Joichi Ito set to lead Media Lab
Tech chats with MIT’s freshest face
Joichi “Joi” Ito, who was recently named the new director of the Media Lab, took the time to talk with The Tech about his ideas and perspective on the future of the Media Lab. Despite not having a college degree, Joi has made a name for himself in the technological and entrepreneurial world. Joi is currently a general partner of Neoteny Labs and chairman of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating the sharing of intellectual property. Yesterday, Joi announced that he will be helping to launch LinkedIn Japan, a job that he describes in his blog as the “last ‘real job’ before I transition over completely to the Media Lab role.”
TT: MIT has a lot of resources. Not just the Media Lab, but also the School of Science and the School of Engineering; there’s a lot of research going on. What research is there that might enable you to do something that you haven’t done before and that you’re really excited about?
JI: I think the important thing about the Media Lab is that not only are we encouraging people to really think, we’re not trying to limit anything. In a funny way, I don’t think there’s any part of MIT that is off-limits or uninteresting … I think that FAST was a really great example of the collaboration between the Media Lab and architecture school. I think working with other departments is a really important part of what we need to do more of.
I know this sounds somewhat like a non-answer, but it’s important that I don’t limit in any way any of the departments … There are obviously a lot of connections with other departments right now, but I really am interested in trying to see us collaborating with departments that we haven’t yet collaborated with. It’s really the difference that makes a difference, if that makes sense at all.
TT: During your visit, I’m sure you were able to talk with some of the researchers here about what’s going on around MIT. Is there anything that really sparked in your interest — maybe an idea — that you might think about implementing?
JI: I think it’s a little bit early for me to have too many opinions about the content of research. But I have talked with Provost Rafael [Reif] and have started talking to the administration about the general direction of MIT. What’s fascinating for me is to hear about the various committees and the various initiatives on thinking about the future of education. And having come from the Creative Commons, I worked a lot on OpenCourseWare and thinking about distance learning and also about informal learning. The informal learning is the way I educated myself, so it’s kind of a meta-topic. But what I think is really interesting for us to think about is the Media Lab not as sort of a side thing to MIT, but what can we pilot at the Media Lab in terms of the way we learn, the way we research, that might be applicable more generally as we think about education and a more connected and more global environment. So the area that I’m interested in connecting broadly at MIT is the future of learning.
TT: You have been involved with many projects previous to this appointment. Do you think you will be integrating anything in this current appointment with projects that you have done in the past?
JI: Yes. I think that the Creative Commons — the open source initiative — and a lot of the work I’ve been doing, especially on the non-profit side, those are all sides that I’ll be bringing in. Think about how the value or the focus of organizations and businesses as the world gets more complex goes from intellectual property to ideas, to ecosystems, to connections and context. … In a way, I think the sharing and open culture — and thinking about the Media Lab and MIT as a platform rather than a container — is something that I’ve been working on a lot in the past; but that’s definitely an idea I would like to bring to the Media Lab.
I’ve also spent a lot of time investing in startup companies in the early stage, and I find that Silicon Valley is great at being short-term and innovative and risk-taking, but it is short-term. I find that large companies that I’ve worked with tend to be long-term but slow. I really do think that the Media Lab has this sort of sweet spot of long-term and agile, but I will probably be bringing some of my thinking — and some of my contacts — from the startup world, and balance some of the larger corporations that are in our current sponsor network.
TT: There is no question as to how many projects there are going on in Media Lab — I think one of the issues that some might argue is that some of these projects really haven’t been widely distributed across the world. Do you have any plans for acknowledging that issue?
JI: I am using the term “pathways to impact,” but I think that when you have an idea in the Media Lab or a project, you don’t really know at the beginning whether it should be a social entrepreneur project in a developing country, or whether it should influence policy, or whether it turns into a piece of art or a play or some music. The ways that ideas are expressed or impact the world is continuously changing. If you look at the areas we’re focused on, I think in the old days — when we were making a nickel or cent with the digital revolution — there was a lot more to do making really interesting hardware and ideas around things. The pathway to impact was very clearly defined — consumer electronics with large companies was one of the obvious ways. I think that now we’re doing a lot of the work at the lab. Sometimes it will be companies, but there are other pathways you need to explore: bringing them in as sponsors, bringing them in as partners, where in the world they impact. Understanding how impact works and thinking about how to express that impact is something that we’re going to work on. And again, I will add the caveat that I’m giving my opinion — the faculty can do what they want to do. I’m telling you my biases, but I think widening the geographic diversity of the people who are partners at the lab will help us impact the world even more with the work that we’re doing.
TT: With technology moving as fast as it is, who knows what it will look like in two years, or even one year? Where do you see the Media Lab in say, one or two years — or maybe five years, if that’s a better question?
JI: Maybe five years. Again, I’m going to give you a slightly non-answer because I think the Media Lab is a process, it’s a brand, it’s a way of thinking. It was created to address the challenges of going from analog and digital, and as [Nicholas P. Negroponte ’66] said in the press release, the digital revolution is now over. But now what we’re doing is trying to use the DNA of the Media Lab to tackle other challenges.
It’s really important to also to get into the research space because you have a general trajectory to try to impact the world through science and technology in ways that have broad, positive impact. But specifically whether that’s going to be in biology and health, or whether that’s going to be in electronics, or whether that’s going to be in some other form, those are things that I think are going to be raising serendipity and be very agile. You can’t be serendipitous if you plan everything, and if we’re going to talk about general arts, we’re going to talk about process, but I think that we really shouldn’t have a very specific plan about what the specific sense is going to be in five years from now. It’s obvious that there are spaces that we need to think about. I’m not sure whether we’re going to go into those spaces, but we could do more things that involve play and games. We could be doing more things in that involve consumer internet distribution. There are questions of whether we should interact more with some of the social sciences — there are a lot of really interesting questions. I think that what we’re exactly going to be doing — partially because I’m new here, partially because I’m not the one who is going to be dong the research — it’s hard for me to give you a specific, but the general trajectory is this broader one.
TT: One of my friends was telling me that he read about you, and in 2006 your average speed was 50 mph. Is that true? And do you think that’s gone up or down since then?
JI: It’s gone up, probably at about a half a million miles or more a year. I don’t know what the exact average speed is, but I’m going around the world about twice a month. I’ll have to slow down a bit as I hunker down and focus on the Intel stuff, but a lot of my value is to connect things together, and it turns out that travelling is a very good way of finding opportunities of connecting things that aren’t connected.
TT: One last question. This is a creative one, and you can answer if you want. We’ve asked this with a couple of people that we’ve interviewed: what would you define as your unit of measure? If your last name, or the “Joichi,” was a measurement in science, what would it be?
JI: It would be about useful connections. My main value is I provide context; I try to understand what people are doing, and then I try to connect them to other people or things that add a lot of value. And as it would be … how many useful connections a day am I making?