PLAN 79: Article
A Conversation With Joichi Ito

New Director of the Media Lab

This September, Joichi Ito will take over as the new director of the Media Lab, succeeding Frank Moss, who headed the Lab for the past five years.

Known as Joi (pronounced 'Joey'), Ito is recognized as one of the world’s leading thinkers and writers on innovation, technology policy and the Internet. At 44, he is a part of the first generation to grow up with the Web and early on became a pioneer in realizing its potential. In 1994, at the age of 28, he founded Eccosys, which eventually became Digital Garage, one of the most actively traded public Japanese Internet companies. He also helped establish and later became CEO of PSINet Japan (formerly IIKK), the first commercial Internet service provider in Japan, and helped found Infoseek Japan, the first commercial search engine in that country.

He has been an early investor in more than 40 start-up companies – including Flickr and Twitter – and was founder and CEO of the venture capital firm Neoteny Co., Ltd. He has served on the board of ICANN, the Internet’s governance organization, and is master of one of the longest running guilds in the online fantasy game World of Warcraft. He has also worked as a nightclub DJ, he worked on the set of a Sean Penn film and he is Timothy Leary's godson.

Currently, Ito is chairman of the board (and previously CEO) of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that promotes the sharing of digital information. He also sits on the board of the Mozilla Foundation, which promotes openness, innovation and participation on the Internet; WITNESS, an organization that empowers human rights defenders with the power of video; and Global Voices, a network of bloggers focused on free speech and promoting less-heard voices around the world.

A self-directed learner who holds no college degree – he briefly attended Tufts and the University of Chicago – Ito has worked closely with academia throughout his career to explore new approaches for learning and collaboration. He is an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, a senior visiting researcher at Keio University SFC Research Institute and a part-time lecturer at Keo Graduate School of Media Design. For over ten years he has also served as a juror for Prix Ars Electronica.

In 1997, at age 31, he was listed among TIME’s 'Cyber-Elite'; in 2001, he was selected by the World Economic Forum as one of the 'Global Leaders for Tomorrow'; in 2005, Newsweek named him one of the 'Leaders of The Pack'; and in 2008, BusinessWeek named him one of the '25 Most Influential People on the Web'.

Raised in Tokyo and Silicon Valley, Ito became a resident of Dubai in 2008 in order to gain a better understanding of the Middle East, part of his aim to understand intellectual property issues internationally and to become what he describes as a ‘global citizen’.

On a hot afternoon in June, we met up with him in his new office for a brief introductory chat about his new position here, his Buddhist-inspired attitude toward life, his new hobby of deep sea diving and what he's learned from swimming with sharks.

With all the commitments you already have, why did you want to take on this new responsibility?

For years, I've been designing my own little interdisciplinary life. I had startups here, nonprofits there, I had regional diversity here, social entrepreneurships there. And all these things were an effort to lead a very diverse kind of life, working with lots of different kinds of people and making an impact in all kinds of different ways. But it turns out the Media Lab is all of that in one place. I got to the limits of how much I could scale as an individual connecting all these things together. And I think in many ways the Lab institutionalizes what I’ve been stringing together on my own.

Sounds like it was sort of made for you.

I really feel like I've discovered my tribe here. A lot of the people in the Media Lab come from a much more rigorous academic background than I do, so there are some differences. But I have interacted with academia a lot. Also I’m 44 years old. There’s a certain amount of exploring you do in your youth – running around trying all kinds of things, working on movie sets, working in nightclubs, working in all kinds of things to try to figure out what it is you really want to be when you grow up. And I think now I’m at the point where I want to focus a little bit more on doing something substantial. So in that sense, this is the right time for me to do this.

And here at the Lab, with all this diversity in one building, you don’t have to fly all over the world.

Well I think that I will still probably be flying around a lot, but now I'll be flying around with one business card and one mission. Because I do think the Media Lab could use more interaction with different regions that aren’t connected as much.

That leads us to the next question: what do you hope to bring to the Lab?

I think that the Lab has so much… Let me try to phrase it in the right way. I think it would be very easy for a group of super bright students and super bright faculty in this beautiful building to be completely satisfied, or nearly completely satisfied, just interacting among themselves. Because it’s already got all the things you really need to live a very fulfilling academic life. I don't underestimate that lots of students collaborate with the outside, we have faculty that collaborate with the outside, there’s a lot of collaboration going on, so it's not like it’s a fortress or anything like that. But it tends to be easy not to go out as much. And what can happen is that you don’t get as much diversity as you could. I think we have something like 25% women; there’s definitely a gender bias that we could do better on. Also I think we have one Arab, two Japanese – there are certain regions that are very underrepresented here. That should be easy to fix; there are a lot of smart Arabs, a lot of smart Japanese. And those are just two regions that I happen to live in. There’s also Africa, there’s a lot of different places. So what I would really like to contribute is a lot more input and a lot more output to different geographies, different types of communities that haven’t connected with the Lab in the past.

What do you mean by different types of communities?

There aren’t very many Silicon Valley start-up types here. But the core ethos of the Lab – which is to build things and to be interdisciplinary, to work together – I think that that’s a DNA that can connect to a whole other set of people who aren’t currently here. I happen to be a college dropout, which everybody seems to like to emphasize, but there are a lot of people with this same DNA in Silicon Valley. Just as an example, I know people that are starting companies who are college dropouts who would easily fit in here. I don’t want to turn the whole Lab into a bunch of start-up college dropouts, but we could have one or two and I think we’d have a significant difference. And when you think about the way the Lab works, it’s really by having one of each kind of academic, there really is power in that. At the student level too – I think we could have significantly higher diversity not only in the students’ fields but in their backgrounds and in the direction they’re going. There isn’t anything that says we can’t have older people. And there isn’t anything that says we can’t have social entrepreneurs. It might be interesting to have people who have business experience. Again, just one or two in the Lab. Because it’s likely that when they do a project they will contribute a bunch of thoughts that might not be there otherwise.

You were just talking about the DNA of the kinds of people you want to mix together, which brings up another question I wanted to ask you. You seem to have a boundless sense of adventure and a really high tolerance for risk, and I just wonder where that comes from. Is it just in your DNA? Does it have anything to do with how you were raised? What do you think?

I think it's partially how I was raised. I think that being brought up in two different cultures, between the US and Japan, I’d always been in this weird tension where I didn’t feel at home in either country really. And then I realized the power of not being in my comfort zone, and its influence on my learning. What I realized as I started getting older and becoming comfortable, I could see myself slowly becoming complacent in my learning. For me, the way I’ve always learned was to push myself out of my comfort zone and be challenged. So if I started showing up at conferences where everybody knew me, I realized I wasn’t learning very much, really. When I worked in Hollywood, I realized after a year that I was only networking with other people in Hollywood. But when I go to the Middle East, they say Oh, what do you do? Oh, you’re into computers? It’s a very humbling experience to go into places where you have no track record. And it also forces you to think about things in another framework.

Can you give us an example of that?

When I first went to the Middle East, it looked like chaos to me, I couldn’t find the order. But as I started to get accustomed, I realized there was a lot of order. In fact, there’s a lot of really specific order. And as you come to see that, it twists your mind around and allows you to do a completely different kind of pattern recognition than you were able to do before.

What about the risk-taking?

I started taking risk really early, failing very early. And failing often was a really important way for me to learn. I did really stupid things. I started a mail order company in Japan to mail order MacIntosh peripherals. Well, it completely failed. And I realized later that because the mailing costs were significantly higher in Japan, sending the catalogue, as well as sending the products – that cost was greater than the margin I was making. If I had done the math I would have never started the company. It just didn’t make sense. But I’m very bad with authority. I’m always questioning authority. If somebody told me Oh you’ve got to do a business plan, you’ve got to do your math, I wouldn’t do it. But now that I failed that way, I realize OK, that’s why you do a business plan. So now I always do my math before I set up a company. I may be stupid but I’m trainable. And because I started failing early… I was 18 when I screwed up my first company. I think it’s harder to take risks if you’ve never taken them before and you start late. This is the tricky thing about getting a PhD and all these other things, this is something I need to think about how I coach students. But one of the things that’s interesting about the Media Lab is that, in its way, it allows people to fail and fail elegantly. You’re encouraged to do anything you want and you’re encouraged to try it before you plan it all out and you’re encouraged if it fails to scrap it and move on to the next thing. It’s very much a why-don’t-you-give-it-a-try culture, which I think is very similar to a risk-taking culture.

Let’s talk about success for a little bit. Of all your accomplishments – and the list is long – what are you most proud of at this point?

Um, let’s see. What am I most proud of? Hmm. Well first of all, I don't… I’ll try to say this in a way that doesn’t sound fake, but I’m not really proud of anything. If I’m proud of anything it’s the fact that I’m optimistic. Every day I feel like my life is getting better, every day I feel like I’m getting smarter and every day I feel like I’m impacting the world more and more and more. And I’m feeling like my future will be better than my past. So I feel like yesterday was the proudest day of my life and tomorrow will be more proud.

That attitude itself is something to be proud of.

Yeah, I guess I’m proud of the fact that I’m happy. Always generally happy. And pretty positive about the future. And I guess I’m proud of having put together a network of people and relationships that just feels stimulating, smart, clean and supportive. I feel very proud of that. In a very Buddhist way, I think happiness is really about a kind of equilibrium. It’s like if you have a great family, doubling the size of your family isn’t going to double your happiness. Making more money, buying a fancy car, building a huge company that’s successful, those are all things that once you get there you adjust very quickly and you’re never really fulfilled. But if you focus on the process and you’re happy about the process… Of course, there’s lots to do, I’ve got goals. But I derive my happiness more through the process than through achieving the goal.

That’s a great answer.

Does that work?

I like it. Let's talk about your connectedness. You‘re kind of famous for being one of the world's most networked people. Do you ever want to just turn it off?

My recent hobby is diving. And diving is great because in diving you can’t talk to anybody. I find that a great way to just turn it off. You can’t use your cell phone, GPS doesn’t work underwater. For me, it’s a way of relaxing and focusing at the same time, and it’s very meditative. To me, that’s very helpful. I try to dive every week, if I can.

Really? How do you do that?

You can dive anywhere. I dive in Chicago, I dive in Austria, I dive in Copenhagen. I dive in Montana in the winter, you cut a hole in the ice and you just go down. You can dive anywhere. And actually trying to dive anywhere is a really fun and interesting challenge.

I read somewhere that you’ve learned things from diving that you’ve been able to apply to your work. I'd be interested to hear something specific about that.

The most recent one probably for me was feeding sharks. Have you ever gone diving with sharks before?

Uh, no.

When you go diving with sharks, you expect that it’ll be really scary. But it’s not. So one of the first things you learn is that things aren’t as scary as they look.

I take it you didn’t see Jaws.

I did! But it turns out that sharks are almost like little puppy dogs.
I should actually show you. [At this point, Joi calls up a video on the flat screen on his wall and there he is, deep in the ocean, feeding a bevy of very large sharks.] That’s me there. And see? The sharks just come cruising along…

Oh come on. He’s rubbing up against you like my dog positions himself to be petted.

Yeah. They’re not interested in eating you. They’re interested in the food you have. They’re very smart. They’re not super smart but they’re as smart as your dog, maybe smarter. They don’t want to eat you. They’ll nibble on you, like they might grab your arm, but they realize that you’re not food and let you go.

Are you serious? They’ll actually nibble on your arm?

Yeah, they do. You know like when a dog kind of mouths your arm…? Sharks have a lot of senses in their mouth and they can’t really see when they’re up close so they kind of like nibbling to see what’s going on. I was afraid initially. But once you go down and you start feeding the sharks you learn a lot of things. You find out that first of all you set the pace, right? So the speed at which you feed them changes how… If you feed them too fast they start going faster and faster and they get a little bit more aggressive. But you can slow them down by feeding them slower. It’s sort of like the media; if you feed them too fast they go into frenzy. But you can control the whole mood of the situation by the speed at which you do it.

So from sharks you learned how to deal with media?

This video was taken on the day the New York Times announced my appointment. I was thinking, going down there, OK, I’ll be getting a lot of interviews, I wonder if it’s going to get into a frenzy. And then feeding the sharks, I realized Oh yeah, this is kind of like feeding the media. Little stories. It’s really about learning through metaphors, which is a lot like pattern recognition.

So back to the subject of your connectedness. With all the people you know, all the people you’ve met in the world, who haven’t you yet met that you’d really like to know?

Oh, interesting. Hmm. When I was younger, when I was in my teens and early twenties, I went after every single person that seemed interesting and got to know them. I went and hung out with Timothy Leary and became his godson. I hung out with all those cyber gurus. I went after all the Japanese business leaders, all the industrialists, I went and spent time with Jack Welch. There were all these stars that I met, and some of them taught me lessons. But they weren’t really any happier than the nightclub DJ I knew, or the night shift nurse in my Warcraft Guild. Or anybody, really. I’ve been inspired by just as many people who are not notable as people who are notable, maybe more. So now every person I see, I always feel there’s an opportunity to connect at some level, to learn something.

So the answer to that question is that the person you’re most interested in getting to know is the next person you meet.

Yeah, really. That’s true.

OK. I’ll ask you one more question and then I’m going to let you go. Is there anything else you’d like to add in speaking to the alumni?

I definitely want to engage the alumni more. I’ve been meeting with different alumni as I go to different countries and I’d like to do more of that. Especially in countries that don’t have a lot of MIT connection – because I go to the nooks and crannies of the world – I want to meet the alumni. My travel schedule is on my blog and I tweet all the time about where I’m going. So if anybody wants to connect when I’m in town, I’d look forward to meeting them.

You’d encourage somebody to get in touch with you?

Oh, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I don’t always have time but when I do I try to set up meetings.

Connect with Joi at joi.ito.com.