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Newly Appointed MIT Media Lab Director, Joichi Ito, Talks To Asian Scientist

In a wide-ranging interview, media savant Joichi Ito talks to Asian Scientist Magazine about his vision as Executive Director of the MIT Media Lab, his thoughts on education, and his lifelong bond with Japan and Asia.

| May 2, 2011 | Editorials

Joichi Ito's Interview with Asian Scientist Magazine

AsianScientist (May 2, 2011) – When MIT announced last week on April 25 that Joichi (‘Joi’) Ito had been appointed the next Executive Director of the MIT Media Lab, it sent ripples through the technology world.

Seen as a bold and forward-looking step by a university known for its rankings and formal education, MIT has challenged the status quo and embraced the famously-talented media savant, who himself has never finished either degrees in computer science and physics.

Named as one of Business Week’s 2008 “25 Most Influential People on the Web,” Joi (pronounced ‘Joey’), 44, is the founder of Digital Garage, PsiNet Japan, Infoseek Japan, and early investor to more than 40 companies which include Flickr, Twitter, Kickstarter and Technorati. Joi is the CEO and founder of venture capital firm Neoteny, and sits on the boards of ICANN, Mozilla Foundation, WITNESS, Global Voices and Creative Commons, among others.

In an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Joi talks about his vision as Executive Director of the MIT Media Lab, his thoughts on education, and his lifelong bond with Japan and Asia.


Joi, first of all, hearty congratulations on your appointment as Executive Director of the MIT Media Lab. You are a global citizen in an increasingly globalized world – having been born in Japan, and having lived in Canada, USA and Dubai. Has the media helped to break down boundaries between the East and the West?

I believe that the Internet has provided a voice and the ability for people to connect people-to-people, which allows us to have the kind of networked and nuanced relationships across cultures that will help cultures work together.

Right now, mass media and heads of state use traditional international relations channels which are fairly blunt instruments, and they are having trouble keeping up with the speed or dealing with the complexity and nuances of the world today.

I don’t know whether we’re actually “breaking down boundaries” so much as providing the ability for cultures to interact constructively and adapt to the environment. I believe each region, country and person is unique, and each has their boundaries. But the key is how to network people together so that they are productive and not in unnecessary conflict.


One of the differences in your new post compared to venture investment is the strong educational mission of MIT. Do you see a fundamental difference between information exchange (e.g. Twitter ) and education? Are there specific approaches you are looking forward to “reducing to practice”?

Both are trying to create “impact” – the lab through educating students and conducting research, and venture businesses through creating products and services.

I like the word “learning” better than the word education. I realize that the Media Lab is a research lab within an educational institution with an academic degree-granting program, but education sounds a bit one-way and top-down.

I think the Media Lab is about creating a learning and research environment where degrees are an important byproduct. I think that focusing on impact, projects, research and making sure that learning is happening is the key, and it will be our job to make sure that we are fulfilling the educational standards so that our students are earning their degrees.

However, this is my personal opinion and what we end up “reducing to practice” will be based on a lot more learning on my part about how the Lab and MIT work. This will be an iterative process with the faculty and the students. It’s hard for me to be very specific about my plans since I haven’t spent enough time at the Lab yet.


You have spawned a long list of successful initiatives that include Creative Commons, Technorati, Flickr and Mozilla Foundation. You obviously have an eye for online media. Do you have any words of advice for start-ups such as Asian Scientist Magazine?

I didn’t actually start most of those projects, but I do have advice for start-ups. I think it is very important to understand what sort of differentiators you, your region and your network has, and focus on trying to figure out how to leverage that. Also, most start-ups fail, not because they don’t have an interesting product, but because they don’t get distribution – they can’t attract users.

Make sure you have a distribution plan. Also, launch early and talk about your work. Reid Hoffman often says that if you’re not embarrassed by your first launch, you’ve launched too late. He has a famous line, “Don’t ‘ready, aim, fire’. Instead, ‘almost ready, aim, fire, aim, fire, aim, fire’.”


The New York Times called your appointment as director of MIT Media Lab an “unusual choice” because you did not finish your degrees. We cannot help but draw a similarity with Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Does new media redefine the traditional role of education?

I think that many of us dropouts dropped out because traditional colleges didn’t have the right program for us. I believe that the Media Lab is and can become even more the kind of place that would attract people who might otherwise drop out. I do think that the way we “educate” in this new environment needs to evolve. Great professors already do this, but I think it’s a lot more about coaching and mentoring and a lot less about lecturing facts.


You mentioned previously that surrounding yourself with smart people stimulates your thinking. Where do you derive inspiration from, and who are your role models?

I derive my inspiration from my interactions with people and their interactions with other people. These people also make things, do things and impact the world around us. Being a part of a global network of active, learning and inspired people is my goal and my source of inspiration and energy. I find role model behavior everywhere I look – almost every single person that I meet has something that I can learn from or be inspired by. Having said that, there are people who have had more influence on me than others, but I have dozens of extremely important mentors and not a single one.


The Media Lab is an unusual place, in that it is a hybrid of art and science. Does science & technology complement and enhance the arts? If so, what significance does that type of research have for MIT?

I believe that the arts allow us to think about and explore science and technology in extremely creative ways – extending the models, frameworks and tools in ways that researchers and engineers wouldn’t naturally try. I think the arts are an essential component of the creative exploration of any scientific and technical area, and that the relationship with the deep and rigorous academic side can be extremely fruitful.


You have retained strong ties with Japan throughout your childhood and career. How has being Asian influenced the choices you’ve made along the way?

Being Japanese, I believe I can have a particular kind of impact on Japan, as well as bring some of the positive elements of Japan and its culture to the world. I’ll always keep a connection to Japan and Asia in some area of focus because this is part of what I am.


Educational experiences in Asia tend to be more defined, and this has been suggested to curtail innovation and creativity. How we can encourage more polymaths like yourself in Asia?

I think that one way to encourage it is for people like us to continue to work in and with our countries of origin and try to lead through example.


Do you really think moving electrons around in various forms of new media can change the course of our planet?

Yes. Atoms are extremely important, but atoms are also made up of forces and energy. Our bits are forces and energy that interact with and affect the atoms. It’s all part of one complex system that is beginning to move faster and become even more complex. The key for us will be to understand how to survive and thrive in this complexity. Understanding how to do that will require thinking like that which happens at the Media Lab.


Assuming the Media Lab never figures out how to forever perpetuate your soul with cloud computing; what, in the end, do you want to be known for?

I personally think that legacy and hoping to be known for something in particular isn’t really what I focus on. I want to have a positive impact on the world and feel like I’m doing the right thing “now”.

Read more from Joi at Joi Ito’s Web :
Joi Ito's Web

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Images and Information: MIT Media Lab, Flickr and Joi Ito’s Web.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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