The MIT-Epstein debacle shows the prostitution of intellectual activity. Time for a radical agenda: close the Media Lab, disband Ted Talks and refuse tech billionaires money
As the world wakes up to the power of big tech, we get to hear belatedly of all the damage wrought by the digital giants. Most of these debates, alas, dont veer too far from the policy-oriented realms of economics or law. Now that the big technocracy wants to quash big tech, expect more such wonkery.
What, however, about the ideas that feed big tech? For one, we are no longer in 2009: Mark Zuckerbergs sophomoric musings on transparency or the global village impress very few.
And yet, for all the growing skepticism about Silicon Valley, many still believe that the digital revolution has a serious intellectual dimension, hashed out at conferences like Ted, online salons like Edge.org, publications like Wired, and institutions like the MIT Media Lab. The ideas of the digerati might be wrong, they might be overly utopian, but, at least, they are sincere.
The Epstein scandal including the latest revelation that Epstein might have channeled up to $8m (some of it, apparently, on behalf of Bill Gates) to the MIT Media Lab, while its executives were fully aware of his problematic background has cast the digerati in a very different light. It has already led to the resignation of the labs director, Joi Ito.
This, however, is not only a story of individuals gone rogue. The ugly collective picture of the techno-elites that emerges from the Epstein scandal reveals them as a bunch of morally bankrupt opportunists. To treat their ideas as genuine but wrong is too generous; the only genuine thing about them is their fakeness. Big tech and its apologists do produce the big thoughts alas, mostly accidental byproducts of them chasing the big bucks.
It wasnt meant to be that way. Back in 1991, John Brockman the worlds most successful digital impresario, and, until recently, my literary agent was touting the emergence of the third culture that would finally replace the technophobic literary intellectuals with those coming from the world of science and technology. The emergence of the third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the pre-eminence of America in the realm of important ideas, wrote Brockman in a much-discussed essay.
Brockman, who would later connect Epstein to dozens of world-famous scientists, most of them his clients, made it seem as if it were people like him who built this third culture out of their perceptive genius. The cardinal error of such analysis, however, lies in its tendency to mistake structural transformations of global capitalism for zeitgeisty trends in the history of ideas.
Thus, Brockmans new modes of intellectual discourse were mostly the result of technology companies moving away from large and soulless cold war military contracts and on to the world of funky personal computing. Apple, with Steve Jobs as its chief countercultural evangelist, needed the consumerist mysticism of the third culture; IBM and Hewlett-Packard, stuck in the 1950s mentality, did not. Likewise, the pre-eminence of America in the realm of important ideas was, above all, the outcome of its dominance in the economic and military realms, weakening the efforts of other countries to create their own vibrant alternatives to Hollywood or Silicon Valley.
There was no better original exponent of the third culture than Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab and a new kind of applied intellectual, full of big ideas on technical subjects. The lab was ahead of its time in understanding that the industry and the government alike needed cooler, more interactive technology that was not provided by the traditional cold war contractors.
Everything else followed suit. Thus, Negroponte became a speaker at the very first Technology, Entertainment, Design conference (the famous Ted Talks) in 1984, which, a few decades later, emerged as the pre-eminent promoter of the third culture: no politics, no conflict, no ideology just science, technology, and pragmatic problem-solving. Ideas as a service, neatly packaged in 18-minute intellectual snacks.
Original Article : HERE ;
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