Behind the Media Lab’s $250,000 Disobedience Award

Diverse and controversial opinions are “a hallmark of MIT,” says director of MIT Media Lab

The latest buzz around campus stems not from a startup or disruptive technology, but rather from principles more readily associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi than MIT students.

The topic of civil disobedience has sparked conversation in pockets around MIT, and was recently brought into the spotlight by last week’s launch of the Media Lab’s Disobedience Award. The $250,000 award will go to an individual or group, anywhere in the world, that is engaging in “extraordinary disobedience for the benefit of society,” according to the Media Lab.

Joi Ito, the director of the Media Lab who helped conceive the award, sees it as a way to support and encourage those furthering society even when laws get in the way.

Launching the award from the Media Lab, however, raises the issue of what disobedience has to do with the Media Lab and the broader MIT community.

In Ito’s view, MIT is a place ripe for thoughtful disagreement, where creativity and controversial ideas are welcomed.

“We have everyone from Noam Chomsky to Richard Stallman, and I think that’s kind of a hallmark of MIT — to be able to have all these people with diverse and somewhat controversial opinions,” Ito said.

In addition to the award, a number of new initiatives that relate to civil disobedience have popped up across campus . Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, said he is seeing more political activity on campus than there was two years ago.

Zuckerman helped start the Disobedience Award with Ito and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, who serves on the Advisory Council of the Media Lab.

Zuckerman emphasized that the award was not a reaction to President Donald Trump’s election, but rather a “reaction to a moment in time when a lot of people are questioning institutions.” He views it as a 10-year political moment.

MIT students are taking notice. This past IAP, students self-ran a new course called “Activism, Organizing, and Social Movements.” Over 200 people signed up.

The Media Lab has run its own events to raise awareness around disobedience. Last July, it hosted a Forbidden Research symposium, where the idea for the Disobedience Award was first announced.

MIT law clinics, which began in 2015 through a collaboration with Boston University, help students navigate the legal waters. This includes responding to objections from private or public institutions, such as cease-and-desist letters. The clinics were originally developed to fulfill a need for legal resources that had been missing when the MIT students and founders of a bitcoin-mining project were subpoenaed in 2014 by New Jersey’s attorney general.

Students have also participated in more direct forms of activism. Since the November election, students in the groups MIT Resist and Solidarity MIT have been involved with protests in Washington, D.C., a solidarity rally on Killian Court, and an “MIT Values” statement that garnered over 1,800 signatures from the community.

Ito and Zuckerman both see the Media Lab’s award as part of this longer journey. Ito believes it’s important to follow guiding principles when resisting, but realizes that not everyone sees it the same way.

“I was talking to some kids at MIT, who were saying, you know, ‘well those kind of non-violent protests don’t work anymore, and those Gandhi days are over,’” Ito observed. He also saw younger people “doing reckless things and violent things.”

Ito believes it is important “to be disobedient in appropriate ways,” and in a non-violent and responsible manner.

Ito is known to defy norms himself. He dropped out of college — twice. When he was appointed to director of the Media Lab in 2011, The New York Times called it “an unusual choice.”

In 2001, he engaged in his own acts of disobedience as he rallied against a proposed national ID system in Japan. Ito, who was born in Japan, considered the system “stupidly bad for security and privacy.”

“I protested it,” he said. “I got a bunch of people together, and I started marching on the streets, and with megaphones, and went on TV and called the Minister of Information a liar ... I felt very passionate that it was wrong.”

Although Ito and the other protestors lost the fight — Japan began using the 11-digit identification numbers in 2002 — it spurred in Ito an interest of cultures where people have permission to question.

Now in an academic setting, Ito hopes to instill those same principles. He acknowledged that with funding and politics, academic freedom can be difficult to come by. However, he tries to support researchers in the Media Lab both financially and institutionally to take such risks.

The Media Lab is also no stranger to confronting the law. “We run up against certain laws, like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or the Anti-Circumvention provision of the DMCA,” Ito said, “and they often prevent us from hacking things for legitimate reasons, for security reasons.”

Through the award, Ito wants to demonstrate to the younger generation how civil disobedience can be effective and the responsibility that comes with it.

“Part of this is also to try to find a modern person or a group of people doing disobedience in an effective but very principled and creative way so that we can amplify that,” Ito said.

Some students have already caught on. Tse Yang Lim, a Ph.D. student at the Sloan School of Management, sees the need for civil disobedience as “greater than ever.”

Lim was involved in Fossil Free MIT before he became involved in post-election activism. A year ago, Fossil Free organized a 116-day sit-in outside President Reif’s office, one of the longest fossil fuel divestment sit-ins in the country.

After Lim joined Solidarity MIT following the November election, he helped start the Solidarity Pledge as a way to inspire long-term political engagement.

Lim praised the Disobedience Award for bringing attention to a cause he finds important. “If enacting a more just world requires disobeying certain unjust applications of the laws — and my expectation is that such unjust applications of law are on the rise — then it's up to us to do that.”

Lim is helping organize the upcoming MIT Day of Engagement Apr. 18. The organizers of the event plan to dedicate a portion of it to civil disobedience and connect it to the Media Lab’s award.

However, Sarah Schwettmann, a Ph.D. student in Course 9 who is involved with MIT Resist, was more hesitant about the award and its ability to truly question the status quo. She referenced Aaron Swartz and Star Simpson, two people who previously had encounters with the law, and who some people believe could have been supported by MIT more.

"There exists a fundamental conflict of interest between institutions whose authority depends on existing power structures and individuals who challenge them,” Schwettmann said.

Ito and Zuckerman recognize the limitations of an institution granting an award to someone who may fall outside its community. They will try to consider many types of disobedience, however. In preparing the award, they worked with the dean of the Harvard Law School, Martha Minow, and the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Prize, Malala Yousafzai.

Even so, there are people whom this award will never be able to reach. As Ito puts it, “there’s probably a whole bunch of people who winning an award like this could be the last thing they want.”

Yet the award is just a part of a longer journey on which Ito and the Media Lab are embarking. Through classes, workshops, and talks, people at MIT are finding new ways to promote responsible disobedience.

For some, choosing to be disobedient when society falls short is not a choice. “Every one of us has a responsibility to collectively enact the society we want to see,” Lim said. “Denying said responsibility does not absolve you from it — inaction is acquiescence.”

The winner of the award will be announced July 21.  

Update 03/16/17: A previous version of this article incorrectly dated the Forbidden Research symposium. The symposium took place last July, not last April.