An Oral History

Me: “Yeah, the whole Media Lab thing has kind of secured my drive to focus on AI ethics rather than robotics for my research”
E: “What Media Lab thing?”
Me: “….uhhhhhhhh, have you heard of Jeffrey Epstein?”
E: oh noooooooooooooooooooo”


Sometime in mid August, I read an email from Joi Ito, the director of the Media Lab, to the Media Lab. In it, he explains that over the past five years, he had taken ~$500k from Epstein to fund the lab and taken ~$1.2 million for his own private ventures. I remember reading the email and being disappointed, but satisfied that he was forthright and upfront with the funding.

On August 20th, I find out I get to move into a new office. Later that evening, I read a Boston Globe piece, leaking that Ethan Zuckerman and Nate Matias planned to leave the Media Lab due to Epstein fallout. I discuss this article with my roommate — he thinks Ito should have known better about Epstein, I argue that that’s hindsight 20-20.

The next day, August 21st, I find Zuckerman’s Medium post, explaining his decision-making process. In the group chat, I post:

> “I’m aware of the privilege that it’s been to work at a place filled with as much creativity and brilliance as the Media Lab. But I’m also aware that privilege can be blinding, and can cause people to ignore situations that should be simple matters of right and wrong.”

> “I am not resigning because I had any involvement with Epstein. Joi asked me in 2014 if I wanted to meet Epstein, and I refused and urged him not to meet with him.”

so yeah you right in that Joi really should’ve known better

With later hindsight (Sept. 7), I don’t think that Joi would have written the original letter apologizing if Ethan didn’t leave. As Larry Lessig points out (Sept. 8), it would have been so easy to avoid any bad press by just not saying anything, like Harvard did.

On August 22nd, President Reif sends out a MIT community wide email stating that $800,000 was received by MIT through Epstein — going to either the Media Lab or Seth Lloyd. Seth Lloyd releases an  apology on Medium for taking Epstein’s money. I finish moving into my new office as well as moving my UROPs into my old desk.

On August 29th, Arwa Mboya writes a fiery op-ed in The Tech demanding that Joi Ito resign. I’m super suprised to learn that there was actually a lot more turmoil behind Joi’s email and that many people in the lab were in crisis. Mboya pulled no punches.

If the Media Lab cares and wants to be the progressive lab of the future, it has to start with people before technology. The Media Lab needs to lose Joi Ito.

In an email to the Media Lab, a student wrote that she was forced to send a Disobedience Award goblet to Epstein against her wishes. Ito isn’t a terrible person — he is not Epstein. Yet, we have a bad history of forgiving talented men who wield power.

I find it ironic that the Institution took money that hurt these women, and their response is to throw money back. Money to non-profits is useful, but what will truly make change is a change of leadership and a strict precedent set for this to never happen again. Taking money from Epstein once is a mistake. Taking it over many years is not.

Her dissenters didn’t pull back any punches either. A petition goes up (https://wesupportjoi.org/), which my roommates and I felt was uncomfortably obsequious. “I don’t know if Joi would even support this petition,” my roommate said, “He clearly knows that he did wrong, while this petition makes him seem like a blameless savior”. A lot of vitriol that seemed to have been fermenting for months suddenly spewed out onto The Tech’s comment section:

3. Ethan has been known to be unhappy with the Media Lab for months. Ask most faculty who were not already tired of dealing with the cry baby that he was. He wanted to leave. And now, he found a great opportunity to leave by capitalizing on this problem our Media Lab family is going through. He’s just taking advantage of issues. I thought his group was about building and fixing things civically. Instead, I think his group should be called “burn down things before I leave”-media. 😉

4. When the students had a meeting to discuss the issues, Ethan inserted himself into that meeting and changed the narrative. He said things that are provably wrong. He said that Joi is probably not going to talk to the students because he is involved in lawsuits and is muzzled. This is not true at the very least. Joi has talked openly with the student leaders (who honesly have no legitimaticy, but more on this soon). Joi has also reached out and talked to multiple students over the past few days and explained that this is not true. Either way, it was extremely pushy and weird for a professor (it’s a shame to called a non-tenured professor like Ethan a professor btw) to push themselves like this. Funnily, I have seen Ethan push himself into other meetings for students before. Perhaps people remember him talking over minority students during a meeting to help minority students. He is a walking oblivious and obnoxious paradox.

Meanwhile, I pass my oral quals and officially become a PhD candidate. Part of the advice I got during quals was to not just follow the easy paper trail, but instead to take a step back and figure out what I actually want to be known for. I realize I strongly want to be known as an AI Ethics scholar first, and a roboticist second.

On August 31st, I moved to a new apartment. It was a long move (10 AM — 1 AM), but it wasn’t the most painful move that I’ve had.

Part of this move involved going to a fraternity that I’ve lived at. As I walked up to the fourth floor, I found myself getting angrier and angrier. I remembered the misogynistic comments I’ve suffered there. I remembered caring for friends’ mental health, despite the hypocritical promise of “brotherhood”. Combined with the pains of moving, the anger is too much, and I eventually stay outside and just move boxes into the UHaul rather than try to spend more time in the frat.

On September 3rd, the paper that I had written for the class “Ethics and Governance of AI” gets accepted to the ACM CS and Law Symposium. I email out to the teaching staff to thank them. Joi Ito was one of the two professors teaching this class. I misspell his email, but it gets fixed, and he congratulates me.

On September 4th, a Media Lab community-wide meeting to heal gets derailed by Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte stating that if he were to wind back the clock, he’d still take Epstein’s money, despite his criminal charge of sex with a minor. Although he later backtracks on this statement, claiming that he would no longer take the money given the sex trafficking allegations, it was still utterly horrifying to read. Later, a leaked email says that Joi emailed Negroponte, stating “you are interfering in my attempts to help the community heal”

[1:11 AM] Me: Noooooooooooo
[1:12 AM] Me: Oh my God
[1:12 AM] Me: What is happening???
[1:12 AM] L: ML is imploding
[1:16 AM] C: at least the facade is breaking down

On September 7th, Signe Swenson blows the whistle on the Media Lab to the New Yorker, leaking emails that reveal that

  1. the Media Lab had been trying to hide their involvement with Epstein — anonymizing his donations and hiding his name on calendars
  2. Epstein had been given a tour of the Media Lab and had even brought two female “assistants” with him
  3. Epstein directed ~$5 million in funds from the Gates Foundation and other large scale

I wake up to this news and freak out. The idea that giving money somehow means having MIT researchers at your beck and call infuriates me. It’s small things — an unhappy female grad student having to fabricate a facsimile Disobedience Award for Epstein, a private tour of the Media Lab for Epstein, roboticsts being forced to demo at Schwarzmann’s Christmas party without being compensated, not even with food. But it adds up in my head.

I then go to buy bagels for a brunch with my neighbors.

Later that day, Joi Ito resigns as director of the Media Lab. President Reif sends out an email acknowledging this article, Ito’s resignation and puts a law firm to do a thorough independent investigation of funding sources. Larry Lessig writes a blog post, which among other things, warns that MIT is complicit in the anonymization of funds too.

I know that Farrow’s article is crafted to draw the following sentence into doubt: Everything Joi did in accepting Epstein’s money he did with MIT’s approval. I trust the MIT review will confirm it (yes, I remain exactly that naive). So why is he resigning, rather than others in the administration?

On September 8th, I note with grim bitterness that a Business Insider piece about the falsified research done in the MIT Media Lab Open Agricultural Initiative headlines as “Epstein-funded MIT lab”. Last year, when I talked to people back home about MIT, the only part that they had heard about was the Media Lab. Further tweets and articles conflate a hackathon Bitcoin project and MIT’s treatment of Aaron Swartz under the same “”Media Lab”” umbrella.

I send out the email invite for our housewarming.

On September 9th, President Reif sends out an email naming the specific law firm that will be used (Goodwin Procter), states that it will only report to him and the MIT Corporation’s Executive Council, and asks us to reserve judgement until the investigation is over.

On September 10th, I hear about a protest led by the MIT Students Against War protesting the MIT-Epstein scandal — chanting #TheyKnew. Their outrage is fueled by a Boston Globe article revealing through Signe Swenson’s whistleblowing that Lessig was right. It wasn’t just the Media Lab. MIT senior development director Richard MacMillan and the VP of Resource Development, Julie Lucas were involved in emails agreeing to anonymize Epstein’s donations. I’m incensed.

[2:00 PM] Me: I’ll defo go
[2:01 PM] J: you should spread the event amongst your colleagues!

I send an email to csail-related@ advertising the protest. Many protests had been advertised in the past to this list.

I immediately get harried with questions by one of the postdocs in my office, who is confused by why I’m taking a stand, whether a protest is really the right way to air these concerns, and whether CSAIL’s funding structures deserve to be re-examined. He goes away to a meeting, but I’m still on edge.

Meanwhile, a flurry of reply-one messages respond to me, ranging from “does the MIT administration actually respond to protests?” to “how can you talk about ethics when you attach a full-text of an article haha checkmate”.  I try to respond to all of them, but get exhausted pretty quickly.

The first reply-all comment says “nice job, but make sure you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater by alienating Media Lab people who are trying to do good”.

The second reply-all comment is Richard Stallman.

[1:10 AM] Me: THIS IS NOT THE RICHARD STALLMAN RESPONSE I NEEDED OR WANTED
[1:10 AM] Me: EVERYONE IS BANNED FROM SENDING EMAILS FOREVER
[1:13 AM] M: what did richard do
[1:13 AM] M: do i want to know
[1:15 AM] Me: he is quibbling over the word “sexual assault” to describe what Marvin Minsky did
[1:15 AM] M: i’ll take that as a “i do not want to know”

I come into the office on September 11th. The new postdoc asks me, “..hey Richard Stallman’s comments are really not ok”. I crazy-laugh and say “that’s just csail-related@ for you!”

A flurry of responses continues to occur, both reply-all and reply-one. Some of these reply-all posts can be seen at the bottom of this Vice article.

I’m infuriated. It’s not just Stallman’s comments, but other people entertaining his discussion, claiming it’s our duty as “scientists” to doubt the stories of sexual assault survivors or talking about the particulars of the legal deposition process. In particular, someone who I thought of as a friend links a conspiracy theory website, supposedly “exonerating” Minsky’s involvement on Epstein’s island. I silently remove him from my mental list of friends.

I stay in the office until midnight, doing grasping experiments with my robot. I have a conference paper due in 4 days.

On September 12th, I can’t take it anymore and reply-all with an angry email. It gets delayed. The thread continues.

[11:54 AM] Me: I’m so angry that I have to call out all of these fucking bikeshedders on their bullshit
[11:55 AM] Me: it’s just honestly like “I thought we decided that pedophilia is bad, but apparently not”
[11:56 AM] Me: coupled with rms’ “age ain’t nothing but a number”
[11:58 AM] Me: like holy fuck, how can you not think rape culture exists when you literally have several senior members of csail arguing over the semantics of “sexual assault” vs.”rape” and don’t understand consent to the point where “directed to have sex” and “had sex” is a meaningful distinction

Reif sends out an email, confirming that several members of MIT senior administration were aware of the Epstein donation and discussed it. He also admits to “apparently” signing a letter thanking Epstein for a donation to Seth Lloyd.

After reading the letter, I check Lessig’s blog post again. I found he added some addendums from when I last read it (…4 days ago)

The consequence of my essay is that people are more critical of me. That’s right and appropriate — that’s the effect of a confession. But the primary intent of this essay is to say that people should be more critical of MIT. Joi worked for MIT. He bears his own moral responsibility, of course. But the institution that knowingly directed and enabled and allowed this contribution bears responsibility too.

At the very start, MIT seemed to accept that responsibility. When Joi apologized, MIT did so too, in a sense, as well. But when Ronan Farrow’s piece suggested that perhaps MIT did not know of these contributions, and that Joi was, therefore, acting rogue, it was wrong for MIT not to make it completely and absolutely clear that that reporting is not correct. There is no doubt that MIT knew and approved of these contributions, while they were solicited and when they were received.

MIT’s defense is that it is “completing a review.” That’s just too convenient. The lawyers will take months. The review will be released sometime after that. Meanwhile, MIT profits from the suggestion that somehow this whole mess was not their whole mess, too, while Ito is scapegoated.

The buck stops where the check is cashed. That was MIT.

I finally find the strength to get out of my house and go to the office. I have a conference paper due in 3 days. I can’t seem to focus on it.

An interview with the MIT Technology Review reveals that “disqualified” doesn’t actually mean “banned from donating”; all it actually means is that this donor is unlikely to donate in the future.

When I saw Ethan Zuckerman’s statement about his resignation and realized I still had access to all my emails, I was really feeling the burden of information. Never in my life did I think I’d be a whistleblower and had no idea what that would entail. That began the conversations around what to do with the information.

My friend Selam publishes a blog post demanding that Richard Stallman be removed. This goes viral, as people reveal more and more personal stories about how they had been harassed by Stallman.

Daniela Rus, the director of CSAIL (and my advisor), sends out an email organizing an emergency community meeting to discuss the current discussion on csail-related@ .

My second post to csail-related@ gets out of moderation. One of the female postdocs in my lab comes over and tells me to keep fighting the good fight. I start tearing up immediately.

[7:13 PM] Me: “stay strong. It’s not your responsibility to fight this or deal with private idiotic comments, but know that you’re not alone with this bullshit.”
[7:14 PM] Me: “You’re here to do kickass research, not to have to defend basic human decency. And we don’t want to let it get under our skin, but it does, and I’m here for you and Daniela is here for you”
[7:14 PM] Me: I like really needed this
[7:14 PM] Me: teared up a bit and was really thankful
[7:14 PM] Me: but it’s also like “thanks for being brave and standing up for what’s right”
[7:15 PM] Me: to which I was like “but this shouldn’t be brave!! this shouldn’t have been an issue!”
[7:15 PM] Me: god, I feel like
[7:15 PM] Me: really seen and supported
[7:15 PM] Me: I’m really glad she did this

More outpouring of support comes in via email. I can’t respond to all of it, but I appreciate it immensely. Some professors apologize for their behavior after my email, realizing how marginalized their abstract discussion made others feel.

I hear that after weeks of radio silence, Harvard has sent out an email, stating that they stopped taking Epstein’s money after his conviction. My friends and I grimly note that we only found out about MIT’s illicit practices through a whistleblower, leaving us skeptical about this announcement.

I stay on campus until 3 AM, finishing figures for my paper.

September 13th is a Friday, the day of the protest.

Selam’s blogpost continues to go viral. She adds some additions:

Did I even really know who Richard Stallman was before those emails? To be honest, not really — I’m a mechanical engineer who didn’t pay enough attention, apparently. I did not possess the awe and reverence many people commenting and retweeting seemed to. Maybe if I had known I would have been more “careful”. Maybe if I had known I, too, would have been able to let such comments and behavior slide because of “genius”.

Yet here we are. I don’t regret a thing. :v::skin-tone-3:

I honestly did not think about it that hard when I wrote this post, which is probably why I wrote it and shared it publicly. Had I thought a little harder, maybe I would have thought about my reputation, the fact that I was insulting someone well respected who I had never met, and doing that on so insignificant a whim as wanting to stand up for a close friend of mine in the MIT CSAIL department. Maybe I would have thought about what might happen to me if this were to go viral, that maybe my own already insignificant reputation would go down the toilet and the reputation of this person further elevated.

But I didn’t think about any of those things, and here I am. There have been a few “viral moments” in my life but I think this is the most attention I have ever single-handedly generated on the internet.

With morbid curiosity, I google how Selam’s blog post is doing. 4chan shows up in the search results.

[12:21 PM] J: are u just pumping urself up w more angery before the protest

Selam gives a copy of the emails that she has to Vice, who then goes public.

I go to the protest. Livetweet threads can be found here and here, with official coverage from WBUR and The Tech. The list of demands are here. I learn about a sit-in happening every Monday outside of Reif’s office.

[7:45 PM] Me: protest update!
[7:47 PM] Me: * there were like 150+ people there! including edbert!
* I feel super validated and seen
* the speakers were really connected — I’m impressed with MIT Students Against War
* some person is just here for the hackathon and joined because they were outraged by all of the shit going on that we were talking about
* I spoke out and was way angrier than I expected whoops
* I got recorded for a quote about “MIT wants me when I win Jeopardy and make the Institute look good. They don’t want me when I call them out on their injustices and explain the existence of sexual assault”

After the protest, I get dinner with friends and then go to support another friend in The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. When the musical reaches its emotional climax in “The I Love You Song“, it’s the last emotional straw for me.

I am just so tired.

As the character gets wrapped in the harmonies by the dreams of her absent parents, everything over the past few weeks hits me. When the musical ends, I run out of the Little Theater and cry my heart out in Kresge Big Theater. In front of Dupont. In the hour it takes me to walk back home.

[9:49 PM] Me: I just got blindsided by that song and I just like really am tired of fighting and I want to go back to a home and stop trying to fight evil and oh God

[9:59 PM] Me: I consistently don’t understand how bad it is until it hits me
[9:59 PM] Me: Like it’s shock I guess to protect you
[9:59 PM] Me: Just this is emotional shock
[10:00 PM] Me: When Luchang died, I didn’t understand why people were reaching out to me until a month later
[10:01 PM] Me: I didn’t realize how bad the Jeopardy harassment was until people were nice to me on the internet and my classmates were like “yo wtf”
[10:02 PM] Me: And it didn’t hit me how horrible it is to be in an institute which funds and protects misogynists until a musical celebrating childlike innocence and love hit home

I stop crying enough by the time I get home. I see that Daniela has emailed me, asking me to give her a call back despite the fact that she’s traveling.

I call. “If you ever have any issue, I really want you to feel like I’m the first person that you can talk to”. It means a lot hearing it from her.

On September 14th, I work from home, writing a conference paper that is due at 3 AM. I skip the game conference that I was excited about. I play music when I work. A song comes up, the male singer bragging about being a player and how many women he bangs. I skip it.

Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?

Richard Stallman tries to post an apology, but frames it as the media misrepresenting him. He gets immediately shot down on csail-related@

So you’re apologizing for misleading headlines that someone else wrote, but
you’re not apologizing for what you actually said in those emails about how
Minsky couldn’t have sexually assaulted a trafficked minor if she presented
as willing, or for the tag about hot ladies on your office door, or for
your history of repeatedly touching/massaging and making women
uncomfortable that has been elucidated on Twitter, or for your concerning
statements on your website regarding sexual assault and pedophilia? Do you
really think the only reason people are disturbed is because Vice wrote a
dumb headline that made it seem like you defended Epstein?

Whether or not you deserve to remain in whatever communities you’re in,
this isn’t even close to an apology, or an attempt to make the communities
you have power in more welcoming. It’s just a deflection.

Another thread starts up on csail-related@

*This email regards the poster saying “REMOVE RICHARD STALLMAN” that was
put on Richard Stallman’s box on the 3rd floor.* I saw it there earlier
today and wanted to send an email about it.

*To the people who put the poster there, I would first like to apologize
for taking it down. *I, too, *believe in freedom of speech *and believe that*
people have the right to express their opinions*. *If you still want to put
the poster back up, I will not stop you. *However, I urge you to read this
email and listen to what I have to say.

Like many people who have responded to Lillian Chin’s email thread and
everyone else who has heard about it, *I strongly disagree with the things
that Richard Stallman has said. *However, *how can we claim to take the
“moral high ground” or be “better than others,” if we are also willing to
stoop down to bullying or harassment? *Putting *such signage up around is
cruel and only serves to create an even more toxic environment.*

I’m glad I’m working from home. At the very least, it keeps people from seeing that I’m crying every couple of hours.

[5:39 PM] Me:
> I believe that an email thread is not the best way for us to discuss such controversial topics

REPEAT AFTER ME
[5:39 PM] Me: THIS
[5:39 PM] Me: WAS
[5:39 PM] Me: NOT
[5:39 PM] Me: SUPPOSED
[5:39 PM] Me: TO
[5:39 PM] Me: BE
[5:39 PM] Me: A
[5:39 PM] Me: FUCKING
[5:39 PM] Me: THREAD ABOUT MARVIN MINSKY
[5:39 PM] Me: OR THE DEFINITION OF RAPE
[5:40 PM] Me: THE DEFINITON OF RAPE IS NOT A CONTROVERSIAL TOPIC

I can’t help myself from clicking tweets. I find out that another Media Lab professor may have pressured students into not speaking up against funding sources. I find out that Richard Stallman doubles down on his statements when asked him to resign. I find that Epstein had a testimonials page which included statements from other MIT professors I know on it.

At 2 AM, I submit my paper to the robotics conference, an hour before the 3 AM deadline. I apologize to my co-authors for how late it is, citing csail-related@ reasons. They are understanding.

On September 16th, the CSAIL community meeting happens. IDs are checked at the door. It is off the record. I stand up and speak a couple of times. I come out, feeling mildly cathartic — still fragile and unresolved, but with the sense that words were said that needed to be said out loud.

Selam adds an appendix to her post.

For everyone who has ever been afraid to speak out about seemingly powerful people, consider for a moment that maybe they do not know what real strength is. They have existed in a system designed for them, circles of power that benefit and never question them, while you may have had to fight your way into those circles.
Maybe they are not even half as strong as you are.

I sit in front of Reif’s office for the sit-in protest. Nothing happens, but it’s more cathartic than the CSAIL community meeting. I appreciate sitting in silence with ten other people, staring down at Reif’s door with a sign, watching people in suits and professors I recognize walk by.

I go to a fellowship dinner. The head of the fellowship organization asks me about what I think about the ongoing scandal. I want to scream.

Richard Stallman announces his resignation from both MIT and the Free Software Foundation. I find out during the fellowship dinner. I don’t feel anything but grim determination. I come home and drink. My roommate keeps an eye out on me and tells me to drink more water.

On September 17th, while cooking my favorite hangover cure, I check to see /g/’s reaction to the Stallman news.

[9:43 AM] Me: meanwhile, I was morbidly curious
[9:43 AM] Me: 4chan is indeed trying to dox Selam, so I’m going to let her know

Throughout the day, I and her other friends keep an eye on the thread to see how much information gets leaked. Nothing too bad gets out, although they do threaten to deepfake her into porn.

I learn about the regularly scheduled faculty meeting happening tomorrow. The entire agenda has been wiped just to talk about the current scandal.

On September 18th, I waffle on whether or not to go to the faculty meeting. At my library job, I find out that my boss is going. I resolve to go.

I’m nominally supposed to be working on the video for my conference paper submission, but I’m barely focusing. As I leave to go to the faculty meeting, I pass my advisor.

D: “Did you go to the talk?”
Me: “What talk?”
D: “The past Turing Award winner!”
Me: “….oh. ok, sure.”

I hurry off to the faculty meeting. I liveblog notes, eventually putting them here. I then run off to a protest planning meeting.

On September 19th, multiple threads on csail-related@ pop up, trying to figure out how to have civil discourse on there again. Richard Stallman briefly pops up and is glared back down.

Meanwhile, the friend who had sent out the conspiracy theory email shows up after a significant absence on Zephyr and proceeds in being a #notAllMen apologist. This ends after he deadnames a friend and is glared back down.

On September 21st, our housewarming happens.

On September 22nd, I go on a long walk with my friends. I have to cut it short so I can finish the conference video submission.

On September 23rd, I participate in the sit-in. More bigwigs walk by, including the provost and chancellor who recognize me by face. A professor who was at the protest 10 days ago gives us words of encouragement.

Reif comes out of his office on his way to another event, accompanied by staffers. He reads all of our signs and asks to arrange a meeting with the organizer.

I distribute links to petitions to my friends — the faculty-led one and the alumni-led one.

On September 25th and 26th, I feel so emotionally sick that I cancel my meetings. It soon translates to physical sickness, and I can barely leave my bed.

On September 27th, I feel better than I have in weeks. Treating the physical symptoms of the sickness helps rejuvenate me. For the first time in a month, I feel like I can take on the world again.

On September 30th, I am at the sit-in once more. My advisor walks by several times on her ways to meetings. We wave awkwardly.

I sit down and write this oral history.

Today is October 1st. There is a student forum with the senior administration to discuss the events thus far. I will put my notes here. I will be ready.

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5 thoughts on “An Oral History

    • You are incredible for standing up for what is right, fighting the good fight, all the while still conducting kickass research. Stay determined, and stay strong.

      Like

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