There were some raised eyebrows when Joichi Ito was named as the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab in April last year.
The famous lab, set up by professor Nicholas Negroponte within MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning in 1985, has a reputation as one of the most daring and productive high tech research institutes in the world, producing a wide variety of practical technologies ranging from the e-ink electronic paper in e-book readers to the MindStorms construction kit for Lego.
While extremely well known in Internet circles, Ito was aged just 44 and his resume recorded that he was a dropout from two American universities. He was perhaps best known as a venture capitalist.
On Jan. 17, less than a year into his tenure, Ito and Negroponte talked to an audience of around 300 people at the MIT Media Lab @ Tokyo event in the Dentsu Building in Tokyo about the appointment, the future of the lab and the new ways of thinking and living that today’s new technologies are encouraging.
Negroponte said there were orthodox academics among the more than 250 candidates for the director’s job, but that none had Ito’s “spark.”
Born in Kyoto, Ito moved between Japan and the United States from his childhood and began using the Net in the 1980s while at high school. He spends two-thirds of the year traveling the globe and says he has racked up about 700,000 kilometers in the air. While maintaining residences in Japan and Boston, he upped sticks in 2008 to emigrate to Dubai.
In 2008, U.S. magazine Businessweek named him "one of the 25 most influential people on the Web" and last November another American publication, Foreign Policy, named him one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers for "navigating the future of global media."
His job descriptions include: investor; co-founder of Digital Garage; chairman of the Creative Commons, an international organization promoting the use of open copyrights in more than 70 countries; adviser to Safecast, a project to publicize radiation measurements from nuclear accidents. He has even found time to become a Guild Master in the World of Warcraft online game.
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the former Science Council of Japan chairman who is heading the independent investigative commission set up by the Diet into the Fukushima disaster, serves as an academic fellow at the Media Lab.
He describes Ito as the sort of "crazy one” global research institutes want.
Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, the chairman of Kadokawa Group Holdings and another academic fellow at the lab, part of a significant Japanese contingent that also includes Media Lab associate director Hiroshi Ishii, says: "We need to make it so that we can take advantage of having a Japanese person at the helm (of the Media Lab), so that Japan doesn't lag behind in the 21st century."
Ito himself describes his role as being "connector," who employs the Net to cross borders and connect the world. Excerpts from an interview with Ito follow.
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Question: Your appointment to head the Media Lab has received enormous coverage in the U.S. and foreign media.
Ito: Sometimes I wonder myself why they chose me. The Media Lab is a place with an amazingly diverse body of teachers and students. I think a big reason is that because of my diverse interests, contacts and experiences and my understanding of Silicon Valley, business ventures and large companies, I have something to talk about with everyone there and I can guide them as a group.
Q: The Media Lab handles a wide range of media.
A: Media are materials that can represent something: genes, molecules, nanotechnology, opera. If they can represent something then they're all media. The degree at the Media Lab is in Media Arts and Sciences. One issue we study is how far the definition of media will be expanded. It's a topic we are constantly pursuing.
Q: You started interacting with the Net at a very early age.
A: My parents bought me a computer when I was in junior high. I used international calls and data transmission services to access American bulletin board systems. In high school, I used ARPANET (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, a predecessor to the Internet) and logged in to MIT and NASA computers. I told network administrators I was a Japanese high schooler. That piqued their interest, and they gave me permission. So, I had accounts at various universities.
Q: You've been involved in many Internet businesses -- from being president of PSI Net, a Japanese corporation and service provider dating from the dawn of the Internet age, to an adviser at Twitter. What has the spread of the Internet changed?
A: I think there are two ages: Before Internet and After Internet. When I think about myself, before the Internet I felt like I was slowly climbing a ladder, bowing my head here and there. After the Internet, even if I don't bow to somebody, I can keep doing what I like at my pace. It allowed me to compete with my creativity and my ability to serve people. The key is being agile.
Q: You say that the Internet is a philosophy, not a technology.
A: "Think for yourself and question authority." That's what Timothy Leary (a central figure in 1960s counterculture) said, but it's the Internet that gives the power back to us and is constantly instigating revolutions. That means the old economy that hates change is a completely different philosophy. Central manager types are never at ease unless they know everything. But Netizens believe that if we just look after ourselves then things will turn out fine somehow. It's the idea of not needing a map, but of having a compass.
Q: What do we need in the Internet age?
A: It used to be that society and technology moved slowly, and we just did the same thing over and over. But now we don't know what today's fast-paced changes will bring. The situation is like when both your Plan A and Plan B are no good, and you don't know what to do, but you have to make some decision.
We don't need five-year plans in the wildly changing business world. What we need is to review our business operations every week or two to adapt to change. In the software industry, we call this “agile development.” I think agile thinking is becoming a necessary skill in all fields, such as diplomacy and economic policy, in our society.
Q: You are a very busy person—from the Creative Commons, an international organization that is revolutionizing copyright, and Safecast, a group that publicizes radiation measurements, to being a leader in the online game World of Warcraft.
A: My role with all of them is to be a connector, bringing people together and building communities. Creative Commons is active in more than 70 countries around the world, so those people have to be managed. After the earthquake, Safecast was able to raise funds through the global connections we've made with the Internet.
Since I was a kid I've been going back and forth between Japan and America, and eventually I felt that I didn't fit in in either (place). That's why I wanted friends through the Net and game communities.
The Media Lab is also a collection of people who don't seem to entirely fit in (to general society). I think that my media representation at the Media Lab will create a community that is very much my own.
Q: If a young person wants to be like you, what advice would you give?
A: I think you need to discover by yourself how you should be, not become like me. "Think for yourself and question authority." There is no answer that says, "Do it like this." To me, it feels like a Zen koan (question for meditation) for which the answer is “In you.”
Q: What do you want to do in the future?
A: I want to use connections between the people of the world to connect companies and regions in unexpected combinations and activate them in a way that transcends the framework of countries. The Media Lab is one platform for that. Then, I'd like to spread the Media Lab's DNA.
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