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The Problems at MIT and its Media Lab Are Deeper Than Jeffrey Epstein—Data Sheet

September 9, 2019, 1:07 PM UTC

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In July, before the connections between the MIT Media Lab and Jeffrey Epstein came to light, The New York Times Magazine published a thorough and damning article about the pernicious effects of outside funding on MIT, including the media lab.

MIT had taken money from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, as had the famed media lab, which the article cleverly points out isn’t much of a media organization. Joi Ito, the now-deposed head of the lab and also now a former member of the board of the company that owns The Times, showed his contempt for the media by being vague, evasive, and unhelpful when asked to clarify who had donated how much and what their status was.

Together with the Epstein episode, details around Ito’s departure (particularly in Ronan Farrow’s piece in The New Yorker on Friday), point to the corporate rot at the heart of pseudo-academic institutions like the media lab and, for that matter, full-on academic institutions like MIT. According to the magazine article, corporate donors—called “members”—who pay at least $250,000 a year make up the majority of the Media Lab’s annual budget. In other words, while these institutions project the appearance of being focused on academic pursuits—finding the truth, asking tough questions, pursuing independent lines of exploration, and so on—in reality they are corporate lap dogs fetching the balls their masters throw. (Slate also had a good take with more insider details on the vibe at the Media Lab.)

The point here is that these institutions can afford to pay their own way. MIT’s endowment exceeds $16 billion. And yet they insist on chasing dollars from organizations whose jobs, no matter what the Business Roundtable says, is to make money. Getting mixed up with unsavory donors is the tip of the iceberg of why that’s problematic.


Jack Ma steps down this week as Alibaba chairman, and Breakingviews has a good take on the state of play among Chinese Internet giants  … Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph is publishing a book, excerpted this weekend in The Wall Street Journal. There’s a helpful nugget on the importance for all companies, especially startups, of focusing … Sure sign of bad things to come: the credit card company Brex is opening a restaurant.

Adam Lashinsky

On Twitter: @adamlashinsky



Seeking forgiveness. Factories in China run by Foxconn that make Apple products used too many temporary workers, violating Chinese rules, the companies admitted on Monday. Elsewhere regarding China, Microsoft chief legal officer Brad Smith came to the defense of Chinese equipment maker Huawei, saying the Trump administration had treated the company unfairly.

A constant supply of hot air. Unhappy with Google's implicit criticism of iPhone security, Apple struck back in a piece that hit several wrong notes, such as claiming the attack was "not a broad-based exploit" because it only affected the Uyghur Muslim community in China. “It feels like their statement is more of a straw man to deflect away from the human rights abuses,” Jake Williams, founder of the firm Rendition Infosec, told Ars Technica.

Crushing. Over the weekend, India's Chandrayaan 2 moon mission lost its Vikram lander and Pragyan rover units as they attempted to touch down on the lunar surface. The still-orbiting Chandrayaan 2 will be able to fulfill 95% of the mission's goals, the Indian Space Research Organization said.

Deal or no deal. In private company news, the bug bounty trackers at HackerOne raised $36 million from investors led by Valor Equity Partners. French accounting and expense management startup Spendesk raised $39 million led by Index Ventures.


We're approaching the 60th anniversary of the first use of computer programs written in COBOL, or the Common Business-Oriented Language. Amazingly, some 200 billion lines of COBOL code are still running and 90% of Fortune 500 companies still use the ancient language, originally invented by a programmer at Burroughs Corp. named Mary Hawes. The language is now overseen by developer Micro Focus, as global director of product marketing Derek Britton explains to ZDNet:

"Any time you phone a call center, any time you transfer money, or check your account, or pay a mortgage, or renew or get an insurance quote, or when contacting a government department, or shipping a parcel, or ordering some flowers, or buying something online at a whole range of retailers, or booking a vacation, or a flight, or trading stocks, or even checking your favorite baseball team's seasonal statistics, you are interacting with COBOL."


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I fear have let you down, Data Sheet readers, for I have missed a big story about the world's biggest airplane, the late Paul Allen's Stratolaunch Roc. It seems that way back in May, the company closed down, ending development of the plane with the 385-foot wingspan. I discovered this news while reading that Allen's 414-foot-long yacht, Octopus, is up for sale for $325 million. I believe you also get the yellow submarine Pagoo, which resides inside the yacht, as well.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.