“Deploy or Die!” was Joi Ito’s famous slogan for the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.1 Go to war—meaning, in this case, find a practical (and profitable) application for your research—or you die. Even, or perhaps especially, on the techno-frontier.
Ito, a venture capitalist, was director of the famed facility from 2011 until September 2019. On its website, the facility is described as an “interdisciplinary research lab . . . [that] encourages the unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas.” Currently running some four hundred projects on a $75-million-per-year budget, the Lab tackles topics such as cognition, computation, prosthetics, and holography. Thirty senior researchers and nearly three hundred students and staff members work in groups like Opera of the Future and Affective Computing.2
The ruthlessness of Ito’s motto was recently evident in a scandal, revealed in August 2019, over the director’s acknowledged acceptance of $525,000 for the Lab from disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. It was later revealed that Epstein had plowed up to $1.2 million into Ito’s own investment firm, and the New Yorker reported that Epstein successfully solicited donations of another $7.5 million or more from other investors for the Lab. At the time Ito took the money, Epstein had already pleaded guilty to procuring underage women for prostitution in 2008, and he faced many other charges of sexual abuse. MIT had blacklisted Epstein as a donor—a fact Ito was well aware of. After a number of Lab employees came forth about being coerced into keeping Epstein’s donations anonymous, Ito resigned from his position as leader of the Lab this past September.3 His acceptance of Epstein’s money in the interest of “deploying” technology exemplifies how education has come to privilege measurable outcomes over humanitarian values. While, in response to this controversy, some commentators have argued that accepting dirty money is often the price of doing research, we must question the fundamental purpose of the Lab, the specific interests it serves, and the acceptability of that moral cost.4
The Lab has long posited death as the only alternative to technological solutionism. When the facility was launched in 1985, its slogan, coined by founder Nicholas Negroponte, was “Demo or Die!”—a spin on the academic dictum “publish or perish.” Optimistic and ominous at the same time, Negroponte’s directive reflected the rampant speculation and techno-utopianism that greeted the advent of the internet.
The Lab has been at the center of advancing contemporary forms of multimedia and ubiquitous computing for the past thirty-four years. It has pioneered a so-called “maker culture” dedicated to prototyping and demoing useful devices, and has helped foster the attendant “design thinking” that now dominates our creative industries and seeks to reshape our educational programs.
One wildly popular group that directly received Epstein funding is Neri Oxman’s Mediated Matter. The subject of glowing profiles in publications ranging from Elle magazine to the New York Times, Oxman—whose exhibition “Material Ecology” opens at the Museum of Modern Art in February—has become a model for making engineering fashionable. Her team uses synthetic biology and computer-aided design strategies to extract energy and patterns from living organisms, deploying life itself. While the actual utility of their work is unclear, the group’s demos—pigmented walls, “wearable” artificial skins, and biomorphic sculptures made from materials like silk and cellulose—are very beautiful. Structures made from melatonin, algae, and bacteria growing in ornate structures produce an aesthetic imaginary of a future where non-human organisms are further exploited, though not to any clear end.
The Media Lab’s Prehistory
Negroponte helped lay the groundwork for these contemporary projects, which replace politics and ethics with technological spectacle. The MIT Media Lab paved the way for a broader transformation of American education. The Lab and its MIT predecessor, the Architecture Machine Group (Arch Mac), were at the very forefront of transforming how university research happens, what counts as research, and how it’s funded.
In 1977, after the National Science Foundation (NSF) rejected his application for a grant, Negroponte announced that his research groups would no longer focus on the public and civilian side of science funding. Instead, he targeted other forms of support, primarily from the military and, later, from corporations and private donors. In a 2010 interview, Negroponte derided the NSF grant process as a “beauty contest,” in which no one remembers who you are from year-to-year, because the peer review process is anonymous on both sides. He saw the military, on the contrary, as a world where people (we can assume mostly men) know who you are, “trust you . . . believe in you,” and then keep giving you money.5 The world of private and military funding, he implied, is no beauty contest but rather a masculine world where real things get done—efficiently and effectively.
While the Lab retains funding from the military and government sources, its primary support these days comes from its system of corporate buy-ins, or “sponsorships,” that permit each corporate member to have access to all the Lab’s research and development: sponsors can license Media Lab products without paying a fee.
Two among many famous demos from the Lab’s prehistory help us see why the most recent scandal is no surprise. They treat society as a mere playground for technological experimentation—not the latter as in service of the former. In 1969-70, Arch Mac—a group founded by Negroponte and architect Leon Groisser—endeavored to bring its technical expertise to bear on the urban “crisis” of the post-Civil Rights era. The research group targeted Boston’s South End, a historically African American community that was protesting plans to build highways through the neighborhood. This urban plan would displace thousands of inhabitants and effectively partition the community from the rest of Boston.
Arch Mac took this as an opportunity to find new applications for computer-aided design. For Arch Mac, no matter the problem or the client, technology was the answer. African American men were recruited from local public housing projects to complete a survey. The group asked them a series of questions regarding urban planning and neighborhood improvement. The men typed their answers into a computer and an interface responded. Negroponte reasoned that they “said things to this machine they would probably not have said to another human, particularly a white planner or politician: to them the machine was not black, was not white, and surely had no prejudices.”6 Casting the computer as raceless and neutral, Negroponte implicitly introduced a new idea: the replacement of democratic agents—those meddlesome, biased politicians—with technology. It was presented to participants as an effort to collect data and gather their opinions, but in reality it was a person, not a bot, typing the responses.
A few years later, Arch Mac was commissioned to produce an even more audacious project, serving the American military’s guerrilla-warfare efforts. Inspired by the Israeli army’s use of half-scale models to train teams for the hostage rescue at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976, the US military wanted a virtual training environment for soldiers operating in urban settings. The result was the 1978 Aspen Movie Map. Built through the careful survey of Aspen, Colorado, a fancy ski resort town, the imagery was created using gyro-stabilized cameras, mounted on a car roof, that took one picture for every ten feet traveled down the streets. The resulting interactive system worked through laser discs, a joystick, and a computer, allowing users to traverse the space of Aspen at their own speed. The footage had been shot so that you could navigate forward or in reverse, and you could also place virtual objects into the space. The goal, Negroponte said, was to have so much recorded that the experience was “seamless.”7 Today, this project is often considered the progenitor of Google Maps, as well as first-person shooter games, video-simulation training, and PTSD treatment in the military—the last three demonstrating the often Faustian bargains new technologies demand.
It’s telling that the project was conducted in so placid a city as Aspen. When Arch Mac presented it outside the context of its militarized inception, there was no trace of the movie map’s purpose as anything other than entertainment. The violence for which these systems were built was rendered invisible; geo-politics was subsumed by immersive media.
From Democracy to Demo Culture
“Demo” dates back to the Greek demos, which means “the people” and serves as the root of “democracy”—the process by which those people can express their collective will. To be political, the people must also come into the light of power and be seen. Negroponte’s use of “demo” refers not to the demos, but is a truncated version of “demonstrate,” which means to bring something into the light, to make some new process, fact, or subject known. The technical demonstrations championed by the Media Lab encourage us to envision only privatized technical solutions to problems that ought to be addressed democratically—as with Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child initiative, for which he designed a $100 laptop operated by a hand crank, without considering how to fund an education that would support that machine.
These examples of “demo” culture say a lot about contemporary social conditions in the United States, and the replacement of democracy with technical spectacle: the specter that an increasingly privatized and corporate-driven university system presents to us, pushing us toward the abandonment of any form of research or experimentation that does not seem immediately useful to sponsors. In a telling statement upon being appointed leader of the Lab, Ito said that he prefers the word “learning” to “education.”8 Education, he argued, is too top-down: if students focus on projects, the learning will happen. One apparently cannot deploy or demo an education that focuses on intangible outcomes—like empathy, criticism, and justice.
The Lab is far from alone in its dependence on corporate funding for research. And until his Epstein-related transgressions, Ito was often touted as an exemplary technologist concerned with social issues and ethics. The Lab has also hosted many beneficial and well-intentioned groups: take the Center for Civic Media, directed by Ethan Zuckerman, which researches civic participation in digital spheres. Zuckerman told Ito about his discomfort with Epstein long before the recent public debacle, and announced plans to resign after it became clear that the Lab’s involvement with Epstein ran deeper than Ito initially admitted.
Unlike most Media Lab groups, the Center for Civic Media is connected to MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences through the Comparative Media Studies Department. The nation’s post-World War II emphasis on liberal arts education was concurrent with an emerging critique of media, similar in spirit to the research now produced by the Center for Civic Media. Groups ranging from the Frankfurt School, mostly refugees from Nazi violence, to 1960s and ’70s Black Power, queer, and feminist movements all called our attention to the fact that media shapes publics, and that we must attend to the forms of media we make if we want democratic and diverse societies.
Education and the demos have long been inextricably bound. At the start of our nation, public education was seen as a foundation for democracy. It would, statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson argued, train citizens to understand and value their republic, and disdain monarchy. So powerful was education that slaves in many antebellum Southern states were forbidden it, lest they gain literacy and the power to threaten the institution of slavery. Education wasn’t just about producing projects, it was about learning to be a citizen in a democracy.
The role of liberal arts education in the post-WWII period was to provide students with the skills to be economically independent, but also to thrive in a diverse society. Such education would hopefully enable them to evade totalitarianism, but also to live in a diverse society, and to comprehend and come to care about individuals different from themselves in sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and class. But in the new university, the one that the Media Lab helped create, tangible results, demonstrable immediately and useful to companies, are favored over developing empathy. In abandoning the democratic mission of education, our robust and plural forms of support for research have waned—making the university less suited to cultivate diverse types of thinking, and acting, and becoming.
The Media Lab operates at the locus of two forces—the future of the demos and education and the future of media. We must ask whether we think politics can be smoothed over through technical interventions. We must also ask how our immersive mediascapes are rendering us numb to the violence being committed around us. The Epstein situation cannot be blamed simply on Negroponte or Ito—although, surely, they areto blame as well. (This past September, Negroponte openly supported Ito’s decision to take the money.) This is not a matter of a few engineers or designers in one lab. It’s about our universities and education more broadly. We have largely abandoned some of the fundamental reasons for a higher education—mainly the maintenance of citizenry—in favor of producing products for corporations, swapping university research for R&D. We should insist upon returning the demos to education, not as a demonstration of technology, but as the means by which individuals can come to be seen and to also wield power.
1 Nancy Duvergne Smith, “Deploy or Die—Media Lab Director’s New Motto,” Slice of MIT, July 19, 2014, alum.mit.edu.
2 For Media Lab statistics and self-characterization, see media.mit.edu.
3 Ronan Farrow, “How an Élite University Research Center Concealed its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein,” New Yorker, Sept. 16, 2018, newyorker.com.
4 Susan Svrluga, “Epstein’s donations to universities reveal a painful truth about philanthropy,” Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2019, washingtonpost.com.
5 Nicholas Negroponte interviewed by Molly Wright Steenson in 2010, quoted in Steenson’s dissertation, “Architectures of Information, Christopher Alexander, Cedric Price, and Nicholas Negroponte & MIT’s Architecture Machine Group,” Princeton University, 2014, p. 228.
6 Nicholas Negroponte, The Architecture Machine,Cambridge, Mass,MIT Press, 1970, p. 57.
7 Lian Chikako Chang, Drew Harry, Mohsen Mostafavi, and Nicholas Negroponte, “Live Blog: Mohsen Mostafavi in Conversation with Nicholas Negroponte,” Archinet Blogs, accessed June 18, 2014, archinect.com.
8 Quoted in Juliana Chan, “Newly Appointed MIT Media Lab Director, Joichi Ito, Talks to Asian Scientist,” Asian Scientist, May 2, 2011, asianscientist.com, downloaded Oct. 5, 2019.
A previous version of this article stated that Carlo Ratti’s Senseable City Lab was a Media Lab group. It is actually part of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and both are housed within the School of Architecture and Planning. Ratti was previously a Fulbright Scholar in the Media Lab’s Tangible Media group from 2001-2002. We regret the error.