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MIT Media Lab

MIT Media Lab is a prestigious institution within MIT which advances a neoliberal model of research oriented around generating patents and creating start-up companies. MIT Media Lab has received funding from corporations who pay a minimum of $250,000 to become "member companies," in order to obtain access to Lab personnel and to the products created by the Lab.

MIT Media Lab's member companies (present and past) have included corporate giants from nearly every awful capitalist industry: fossil fuels (Exxon-Mobil, BP), big pharma (Novartis, Hoffman-LaRoche, Takeda), computing (Google, Twitter, IBM, Intel, Cisco), weapons developers (Northrop-Grumman), and big media (21st Century Fox, Comcast, Verizon). MIT Media Lab has also received funding from nefarious individuals such as the sex trafficking billionaire Jeffrey Epstein.

Links to war, militarism, and colonialism

In addition to being sponsored by weapons developer Northrop-Grumman, in 2018 MIT Media Lab hosted the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), as the US-backed Saudi-led coalition was waging a devastating war on Yemen. MBS was hosted by then MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and was warmly greeted by MIT President Rafael Reif. MBS's visit to the Media Lab took place on a weekend and was initially kept secret from the public. MIT Media Lab personnel were told that they had to go through metal detectors to enter the Lab, but not told why. During his tour, MBS received demonstrations of robots by Boston Dynamics, an MIT-spawned startup that creates robots for the Pentagon.

In an attempt to whitewash its deep complicity in war, militarism, and colonialism, MIT Media Lab provides the "Disobedience Award," a $250,000 award funded by LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman which MIT Media Lab gives out to activists engaged in acts of "disobedience" and "defiance." The award and the media buzz around it have allowed the MIT Media Lab to portray itself as an oppositional force to the destruction and violence wrought by the very US corporate sponsors and US state backers who support the Lab, while allowing MIT Media Lab to position itself as the arbiter of what counts as so-called "responsible" or "respectable" disobedience. MIT Media Lab has used the Disobedience Award to bring together activists and the repressive forces of state violence, as if these can exist harmoniously. At the 2017 Disobedience Award ceremony, MIT invited FBI agent Edward H. You, who works in the FBI's bioweapons unit ("Biological Countermeasures Unit"), to speak. As MIT News reported, You suggested that recruiting "biohackers" to work for the FBI would be a wonderful act of "defiance": "Ed You, a supervisory special agent in the FBI's Biological Countermeasures Unit, [said that] he thinks the agency would benefit from bringing biohackers to the table as well. 'What a fantastic act of defiance that would be. Members of the hacker community can come up with solutions for the FBI, and it's important for everyone to push their comfort level." Through its "Disobedience Award," MIT Media Lab has joined the chorus universities, state, and corporate entities perversely attempting to co-opt, water down, and even positively brand themselves through traditions of Black and Indigenous resistance to state violence.

Supporting the carceral state through a liberal discourse of "inclusion"

One of the most famous projects to come out of the MIT Media Lab in recent years is "Gender Shades," an effort to quantify the so-called "bias" of facial recognition software in identifying faces and inferring a "gender" (which in the case of these programs means only "male" or "female") based on a photograph. Researchers from MIT Media Lab and Microsoft worked together to develop a metric that can quantify this so-called bias and used it to rank the facial recognition systems developed by the major computing companies (IBM, Amazon, etc.). They especially focused on the ability of these software products to identify women of color, notably Black women, and concluded that these systems aren't as good at recognizing women of color and assigning to them a male/female label; in order words, that these systems lack "intersectionality." This was framed as a social justice problem that must be solved. Gender Shades thus provided a convenient narratives for these corporations and the carceral state they serve: now these entities could work on making their software for the state and other forces of repression better at recognizing people of color, particularly Black people and Black women, ostensibly in order to be "inclusive," "diverse," and "socially just" (liberal multiculturalism is insidious). 

Indeed, this is what the repressive forces have done. Google decided to prey on unhoused Black people in Atlanta, Georgia in order to collect their facial images - so that Google's datasets can be made more "diverse" and "less biased." AnyVision, an Israeli company partnered with Microsoft that helps Israel surveil Palestinians in the West Bank - including by analyzing images of their faces - embraced Gender Shades's metrics, claiming it is committed to eliminating the "racial" and "gender" "bias" of its systems. Unsurprisingly, US imperial institutions also heaped praise on Gender Shades because it provided them with such a useful narrative and tool: Harvard Kennedy School listed the project as one of the "runners-up" for its 2020 "Technology and Public Purpose" award, given by former US Defense Secretary and now HKS professor Ash Carter. 

Links to environmental and health harms

MIT Media Lab ran a project called the "Open Agriculture" Initiative (OpenAg), based on fraudulent science. OpenAg promoted so-called "Food Computers," computer-controlled chambers where one could supposedly grow the world's vegetables independently of geography or climate according to a digital recipe (the initiative's head, Caleb Harper, described this as a "digital agricultural revolution"). As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, these "Food Computers" were sent to refugee camps in Jordan and used to draw major funding from corporations and the government. As whistleblowers within the MIT Media Lab revealed, the Food Computers didn't work at all, and OpenAg and MIT attempted to silence any dissenting voices within the lab.

MIT Media Lab's OpenAg also operated a facility in the town of Middleton MA, where OpenAg dumped toxic chemical waste (including fertilizers) into one of the town's water reservoirs, violating state environmental regulations. As ProPublica reported, "Nitrogen levels from the lab's wastewater registered more than 20 times above the legal limit, according to documents provided by a former Media Lab employee. When water contains large amounts of nitrogen, it can kill fish and deprive infants of oxygen." After whistleblowers from the OpenAg initiative went to the press, MIT was forced to close OpenAg and its facility in Middleton, but as of January 2022 the status of the polluted water reservoir in Middleton remains unclear.

Further reading on MIT Media Lab

75 Amherst Street, Cambridge, MA

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