s08e13: An Institution at the Intersection of Technology and Society

I really loved Kismet, I really did

0.0 Context setting

It’s taken me two days to write and send this newsletter, when I started, I was listening to Black Violin's 2019 album Take the Stairs, which makes a welcome change from the Frozen 1 and 2 soundtracks. If you know, you know.

I’m also typing this part on a new keyboard from keyboard.io, which means that I'm running at a drastically reduced top typing speed of around 60wpm, and a low of a positively terrifying and brain-melting ~10wpm.

At least, I was - I'm pretty sure I'm going to switch back to the Old Hand Hurting Keyboard after having finished this section.

One long one this episode — and true to my form, I’m afraid it’s pretty stream of consciousness — and then some short bits.

1.0 An Institution at the Intersection of Technology and Society

So, the MIT Media Lab is looking for a new Director. You can see their blog post about their search and the job description is online as a PDF.

If you're not familiar with the lab, it's an influential, world-famous-in-its-domain academic-ish lab that was one of the first to bring together the disciplines of engineering -- and not just the software/hardware kind -- art and design. At least, that's generally the way the lab describes itself.

Growing up, the Lab had a kind of cool aura to it to me, a sort of rockstar supergroup, a bit of Xerox PARC or the AT&T Labs attached to Cambridge University that did wonderful things with ultrasonic Active Bats, network computing and VNC. I’m reasonably sure that when I was a kid, my dad, an academic working in manufacturing engineering, took home a Betamax video about robotics that included Kismet, one of MIT’s early social robots.

Many people I look up to have worked at the lab, or gone through the lab. People I’ve actually met, and some I hope to be able to call friends, have worked at the lab. My intent here is to offer feedback that hopefully helps it stay true to its ideals as I understand them. I don’t, as they say, come to bury it.

Last year, the lab crossed a threshold and had to reckon with what's increasingly (and rightly so) happening to lots of well-known and well-regarded institutions. Joi Ito, the director of the lab from 2011 until his resignation in September 2019, had been involved in and directly solicited funding from Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted child sex offender and, if it’s not clear, a misogynist.

The news about the lab's funding sources was devastating to many of the researchers working at the lab. I heard from people who worked at the lab who had had brought up concerns about Epstein’s fundings that were ultimately dismissed and were thrown into trauma.

At the same time, as attention on the lab shifted to a different posture, people started speaking out about some of the research the lab was engaged in, like the "Food Computer", as part of the Open Agriculture initiative.

(Spoilers: the Food Computer turned out to be a pitch writing cheques it couldn't cash, erasing, with perhaps an intentional blindspot, knowledge in the existing field of agriculture. It was instead something easily packageable that would do well on the conference circuit and, well... fit in with positioning the lab as a rockstar lab. It brought in money and built the lab’s reputation.)

Dr. Sarah Taber, a crop scientist, consultant and Director of Food Safety for the Aquaponis Association, has a fantastic thread that’s worth reading about her brush with the MIT Media Lab:

(I recommend following Dr. Taber.)

Now, it’s June 2020, and I’m looking at MIT's post announcing their search for a new Media Lab director. America is again going through a reckoning about its inhumane attitude toward Black people and race in general. There's a sliver of hope that this time, more progress will be made and that the reports and actions taken will not read the same as they have had every. Single. Previous. Time.

An aside, and forgive me for arriving late as I comment on MIT’s search, but I’m going to quote from the conclusion of the 1968 Kerner Commission report [pdf], investigating the causes of the 1967 Detroit riot. It is a quote from Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, one of the first witnesses to appear before the Commission:

I read that report. . . of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of '35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of '43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot.

I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission--it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland--with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.

The Kerner Commission Report is 52 years old this year.

The first couple of paras of the blog post are standard boilerplate: MIT is looking for a dynamic thought leader, confident manager, strong backround in research and innovation, intersection of technology and society, yadda yadda ya.

The next para is more of the same: here's some nice words about the lab, which, I caution to add, can be both simultaneously true and problematic at the same time.

Again, I am not here to bury the lab or to heap scorn on it. I am writing this because I want it to be good and I want it to be the lab I thought it was (and the lab I am sure it was at times, too). I want it to be better and we need something like it. Much the same way I feel about America.

But it is MIT, the academic institution and its management's choice, though, as to whether the lab can meet the demands of the roles and institutions we need for progress in technology and society. Saying that collaboration and cross-disciplinary understanding, in this context, is a sort of Charlie Brown’s teacher’s wahwahwah. It doesn’t add anything. What’s needed is more. Because the object of that collaboration and cross-disciplinary understand is to improve everyone’s lives.


So it's with a little dismay that in the third para I read this (broken up for readability):

The Director is expected to lead the Media Lab through its next chapter within a highly interdisciplinary, exceptionally talented, and creative community of faculty, staff, and students.

The Lab is entering a pivotal moment in its history; it is significantly larger in scale than in its formative years, is of greater global standing, and is working more widely across MIT than ever before.

The Director will serve as an effective manager of people and steward of its culture, while actively fundraising in support of current and future Media Lab programs.

As we are in a poignant moment, globally, with broader existential questions surfacing, the Director will be advancing the Lab’s unique structure and agenda in an uncharted era.

The new dimensionalities of a global pandemic and its unknown economic consequences demand fresh thinking regarding the Lab’s role within the world’s research and innovation landscape.”

First off: yes. The lab is growing up, as all institutions do and must. (Well, I say must. Some institutions are hanging around clearly past their sell-by date).

I know it's slapdash of me, but forgive the shorthand of saying there comes a time when organizations and institutions grapple with the fact that "everyone just knows" what to do and "our culture stops us doing bad things" doesn't cut it anymore, and its approach as a potential for harm has passed any reasonable threshold. This is my newsletter and I am not going to give you the receipts for that one, do your own reading or, more likely, think back on your own experiences. This is not the time of startups and lashing bits together.

I think we are all more than tired now of seeing organizations admit that perhaps they need to grow up and have some adult supervision. Or, rather, responsible supervision.

It is telling to me then that there isn't emphasis, in this post, first and foremost, of what the lab's culture is, before stating that the Director will serve as an effective steward of that culture.

The post talks about existing in a “poignant moment”, "with broader existential questions surfacing" -- which is... oblique? Is this about climate change? Is this about the political environment? Is this about economic equity? And, excuse me? Poignant? I want a lab that is angry and one that is feisty and fighty and collaborative and fired up and inclusive because we have wicked problems to solve. We are not sad. We are horrified and ashamed and guilty and we promise to do better. This is a moment showing we have not lived up to what we have promised as a society for hundreds of years. It is not poignant. It is only poignant if you aren’t affected.

Next, the note about "new dimensionalities of a global pandemic and its unknown economic consequences" teases but isn't clear about what MIT believes its mission for the lab is, and what goals it seeks to achieve at that very intersection of technology and society. Speaking plainly instead of obliquely has I think always been an improvement (Yes. I know I’m not doing that. I’m not being, er, paid to do that. I can totally do it when I’m paid to do it).

Right now, I think speaking plainly and stating the obvious goes a long way. There are also, unfortunately, a lot of people who do not see what others regard as obvious.

But it's fine for me to poke holes.

What would I write instead, or how might I make this post better?

I would want to state what the lab stands for. That second para states that researchers strive to create technologies and experiences that "enable people to understand and transform their lives, communities and environments."... for what? To what end?

If you are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, then show it.

Say that it’s a goal to transformatively deliver equity. Write that goal down. Say that the promise and the intersection of technology and society is in the identification of *human* goals that benefit *everyone*, and not in a weaselly poignant way. Say that you are staking out the judicious and considered application of technology toward those aims, and that inclusion is the bare goddamn minimum. Try to say it without any cliche, like you’re doing it with, not for. Try to say it and inspire. This blog post should be a sign. It is a sign and a signal of what MIT is looking for and is prepared to accept.

I genuinely don't think it would be grandstanding or even god forbid virtue signaling, for the post (and we'll get into the job description too), to plainly state some of the other aspects of this "poignant moment".

For example, what if something like:

MIT recognizes that the scale and reputation of the lab affords it significant influence.

The lab will lead the way in requiring researchers to practice consequence scanning and other methods in the pursuit of responsible innovation.

The lab acknowledges that there is no such thing as a neutral technology, and that previous research has been lacking in understanding, explaining and mitigating the harmful effects of a technologies and innovations.

There is much work to be done, and the lab intends to be a leader.

And what of MIT’s diversity?

In 2005, MIT's faculty at the assistant level was 5% Black or African American (3% in 2020), 4% for Associates (4% in 2020), 2% for Professors (3% in 2020. So the lab must recognize that an intent to stand at the intersection of technology and society to serve everyone requires a commitment not just to increase diversity, equity and inclusion, as if it’s some sort of metric where going up and to the right is good, but backed up by support.

Next, if the lab has been successful so far, then what else does the lab need to be successful at to achieve its aims? The posting says that “fresh thinking” is demanded, but again, it would be helpful to see, even if only as a signal, what type of fresh thinking is allowed, and what type of fresh thinking might not be.

Because let's take a look at the job description [pdf].

I'm going to skip to the part in the description about the lab culture.

There are a few things that are a given to me, like the "innovative and cross-disciplinary approaches to academics and research". "Combining theory and practice with an emphasis on designing, building and evaluating working prototypes" is part of what made the lab compelling to me growing up: it made real things that you could interact with, poke, prod. In 2020, it would be heartening to see those real things in front of real people, and more representative people.

So it would be good if, (forgive my, er, passion) in big fucking type right in the middle of the culture part, MIT would emphasize that success in the lab's approach would lie increasing the diversity and scale of its cross-disciplinary approaches.

Who is it hard for the lab to collaborate with? Why?

What are its blind spots? Why?

Does MIT have plans to continually assess and act on those blind spots as opportunities for inclusion, invention and discovery?

Remember: across MIT, only around 4% of faculty are Black or African American. That figure hasn’t budged in 15 years.

The second part I'd change and that is problematic to me is the statement that "Creative freedom is key to Lab culture."

This is in the context of the consortium model for corporate sponsorship and its attitude to lab IP which enables (supports?) research that "may not lead to a near-term commercial outcome".

Why is this creative freedom important? Because it "often results in radical and truly unexpected breakthroughs, a strong rate of technology transfer, and a healthy list of spinoffs".

Sure, this is the executive search document (from Russell Reynolds Associates, signed off by MIT, though). But what's left out is as important as what's in the job description.

In the post, we have the goal of benefiting society "by creating technologies and experiences that enable people to understand and transform their lives, communities and environments".

In the exec search job description, though, it's the rate of technology transfer (which sure, is one way of describing the successful migration of technology from inside the lab to outside the lab, and not just the movement of IP from an academic entity to a corporate for-profit entity), and "a healthy list of spinoffs" which I'd argue is traditionally seen to be Successful Corporatization.

Is this the only way to help people transform their lives, communities and environments? Is fresh thinking allowed here? What are other models that might work, or might be worth investigating?

I mean, I may as well come out and say it: is it OK for the lab to explicitly and intentionally work on technology intended to address inequities in the distribution of capital and wealth?

If it were, what would a demo look like? Would the lab do it in practice? When the lab has tried to do something like this, like with something like OLPC, what did it get wrong that it would do differently? What would technology transfer for a goal like this look like? Is it even possible for the lab to continue as it is currently constituted to a model where research is put into a commons, or is technology transfer predicated, because of institutional and administrative reasons, on an expectation that it be profitable and produce a financial return for MIT?

And lastly, for this section at least, I have concerns about how the job description talks about creative freedom. I like to be annoying in my work by needling and asking "so that...?" What is the creative freedom for? What is allowed in the name of creative freedom? Did the former (current, as yet not significantly transformer?) culture justify directly soliciting Epstein's money and accommodating his visits in the aim of creative freedom? What are the actions and activities that creative freedom may not justify? There continue to be justifications that Epstein money was — and would continue to be — entirely appropriate because it’s how the system works. Any fresh thinking allowed here?

I have one main note about the section on Ideal Experience. The last bullet point here is that the ideal candidate “has prior experience in academia and would be considered for tenure at MIT.”

This job description was posted on 18 June, 2020.

I hope it is obvious that “would be considered for tenure at MIT” is pretty problematic given *exasperated gesture* what is happening outside and increased attention being paid to the experiences of people of color in academia.

If the ideal candidate “would be considered for tenure at MIT”, would it be reasonable to expect that absent any particular explicit statement *and actions* otherwise, that kind of defaults to a certain type of person? A white, middle/upper-middle class, professional academic? Who maybe comes from a family of academics? Or industry leaders? I hope I would be forgiven for suspecting so, given MIT’s ~4% African American members of faculty. I wonder how anyone who has not been considered for tenure at MIT and has the slightest suspicion that they worked harder for longer and overcame more obstacles and it still wasn’t enough because, I don’t know, they were too angry. Perhaps they couldn’t be poignant enough.

I mean, what if the last bullet had instead read “has prior experience in academia and may not traditionally have been considered for tenure at MIT”?

Would that ruffle too many feathers? Would hiring outside the pool of traditional academia be too much fresh thinking?

And, thinking about this a little bit more, for those who think that there is a pipeline problem in diversity, equity and inclusion in sectors like technology (and elsewhere, to be honest), you may want to start thinking about what happens when that improved pipeline dumps underrepresented people into the pool: are they supported? Are they mentored? And beyond those important and yet check-box-able actions, are they actually promoted? You can have a great pipeline, but, say, if they never end up getting tenure... Ah, there it is again.

So in that respect, a person specification like this talks very much about what sort of extraordinary person the institution requires for the role: a strong record of leading a research organization. Significant experience of financial management and fundraising. Leveraging an unusual platform. Marshaling resources through extraordinary storytelling. Cultivating independent thought. Advancing academic thought. Coalescing a faculty body.

That’s... a lot. Think about the kinds of people who have been afforded the opportunity to do that kind of work in their careers so far. Think about who gets promoted into those roles. Think about the kind of person who might be able to confidently (and successfully, more often than not, I bet) assert that they can do those things but cannot.

So if you want do want fresh thinking, if you do want someone who can offer an outsiders perspective, then what does the institution offer itself so that the selected candidate will be successful? What, or where, is the support? How does a team coalesce? Bluntly, how might a non-traditional hire not be professionally isolated and how would you prevent such a person from being politically hung out to dry?

If I may make a hopefully not hamfisted analogy to, say, technology projects/products/services, this sounds awfully like a procurement document for a major system replacement essentially saying “we want all the things that will make everything better” without changing anything about what we do, or making any commitments about what we do.

Later on, in the “Critical Competencies for Success” section, there’s a subsection on “Institutional Leadership”. This is what it says, broken up for readability and emphasis mine:

The Director will lead an organization whose culture is independent and thrives on autonomy, freedom, and, in some ways, a lack of traditional structure.

At the same time, the Lab has more recently focused significantly on issues regarding equity, inclusion, and greater collaboration across the Lab as a whole.

The Director will be expected to sustain and further develop these efforts.

Look. Again. This was posted on the 18th of June. I do not know what it’s like in Cambridge, Mass. right now, but I would hazard a guess that the racial experience there is not so much significantly different than the rest of America and in some respects may be worse, in the vein of polite racism and exclusion. This paragraph to me reads embarassingly tone deaf for something published and approved about a week ago as of me eventually hitting send on this.

I mean, I understand the desire to remain aloof and above it all the ivory tower, and yet if the tech industry is again grappling with the notion that *even the metaphorical intersection of technology and society is one that has benefited from redlining*, then forgive me for the expectation that MIT might exhibit more awareness of current events and the ability to read the room.

Or, to put it this way: if you’re a person of color in America right now—and, to be honest, even if you’re not in America—what does this minimization feel like?

A phrase like “At the same time, the Lab...” to me reads like a throwaway, an aside, a “well, of course we need to mention this in the institutional leadership part”. I mean yes, you do. How about saying something more substantive and meaningful?

I note that there is no explicit mention of diversity, equity and inclusion goals among the bullets listed in the Institutional Leadership section.

Look, don’t read this as cancelling the lab or whatever. This is not that. It is certainly angry — I keep getting angry and worked up every time I come back to attempt to edit it, but end up adding more words.

Read this, again, as someone who has looked up to the lab and many of the people there (still does!) and sees the potential in it and wishes for that potential to be available to more people. There are wicked, hard problems right now that we must solve together, and crucially, they do not have technocratic solutions. There is a genuine opportunity to be an institution leading and showing how society can be equitably involved in an accelerating technological future. I can imagine institutions like the Harvard Kennedy School bringing together government and technology to avert a further, insular, Apple/Google end-run around sovereign, democratic governments, but I see the Media Lab as having a critical ability to play a role in bringing the two disciplines together, too.

A director works from the top and, sure, operating within a venerable institution with an environment of dead weight, inertia and fear, but still an incredibly influential one. I try not to subscribe to any particular Great Man theory, but I feel it would be disingenuous to say that the *right team*, including the right kind of person, can create outsize change.

I look forward, etc, to seeing how the lab’s director search goes.

2.0 Some other things that caught, etc.

This story, about how “Using TaskRabiit and Venmo, a Silicon Valley Investor and his business partners had workers repackage non-medical KN95 masks... ...to sell to Texas emergency workers” is, well, just read what Cyd Harrell had to say about it below:

One thought I had about that thread, when someone jumped in, to helpfully say that disruption isn’t always bad, was that in 2020 I don’t think you should get to talk about disruption without showing you haven’t merely externalized an existing cost onto some other unlucky third party who now gets left holding the bag.

(TO BE CLEAR, the bag is actually probably things like a shorter lifespan, decreased earning power or wealth over their lifetime, and so on.)

Via Rachel Coldicutt, news from the Financial Times that the UK government intends to “buy [a] stake in collapsed satellite operator OneWeb”.

OneWeb is the latest version of the dream of a worldwide communications satellite fleet, only instead of being able to make a very expensive phone call from anywhere in the world (where, that said, you need line of sight to a satellite), you can see what sort of radicalizing content your social network of choice is “inadvertently” promoting to millions of users.

OneWeb went bust—ubiquitous internet via satellite is still in the early days, and still needs to prove what it’s good for over existing wireless data—and has 74 satellites up in orbit already, and the UK government’s decision is hard to pry apart from its ejection from the EU’s Galileo positioning satellite consortium. Rachel was interested in all possible extrapolations, which means I couldn’t resist a somewhat facetious and only-joking-but-maybe-not-really response. The serious part was: do the UK government really know what they’ve got here? The satellites are made in the US, they contract with Airbus (a European company!) and the UK doesn’t have sovereign access to space in the first place, so who is it going to buy launch space from in the first place? Did ESA/Arianespace have a mates-rates, er, rate for EU members? How confident is the UK government about the market for commercial internet access sustaining multiple entrants now that Mr. Mars is regularly spurting Starlinks into our skies?

More facetiously, I would hope that no-one in HMG has any sly ideas about running a financial platform on a bunch of orbiting nanoservers, Cummings in his OpenAI shirt pitching a New City of London fit for the 21st Century, a ring of glittering Britannia-Class satellites visible around the world in the night sky, “designed to ensure London’s financial dominance for generations to come”. I mean, wouldn’t it be awfully Brexit to pitch moving Britain from a has-been empire remembering its previous naval history to one with pretensions of a low-earth orbit financial empire. Just think of Jodrell Bank, given a fresh coat of paint and shrouded in a Union Jack, beaming BritCoin into space, or a BBC-style British Internet being beamed, nation-unto-nation to all those savage countries around the world.

I guess we’ve come a long way since Iridium.

Or not.

So, here’s a reckon on something a bit different:

One videogame/Apple thing that caught my attention this week: iOS 14 will bring support for keyboard and mouse controllers. It seems to me like this was Apple’s plan for gaming on the Mac all along. Gaming on the Mac was never going to take off - it just isn’t a viable market, so all you’re going to get is ports of other computer-class games and even then, Macs aren’t competitively performant in graphics. That latter point has been getting worse the last few years, too.

On the other hand, we all know how gangbusters iOS games have been going.

This move to Apple Silicon, though, and the sessions showing that all Apple Silicon Macs will have an Apple Silicon GPU (on the SOC, it appears?) with a unified memory architecture look a lot like videogame consoles not only on the hardware side but also on the tight-integration-with-software side. For the upcoming generation, the Xbox Series X is the one with the not-quite uniform memory architecture, with 10GB of faster RAM and 6GB of slower RAM.

In any event, games on Apple still aren’t going to take off in the way (note: I don’t say scale) that console or PC gaming has, or even Nintendo’s Switch— there’s still the issue of the lack of a standard, pack-in controller. But iOS 14’s keyboard/mouse support and improved controller support does make it easier to develop a game for one unified platform that’s more of an FPS or, more to my taste, a walking simulator.

Another way of saying this is: Intel Mac games were a dead end and Apple knew it.

Apple Silicon plus Metal support in the major game engines (er, Unreal, Unity) is a much more realistic approach. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple is able (whether accurately or not) to pitch its first generation of Apple Silicon Macs as the equivalent to PlayStation 5-class or Xbox Series X class.

I honestly have no idea how Apple’s laptop/desktop class GPUs will compare with discrete GPUs from AMD, NVIDIA or even Intel when Xe emerges into the world. Apple are behind (I mean, are they, though?) but when has this ever stopped Apple from getting there in the end? Perhaps the bigger question if you care about this sort of thing is what kind of performance-per-watt Apple is interested in for graphics.

Actually, one more thing while I’m thinking out loud about this. Apple’s overview of its new architecture is very explicit about their SoC including not just your regular CPU and GPU, but also bringing over the Neural Engine and Machine Learning Accelerators that already exist in their smartphone/tablet products. That’s in a way a bunch of stuff that your regular GPU might be used for that it won’t have to do. In any event, I guess this is kind of interesting, and I hope you’ll forgive me for being temporarily distracted by this while all the other Important Stuff is happening in the world.

OK, that’s it for this episode. I should probably try to leave it less time before the next one and also have the next one be a little shorter, hm?

Also, I’m currently looking for work. I wrote about this in a little bit more detail in s08e10, but the short version is this - if you have anything in these areas, even if you’re in a hiring freeze, I’d love to chat:

  • I’m looking for roles in senior product strategy and product management

  • games, especially massive-scale, internet native games, like Google Stadia (but not traditional AAA! Something more interesting than that!) and location-based games like Niantic’s Pokemon Go. I used to make alternate reality games, which given our current situation, combined with escape rooms and immersive theater, I have so many pitches for and this time, they actually come with revenue models.

  • product/strategy/creative roles in organizations like Apple, like for Apple Health and Watch or Arcade

  • health technology 

  • public interest and government technology 

If you know someone who knows someone, I’m always happy to be introduced, too. You can find me on LinkedIn and I have an obligatory about page

Well then. How are you? Are you hanging on? Some days that’s all we can hope to do.