Welp, looks like capitalism broke another scholar


It’s a tragedy, but increasingly common. Evgeny Morozov rages against the culture that fostered Epstein, Ito, and the association of science and money.

Is it so surprising, then, that when a colleague cautioned Ito against meeting Epstein – who used to list his interests as “science and pussy” – Ito described him as “really fascinating”? Brockman, for all his realism about low intellectual standards of the tech community, also couldn’t resist Epstein’s charms, describing him, in an email to me, as “extremely bright and interesting”.

If the “third culture” is so much more sophisticated than its predecessors, how come most of its card-carrying members – famed scientists-cum-brands, courtesy of the Brockman empire – got caught up in the Epstein mess? It’s not uncommon for intellectuals to serve as useful idiots to the rich and the powerful, but, under the “third culture”, this reads like a job requirement.

Are the costs of living with this culture – eg the prostitution of intellectual activity at “billionaire dinners”– worth it? And can we still trust what the leading intellectuals of the “third culture” actually have to say, given, also, what they have to sell?

The answers to these questions are self-evident. And yet, while it’s easy to attack the rotten apples such as Ito or Negroponte, a more radical transformative agenda should ask for more: close the Media Lab, disband the Ted Talks, refuse the money of tech billionaires, boycott agents like Brockman. Without such drastic changes, the powerful bullshit-industrial complex that is the “third culture” will continue unharmed, giving cover to the next Epstein.

It’s time to get radical, I agree. But shutting down the old avenues of support is pointless without alternatives. Science ought to be maintained by government support, and you ought to mistrust the bilge that relies on a billionaire’s largesse…especially when that billionaire doesn’t read about or care about science, except for the prestige it grants them. Of course, how do I explain to my university administration that I’m rejecting a million dollar grant because I think the donor is a parasite? (Note: Purely hypothetical. No million dollar offers are knocking at my door.) The people who benefit most from these cash prizes are the donors, who get to pretend to be contributors to science when all they’ve done is successfully undermined egalitarian mechanisms for promoting good science. Like these people:

One of Brockman’s persistent laments was that all the billionaire techies in his circle barely read any of the books published by his clients. Not surprisingly, his famed literary dinners – held during the Ted Conference, they allowed Epstein (who kept Brockman’s Edge Foundation on a retainer) to mingle with scientists and fellow billionaires – were mostly empty of serious content.

As Brockman himself put it after one such dinner in 2004, “last year we tried ‘The Science Dinner’. Everyone yawned. So this year, it’s back to the money-sex-power thing with ‘The Billionaires’ Dinner’.” Was “the money-sex-power thing” that very potent “new mode of intellectual discourse” promised by the “third culture”? If so, we’d rather pass.

Also…TED talks are terrible. One in a few hundred might be informative, but most are exercises in formulaic hype.

Comments

  1. brucej says

    Shutting this all down because a wealthy pedophile and criminal used it is akin to demolishing the banking and investment system because Bernie Madhoff was able to run a decades-lopng Ponzi schem in it. Eliminating money because a counterfeiter was successful somewhere.

    The problem wasn’t that the Techbro Billionaires ‘bullshit-industrial complex’ gave cover to Epstein’s donations, it’s that so many people over decades gave cover to Epstein’s crimes.

  2. wzrd1 says

    @1, what should really bake your noodle is, how many were offending right alongside of him, hence their willingness to give cover?

    @PZ, “Also…TED talks are terrible. One in a few hundred might be informative, but most are exercises in formulaic hype.”
    I concur. Far too many sounded exactly like the dot bomb boom pitches, vapor and promises, no substance and product, which is why it imploded.

  3. PaulBC says

    All I know is that nobody’s invited me to any of this crap. I work for a living (sort of, I mean I get paid well and don’t hate it). I used to think I had some idea of what is going on in “elite” academic culture. I have a PhD from a well known university and proximity to Silicon Valley billionaires. But I’m a schlub and OK with it. I wonder how much of the corruption has less to do with money and more to do with people’s egos getting stroked.

  4. sarah00 says

    A friend of Ito who signed that awful petition has decided that the hole they’ve dug isn’t deep enough, so they wrote an incredible piece of apologia. It wasn’t his fault, Ito thought Epstein was reformed! It wasn’t his fault, it was the system of allowing private donations in exchange for access and prestige that made him do it!

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that the author says he ignored his emotions when advising Ito. We’ve somehow come to think that emotions are only there to get in the way of our rationality and that facts and logic should rule the day. Which is how we end up with people defending Epstein because ‘they never saw him do anything inappropriate with girls so therefore nothing could have happened’. I doubt they ever saw Epstein take a shit either but that doesn’t mean he didn’t excrete solid waste like everyone else. Ito knew he shouldn’t take the money, he knew it was a bad idea, an immoral thing to do, but he decided that he could rationalise it by saying that Epstein was reformed (all the while continuing to surround himself with young women) and that he could do good things with the money. He ignored his emotions that said it was wrong and convinced himself that the rational thing to do was to take the money, and look where it’s got him. And now friends are tarnishing their reputations in a misplaced effort to minimise the extent of his moral failings.

  5. monad says

    Science ought to be maintained by government support, as it is in democratic countries…whereas in the USA now, that gives you things like loss of funding for anything that seems remotely environmental and NOAA lying about disaster information to support the president’s current whim.

    That’s not to say it should be funded by billionaires instead; far from it. It’s pessimistically wondering how much difference there will be in a few years.

  6. consciousness razor says

    It’s time to get radical, I agree. But shutting down the old avenues of support is pointless without alternatives. Science ought to be maintained by government support, and you ought to mistrust the bilge that relies on a billionaire’s largesse…especially when that billionaire doesn’t read about or care about science, except for the prestige it grants them.

    Slow down there…. First, you’re assuming it’s all “science” and that it’s stuff that really needs to be supported. The thing is, I don’t think we need alternative funding sources for “food computers” and the like. (If you ask about what’s “pointless,” I think that fits.)
    So, maybe this funding doesn’t all need to be substituted one way or another. Will you always be sad to see it go? I doubt it, because a lot of is definitely crap (some of it you’ve complained about before). Maybe what you’re seeing are signs of certain groups having far too much, behaving like typical wealthy/privileged people who don’t have anything especially good to do with it all. But yes, they sure do love hoarding whatever they’ve got, and they at least act as if they can’t imagine life without it.
    That leads me to the next thought…. You might try asking a bunch of non-scientist academics about what life is like. I don’t think that’s radical, although what you hear may be pretty shocking. So why not put a kind of redistribution on the table, at least to some degree, while we’re still brainstorming about things that might help to fix the culture?

  7. archangelospumoni says

    Along with this particular scoundrel, please also be mindful of the filthy Heartland Institute. Filthy, nasty, putrid, stinky. Everything they touch or do is filthy and every single person affiliated is filthy.

  8. DanDare says

    Progressive taxation at higher levels. 70% tax on earnings p.a. over $1m. Then the government can fund more science. Then have the allocation choice guided by panels of scientists, not political hacks.

  9. F.O. says

    It’s time to get radical, I agree. […] Science ought to be maintained by government support, and you ought to mistrust the bilge that relies on a billionaire’s largesse…

    As long as you have billionaires, you will have this.
    A just society cannot exist as long as it allows few individuals to have that kind of power.

  10. DLC says

    Some of the things Billionaires are supposed to do is fund scientific research, endow university chairs and set up charitable trusts. Yes, some of those Billionaires are going to be Assholes like Henry Ford. Some of them may even be using their backing of scientific endeavors to cover their nefarious deeds. But was Epstein actually buying air cover for himself, or is his money just so badly tainted that anyone connected with him is being considered guilty by association ?

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