship between fundraising and the academy in this article.
We are heartened by calls for change and community outcries, especially among students, faculty and staff. In August, Professor Ethan Zuckerman (Civic Media) announced he was leaving the Media Lab, followed by the resignation of Visiting Scholar Nathan Matias. Arwa Mboya, a first year graduate student at the Media Lab, called for Joi Ito’s resignation in MIT’s student newspaper. At a September MIT-wide faculty meeting, professors expressed a multitude of criticisms of MIT and demands for change. Of the demands, one included a call for the creation of a formal faculty and student oversight committee to review all funding at the institution.
Importantly, Professor Heather Paxton (Anthropology) and Professor Lisa Parks (Comparative Media Studies), read aloud a letter written and signed by more than 60 senior women faculty that criticized MIT for its inaction, as well as its gender and racial inequity. The letter criticized MIT for not only “accepting money but also inviting on campus Jeffrey Epstein,”, a “level three (high risk of repeat offense) registered sex offender.” The letter identified significant gender and racial inequity amongst faculty (of 1066 total faculty at MIT, only 266 are women, of which 21 are women of color). Professor Sasha Costanza-Chock (CMS/W, and an Affiliate of the Open Doc Lab), spoke at the meeting to request that MIT find a way to directly support those harmed by Epstein, and to propose that the Institute apply any ethical screen that it develops not only to future donors, but also to how it invests its $17.44 Billion endowment. Professor Susan Silby (Sociology) at the meeting, criticized what she described as the Institute operating like a for-profit organization by balancing profits and expenses, promoting “mechanical thinking,” and “devaluing social knowledge and expertise.”
At the Open Doc Lab and Co-Creation Studio, we are deeply committed to equity, justice and transparency. We believe that equitable media practices, including the arts, journalism and documentary, can actively re-examine and transform the cultures, economies, hopes and harms of technologies and the social systems that have emerged around them. We are committed to doing the work necessary to move towards this equity and healing at our institution and in the wider field.
Finally, we want to ensure that the great work being done at the Media Lab and across MIT, by faculty, staff, students and visitors — especially by women, people of color, LGBTQ+ and other historically marginalized communities -— can be lifted and supported throughout these investigations and beyond.
We welcome open discussion, questions and collaboration.
— Open Doc Lab and Co-Creation Studio