The MIT Media Lab controversy and getting back to ‘radical courage’, with Media Lab student Arwa Mboya – gpgmail


People win prestigious prizes in tech all the time, but there is something different about The Bold Prize. Unless you’ve been living under a literal or proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard something about the late Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious child molester and human trafficker who also happened to be a billionaire philanthropist and managed to become a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science and tech circles.

And if you’re involved in tech, the rock you’ve been living under would have had to be fully insulated from the internet to avoid reading about Epstein’s connections with MIT’s Media Lab, a leading destination for the world’s most brilliant technological minds, also known as “the future factory.” 

This past week, conversations around the Media Lab were hotter than the fuel rods at Fukushima, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, perhaps the most feared and famous investigative journalist in America today, blasted out what for some were new revelations that Bill Gates, among others, had given millions of dollars to the Media Lab at Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you very much!) Epstein’s behest. Hours after Farrow’s piece was published, Joi Ito, the legendary but now embattled Media Lab director, resigned.

But well before before Farrow weighed in or Ito stepped away, students, faculty, and other leaders at MIT and far beyond were already on full alert about this story, thanks in large part to Arwa Michelle Mboya, a graduate student at the Media Lab, from Kenya by way of college at Yale, where she studied economics and filmmaking and learned to create virtual reality. Mboya, 25, was among the first public voices (arguably the very first) to forcefully and thoughtfully call on Ito to step down from his position.

Imagine: you’re heading into the second year of your first graduate degree, and you find yourself taking on a man who, when Barack Obama took over Wired magazine for an issue as guest editor, was one of just a couple of people the then sitting President of the United States asked to personally interview. And imagine that man was the director of your graduate program, and the reason you decided to study in it in the first place.

Imagine the pressure involved, the courage required. And imagine, soon thereafter, being completely vindicated and celebrated for your actions. 

Arwa Mboya. Image via MIT Media Lab

That is precisely the journey that Arwa Mboya has been on these past few weeks, including when human rights technologist Sabrina Hersi Issa decided to crowd-fund the Bold Prize to honor Mboya’s courage, which has now brought in over $10,000 to support her ongoing work (full disclosure: I am among the over 120 contributors to the prize).

Mboya’s advocacy was never about Joi Ito personally. If you get to know her through the interview below, in fact, you’ll see she doesn’t wish him ill.

As she wrote in MIT’s The Tech nine days before Farrow’s essay and ten before Ito’s resignation, “This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women.”

From the moment I read it, I thought this was a beautiful and truly bold statement by a student leader who is an inspiring example of the extraordinary caliber of student that the Media Lab draws.

But in getting to know her a bit since reading it, I’ve learned that her message is also about even more. It’s about the fact that the women and men who called for a new direction in light of Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses and other leaders’ complicity did so in pursuit of their own inspiring dreams for a better world.

Arwa, as you’ll see below, spoke out at MIT because of her passion to use tech to inspire radical imagination among potentially millions of African youth. As she discusses both the Media Lab and her broader vision, I believe she’s already beginning to provide that inspiration. 

Greg Epstein: You have had a few of the most dramatic weeks of any student I’ve met in 15 years as a chaplain at two universities. How are you doing right now?

Arwa Mboya: I’m actually pretty good. I’m not saying that for the sake of saying. I have a great support network. I’m in a lab where everyone is amazing. I’m very tired, I’ll say that. I’ve been traveling a lot and dealing with this while still trying to focus on writing a thesis. If anything, it’s more like overwhelmed and exhausted as opposed to not doing well in and of itself.

Epstein: Looking at your writing — you’ve got a great Medium blog that you started long before MIT and maintained while you’ve been here — it struck me that in speaking your mind and heart about this Media Lab issue, you’ve done exactly what you set out to do when you came here. You set out to be brave, to live life, as the Helen Keller quote on your website says, as either a great adventure or nothing. 

Also, when you came to the Media Lab, you were the best-case scenario for anyone who works on publicizing this place. You spoke and wrote about the Lab as your absolute dream. When you were in Africa, or Australia, or at Yale, how did you come to see this as the best place in the world for you to express the creative and civic dreams that you had?

Mboya: That’s a good question — what drew me here? The Media Lab is amazing. I read Whiplash, which is Joi Ito’s book about the nine principles of the Media Lab, and it really resonated with me. It was a place for misfits. It was a place for people who are curious and who just want to explore and experiment and mix different fields, which is exactly what I’ve been doing before.

From high school, I was very narrow in my focus; at Yale I did Econ and film, so that had a little more edge. After I graduated I insisted on not taking a more conventional path many students from Yale take, so [I] moved back to Kenya and worked on many different projects, got into adventure sports, got into travel more.

Epstein: Your website is full of pictures of you flipping over, skydiving, gymnastics — things that require both strength and courage. 

Mboya: I’d always been an athlete, loved the outdoors.

I remember being in Vietnam; I’d never done a backflip. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to do this.” But it’s really scary jumping backwards; the fear. Is, you can’t see where you’re going. I remember telling myself, ” Okay, just jump over the fear. Just shut it off and do it. Your body will follow.” I did and I was like, “Oh, that was easy.” It’s not complicated. Most people could do it if they just said, “Okay, I’ll jump.”

It really stuck with me. A lot of decisions I’ve [since] made, that I’m scared of, I think, “Okay, just jump, and your body will follow.” The Media Lab was like that as well.

I really wanted to go there, I just didn’t think there was a place for me. It was like, I’m not techie enough, I’m not anything enough. Applying was, ’just jump,’ you never know what will happen.

image 4

Image from Arwa Mboya

Epstein: Back when you were applying, you wrote about experiencing what applicants to elite schools often call “imposter syndrome.” This is where I want to be, but will they want me?

Mboya: Exactly.




10 minutes mail – Also known by names like : 10minemail, 10minutemail, 10mins email, mail 10 minutes, 10 minute e-mail, 10min mail, 10minute email or 10 minute temporary email. 10 minute email address is a disposable temporary email that self-destructed after a 10 minutes. https://tempemail.co/– is most advanced throwaway email service that helps you avoid spam and stay safe. Try tempemail and you can view content, post comments or download something

How the Valley can get philanthropy right with former Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest – gpgmail


Paul Brest didn’t set out to transform philanthropy. A constitutional law scholar who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Harlan and is credited with coining the term “originalism,” Brest spent twelve years as dean of Stanford Law School.

But when he was named president of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the country’s largest large non-profit funders, Brest applied the rigor of a legal scholar not just to his own institution’s practices but to those of the philanthropy field at large. He hired experts to study the practice of philanthropy and helped to launch Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, where he still teaches.

Now, Brest has turned his attention to advising Silicon Valley’s next generation of donors.

From Stanford to the Hewlett Foundation

Photo by David Madison / Getty Images

Scott Bade: Your background is in constitutional law. How did you make the shift from being dean at Stanford to running the Hewlett Foundation as president?

Paul Brest: I came into the Hewlett Foundation largely by accident. I really didn’t know anything about philanthropy, but I had been teaching courses on problem-solving and decision making. I think I got the job because a number of people on the board knew me, both from Stanford Law School, but also from playing chamber music with Walter and Esther Hewlett.

Bade: When was this?

Brest: I started there in 2000. Bill Hewlett died the year after I came. Walter Hewlett, Bill’s son, was chair of the board during the entire time I was president. But it’s not a family foundation.

Bade: What were your initial impressions of the foundation and the broader philanthropic space?

Brest: Not having come from the non-profit sector, it took me a year or so to really understand what it [meant] to use our assets in each area in a strategic way.  The [Hewlett] Foundation had very good values in terms of the areas it was supporting — the environment, education, population, women’s reproductive rights. It had good philanthropic practices, but it was not very strategically focused. It turned out that not very many foundations were strategic.

Paul’s framework for thinking about philanthropy

Paul informal photo

Photo provided by Paul Brest

Bade: What do you mean by ‘strategic’?

Brest: What I mean [by] strategic is having clear goals and having an evidence-based, evidence-informed strategy for achieving them. Big foundations tend to be conglomerates with different programs trying to achieve different goals.

[Being strategic means] monitoring progress as you work towards those goals. Then evaluating in advance whether the strategy is going to be plausible and then whether you’re actually achieving the outcomes you’re trying to achieve so that you can make course corrections if you’re not achieving.

[For example,] the likelihood that the roughly billionaire dollars or more that have been spent or committed to climate advocacy are going to have any effect is quite low. The place where metrics comes in is just having kind of an expected return mindset where yes, the chances of success are low, but we know that the importance of success — or putting it differently, the effects of failure — are going to be catastrophic.

What a strategic mindset does here is say: it’s worth taking huge bets even where the margins of error of the likelihood of success are very hard to measure when the results are huge.

I don’t want to say the [Hewlett] Foundation was anti-strategic, or totally unstrategic, but it really had not developed a [this kind of] systematic framework for doing those things.

Bade: You’re known in the philanthropic community for putting an emphasis on defining, achieving, measuring impact. Have those sort of technocratic practices made philanthropy better?

Brest: I think you have to start by asking, what would it mean for philanthropy to be good? From my point of view, philanthropy is good when I like the goals it chooses. Then, given a good goal, when it is effective in achieving that goal. Strategy really has nothing to say about what the goals are, but only how effective it is.

My guess is that 90 plus percent of philanthropy is intended to achieve goals that most of us think are good goals. There are occasions when you have direct conflicts of goals as you do with say the anti-abortion and the choice movements, or gun control and the NRA. Those are important arguments.

But most philanthropy is trying to improve education or improve the lives of the poor. My view is that philanthropy is good when it is effective in achieving those goals, and trying to do no harm in the process.

Current debates on philanthropy


10 minutes mail – Also known by names like : 10minemail, 10minutemail, 10mins email, mail 10 minutes, 10 minute e-mail, 10min mail, 10minute email or 10 minute temporary email. 10 minute email address is a disposable temporary email that self-destructed after a 10 minutes. https://tempemail.co/– is most advanced throwaway email service that helps you avoid spam and stay safe. Try tempemail and you can view content, post comments or download something

Why AI needs more social workers, with Columbia University’s Desmond Patton – gpgmail


Sometimes it does seem the entire tech industry could use someone to talk to, like a good therapist or social worker. That might sound like an insult, but I mean it mostly earnestly: I am a chaplain who has spent 15 years talking with students, faculty, and other leaders at Harvard (and more recently MIT as well), mostly nonreligious and skeptical people like me, about their struggles to figure out what it means to build a meaningful career and a satisfying life, in a world full of insecurity, instability, and divisiveness of every kind.

In related news, I recently took a year-long paid sabbatical from my work at Harvard and MIT, to spend 2019-20 investigating the ethics of technology and business (including by writing this column at gpgmail). I doubt it will shock you to hear I’ve encountered a lot of amoral behavior in tech, thus far.

A less expected and perhaps more profound finding, however, has been what the introspective founder Prayag Narula of LeadGenius tweeted at me recently: that behind the hubris and Machiavellianism one can find in tech companies is a constant struggle with anxiety and an abiding feeling of inadequacy among tech leaders.

In tech, just like at places like Harvard and MIT, people are stressed. They’re hurting, whether or not they even realize it.

So when Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society recently posted an article whose headline began, “Why AI Needs Social Workers…”… it caught my eye.

The article, it turns out, was written by Columbia University Professor Desmond Patton. Patton is a Public Interest Technologist and pioneer in the use of social media and artificial intelligence in the study of gun violence. The founding Director of Columbia’s SAFElab and Associate Professor of Social Work, Sociology and Data Science at Columbia University.

desmond cropped 800x800

Desmond Patton. Image via Desmond Patton / Stern Strategy Group

A trained social worker and decorated social work scholar, Patton has also become a big name in AI circles in recent years. If Big Tech ever decided to hire a Chief Social Work Officer, he’d be a sought-after candidate.

It further turns out that Patton’s expertise — in online violence & its relationship to violent acts in the real world — has been all too “hot” a topic this past week, with mass murderers in both El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio having been deeply immersed in online worlds of hatred which seemingly helped lead to their violent acts.

Fortunately, we have Patton to help us understand all of these issues. Here is my conversation with him: on violence and trauma in tech on and offline, and how social workers could help; on deadly hip-hop beefs and “Internet Banging” (a term Patton coined); hiring formerly gang-involved youth as “domain experts” to improve AI; how to think about the likely growing phenomenon of white supremacists live-streaming barbaric acts; and on the economics of inclusion across tech.

Greg Epstein: How did you end up working in both social work and tech?

Desmond Patton: At the heart of my work is an interest in root causes of community-based violence, so I’ve always identified as a social worker that does violence-based research. [At the University of Chicago] my dissertation focused on how young African American men navigated violence in their community on the west side of the city while remaining active in their school environment.

[From that work] I learned more about the role of social media in their lives. This was around 2011, 2012, and one of the things that kept coming through in interviews with these young men was how social media was an important tool for navigating both safe and unsafe locations, but also an environment that allowed them to project a multitude of selves. To be a school self, to be a community self, to be who they really wanted to be, to try out new identities.


10 minutes mail – Also known by names like : 10minemail, 10minutemail, 10mins email, mail 10 minutes, 10 minute e-mail, 10min mail, 10minute email or 10 minute temporary email. 10 minute email address is a disposable temporary email that self-destructed after a 10 minutes. https://tempemail.co/– is most advanced throwaway email service that helps you avoid spam and stay safe. Try tempemail and you can view content, post comments or download something

The Pill Club is donating 5,000 units of emergency contraception – gpgmail


Eleven million women in the U.S. live more than an hour from an abortion clinic, a number expected to increase as facilities close up shop following new restrictions on women’s healthcare in several states.

Planned Parenthood and other leading nonprofits continue to put up a good fight while private “mission-driven” companies in the burgeoning women’s health tech sector are all talk and little action. But a new effort from The Pill Club, an Alphabet-backed birth control and prescription delivery startup, may lead to change in the nascent sector.

The Pill Club has partnered with Power To Decide, a nonprofit campaign to prevent unplanned pregnancies, to dole out free emergency contraception to women in need. Together they’ll distribute 5,000 units of a generic form of Plan B, a pill taken after sex to stop a pregnancy before it starts. For the next three months The Pill Club will also match all donations up to $10,000 made to Power To Decide’s Contraceptive Access Fund, which helps low-income women access contraception. Anyone can sign up now to receive free units.

The Pill Club’s decision to share resources with a nonprofit comes as several states this year have imposed new laws restricting or outlawing abortion procedures. Alabama, for example, earlier this year passed a Senate bill banning abortion in the state. Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky and others have also OK’d new restrictions on abortion.

This is The Pill Club’s first effort to donate emergency contraception to populations in need, as well as its first partnership with a not-for-profit entity. Co-founder and chief executive officer Nick Chang says the startup thought long and hard about how it could be most helpful to women in this political climate.

“We thought, what can we do to support women in these states in ways that other companies may not be able to?,” Chang tells gpgmail. “This is the moment where private companies can really go out and benefit women in ways that may not be supported in other avenues. Since we have the means and ability to do it in ways that are more convenient and private, it’s our opportunity to drive access and support.”

Founded in 2014 and backed with more than $60 million in venture capital funding, one might argue The Pill Club should have forged partnerships like this from the get-go. Curious what efforts other well-funded birth control startups were making to support women in 2019, especially women in contraceptive deserts who are likely unfamiliar with the new line of consumer birth control brands, I reached out to The Pill Club’s competitors Nurx, a fellow birth control delivery company, and Hers, a line of women’s healthcare products owned by the billion-dollar startup Hims.

Both companies emphasized the fact that many of their customers live in Southern states, or the region most impacted by new limitations to abortion care, but didn’t mention any new efforts to increase access, like partnerships with nonprofits or donations. Hers provided this quote from the company’s co-founder Hilary Coles, which didn’t answer my question but did make clear the company is thinking about serving contraceptive deserts:

“At Hers, our mission is to provide women with more convenient and affordable access to the healthcare system,” Hers co-founders Hilary Coles said in a statement. “Approximately 3.5 million patients go without care because they cannot access transportation to their providers and 19.5 million women have reported not having access to a clinic that provides birth control specifically. That’s simply unacceptable. Closing the gaps caused by geographic barriers between patients and their doctors was one of the primary challenges we set out to address when founding Hers. We’re proud to be a resource for women nationwide, including those who live in contraceptive deserts who may not otherwise have access to the care they need. It’s crucial to Hers to be part of the solution in alleviating the pain points women experience within the healthcare system.” 

It’s not the responsibility of these companies to improve the political landscape of the U.S., but with $340 million in private capital shared between them, the trio does have a unique opportunity to innovate, share, collaborate and influence. After all, that’s what’s so great about healthtech; it brings new, innovative solutions to an industry characterized by antiquated systems and slow movers. For once, Silicon Valley’s “move fast and break things” mantra may be appropriately applied to a facet of healthcare. Women need sustained access to contraception and abortion care. Fast.

“This is the time when private companies can step in,” Chang concluded. “We can come in and help out and it’s our responsibility to do that.”


10 minutes mail – Also known by names like : 10minemail, 10minutemail, 10mins email, mail 10 minutes, 10 minute e-mail, 10min mail, 10minute email or 10 minute temporary email. 10 minute email address is a disposable temporary email that self-destructed after a 10 minutes. https://tempemail.co/– is most advanced throwaway email service that helps you avoid spam and stay safe. Try tempemail and you can view content, post comments or download something