A Renegade in the Lab

When the Media Lab at MIT sought a new director last year, from a global list of candidates, it’s safe to say the recruitment committee did not go looking for a college dropout, a former “rave” organizer or a godson of the late Timothy Leary. But they got all that and more in Joichi Ito, a Japanese venture capitalist, social activist and world citizen whose résumé makes up in unusual pursuits what it lacks in formal academic credentials.

A traditional search produced hundreds of qualified applicants, who were narrowed over a year to a short list, but without yielding a good fit. Nicholas Negraponte, the lab’s founder and its director for many years, had publicly clashed with the outgoing leader, Frank Moss, describing his tenure as “a five-year period like the Dark Ages.” He knew Ito socially and personally recruited him, tracking the peripatetic venture capitalist down to Santa Catalina Island, where he was indulging in his latest interest/obsession, scuba diving.

“I had never been to the lab,” says Ito, who is 46 but looks decades younger. Commuting to work on his singlespeed bicycle, he could pass for a grad student. “I had things to do; I was running Creative Commons, investing, living in Dubai, diving every weekend. Nicholas called me in between dives. Oddly the technology didn’t work and we could barely hear each other. Later, I was diving in the Bahamas, and he called me again and said come up here as soon as you can.”

He visited the lab on March 11, 2011, which was by coincidence when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, so Ito was preoccupied by the need to find out if his family and friends were safe. Typically, he also immediately launched a startup to distribute Geiger counters and do radiation tests faster than the Japanese government would or could. But he spent two days in conversation with Media Lab staff and students and rapidly developed a mutual rapport.

“It was the most interesting two days I’d had in a long time,” Ito says. “Then came the formal stuff, and them trying to get their heads around my not having an academic degree. My role is a little bit odd, because normally the director is also a professor, and I’m not a professor. For the most part, anything limiting is hidden from me, and I felt fundamentally welcomed.”

Ito may not have the sort of grand vision Negraponte had for the lab when he created it, but he does have an ambitious — and potentially disruptive — agenda. He means to “open” the lab, both literally, by inviting more outsiders in, and metaphorically, in the Open Source sense of the word, to make it less like Apple and more like Mozilla, creator of the open-source Web browser, Firefox. He is already shaking things up, bringing in a diverse group of director’s fellows, most of whom share his lack of a formal academic background, and striving to open the lab up to the kind of informal collaboration that typifies the world of Web startups. “To me, the Media Lab felt like a container. It was a little bit connected, but not real connected. I’m trying to turn it from a container into a platform: the Media Lab Network.”

One of his first steps was to eliminate a senior faculty committee that his predecessor had established. New projects now can go forward without passing through as much bureaucracy, more akin to the spontaneity of Internet startup launches than the deliberative way large corporations work. “We’ll see how it goes,” Ito says. “I’ve been able to make decisions rapidly that would have been political in the past. People may argue with me, but they don’t get as upset as they might have. Also, part of the position of director is communicating, and I think the Media Lab has gotten more attention since I came in. I think they wanted someone who can connect to high-level contacts around the world, which Nicholas did a lot of, but other previous directors did not.”

Ito sees it as part of his mission that more of the lab’s programs are available to the public, not just paying sponsors. He also wants to make students and faculty more available, using the social media tools that are second nature to him, and to the generation currently attending MIT. Ito divides time into BI and AI, as in Before the Internet and After the Internet, and in his vision of AI, owning an asset is now less important than sharing it, whether the asset is student and faculty talent or intellectual property.

“I’m shifting away from IP as a primary focus,” Ito says. “IP is a byproduct of a process. You can’t patent ideas, only processes. And we’re really good at ideas. We were doing the multi-touch screen a year before Apple. We do create about 20 patents a year, and some of them are valuable, but a CEO is going to pivot their business a lot more rapidly after interacting with our students and faculty, and that’s so much more valuable. The real bang for your buck is that every two or three years, you’ll see something here that makes you make a multibillion-dollar decision differently.”

Negraponte created the lab in 1985 to explore his hypothesis that the broadcast and motion picture industry, the print and publishing industry, and the computer industry would go beyond their already overlapping spheres of influence to a nearly complete merger. As Stewart Brand wrote in “The Media Lab, Inventing the Future at MIT” (Viking 1987), Negraponte’s vision was that all communication technologies were suffering a joint metamorphosis, which could only be understood properly if treated as a single subject, and only advanced properly as a single craft. He posited that the best way to figure out what needed to be done was through exploring the human sensory and cognitive system and the ways that humans naturally interact.

In 1985, Apple’s Macintosh was just a year old, and Ethernet, the technology that allowed personal computers to link across a network, was also recently introduced. Yet Negraponte and former MIT President Jerome Wiesner were able to raise the necessary millions to fund the lab, with much of it coming from corporate sponsors, plus the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation. Its early projects had a distinct consumer electronics focus, like its foray into HDTV standards, with the assumption that they would lead to new products for its sponsors.

Ito was born in Kyoto, Japan, but spent much of his childhood in Detroit, where his parents worked for Energy Conversion Devices, which was known for innovations in optical disks, rewritable memory chips and thin-film solar panels. Joi Ito also worked for ECD in his teens and came to regard its chief inventor and founder, the late Stan Ovshinsky, as a second father, particularly after his own parents divorced. In 1987, Ito moved to Silicon Valley, where he met John Markoff, a technology reporter for The New York Times. Markoff gave him a copy of MacPPP, the original Internet client software for the Macintosh. To Joi Ito, that simple program demonstrated how the Internet was about to transform from a scientist and engineer’s tool into a mass media platform. Back in Japan, he met the founders of International KK, an American company trying to offer the first commercial Internet service in Japan. They couldn’t find space to rent, so he lent them the bathroom in his apartment. He served as CEO of PSINet Japan — the company that acquired IKK — for a year and eventually moved them into a real office.

Thus began a remarkable career as a serial entrepreneur and angel investor. After leaving PSINet, Ito launched Digital Garage, a Japanese Web solution provider and incubator, which he took public in 1999. The venture firms J.H. Whitney and PSI Ventures seeded his firm Neoteny (the word means “retention of childlike attributes in adulthood”) with $20 million, to serve as an incubator for new infotech companies. When incubators fell out of favor with the bursting of the Internet bubble, Ito attempted to transform Neoteny into a traditional venture fund, but after funding Six Apart, a blog company, he returned the remaining cash to the shareholders and focused Neoteny’s resources on building Six Apart Japan.

With his own funds, Ito made early-stage investments in Kickstarter, Twitter, Technorati, Flickr, SocialText, Dopplr, Last.fm, Rupture, Kongregate, Etology Inc, Fotopedia and other social media companies. He says his average investment is less than $100,000, and while he’s invested in hundreds of companies, he only boasts about four of them. He sits on numerous boards, including the New York Times Co., the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

With his portfolio companies and volunteer activities primarily in Japan and Silicon Valley, Ito spent years shuttling between Tokyo and San Francisco, and at one point realized he spent more time on United Airlines than in his own bed. An inveterately social animal, he often stayed with friends in his travels, like the Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig or LinkedIn’s founder Reid Hoffman, rather than in hotels. He has been a frequent speaker at events ranging from the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, to the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, which brings together technocrats, rock stars and independent filmmakers. He may be the one person on earth who would be equally welcomed by the bankers inside and the anarchists outside the next meeting of the World Trade Organization.

In 2008, Ito and his wife, Mizuka, moved to Dubai because he wanted to gain a better understanding of the Middle East, and he took over the leadership of the Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that has produced alternatives to copyright for the distribution and sharing of original material. In this role, Ito became a vocal advocate of emerging democracy and the sharing economy.

“The single most unique thing about Joi is his lateralness,” says Howard Rheingold, author of “Net Smart, How to Thrive Online” (The MIT Press, 2012). “Joi always has been very comfortable communicating with and moving in very different worlds. He’s welcome at the hackers convention, the serious one in Amsterdam, but he also will talk with the CEO of Sony. I don’t think anyone else has that kind of reach. He knows most of the top journalists, and people in the business world, but he also knows the rebels and the geeks. He has a very strong ideological dedication to the kind of liberty that the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Creative Commons represent, liberty for individual users to be creators of content and new kinds of companies. Yes, he will deal with CEOs of giant companies and they will take his advice, but he is very much on the side of not locking down the abilities of users to create things like Google in their dorm rooms.”

Ito will need his talent for lateral thinking at the lab, which has evolved from its early consumer electronics focus to a much more diffuse organization. Current projects run an inconceivably wide gamut from folding electric cars to a program in synthetic neurobiology, led by Associate Professor Ed Boyden, which is inventing new tools for analyzing and engineering brain circuits. And while the Media Lab has always been about crossing the boundaries of disparate disciplines, its current mission goes a step beyond that, requiring a new word: antidisciplinary.

Ito explains, “Interdisciplinary is you have a biologist talking to a chemist. Antidisciplinary means you don’t get to say you’re a biologist. If what you’re doing fits within a single discipline, you shouldn’t be here.” He notes that the lab has three faculty searches under way, and he says he would love to find someone in a field that he doesn’t know exists. “We’re looking for three things: uniqueness, impact and magic,” he says. “If somebody else is doing it, we shouldn’t be. It should hit the world in a meaningful way. And the magic part is important, too; it’s got to be surprising.”

One of Ito’s first contributions is the creation of the Director’s Fellows Initiative, part of his effort to open the lab up to the world. “What all the fellows have in common is that they are passionate leaders in their fields, and that they embody the lab’s uniqueness, impact and magic,” Ito says. “They’re also all passionate about collaborating with the lab. You should never be able to guess who’ll be the next new fellow by looking at who’s come before.” The first group of fellows includes Detroit community activist Shaka Senghor, chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, Hollywood producer J.J. Abrams and Nairobi-based technologist and activist Juliana Rotich. The plan is to ramp up to between 20 and 30 active director’s fellows by the end of 2013, with about 10 in residence doing hands-on, day-to-day research at the lab.

Ito says the lab’s faculty members were initially skeptical about the program, but have come to respect it. “When I first talked about these fellows, there was lots of concern about what these people were going to do. After I brought them in, people said, ‘Now I get it.’ We would not normally have found these people because they’re not part of the lab’s network, but bringing them in had substantial impact,” he says.

The lab is supported by close to 80 members, including some of the world’s leading corporations, and the Knight Foundation. These members provide the majority of the lab’s $35 million annual operating budget, but uniquely, do not direct their research funding in any way. “We don’t have deliverables, and the funding is not based on grants,” Ito says. “Grants are incremental; you ask for money for something you’re already building and problems you already sort of know the answer to. We’re answering questions you don’t know to ask, and you can only do that
with undirected funding.”

That the lab is essentially unfocused is a strength disguised as a weakness, Ito says. Focused research might provide answers to finite questions, giving an incremental return on a donor’s investment, but really big opportunities arise out of pattern recognition and the kind of peripheral vision that flourishes in an unfocused environment. Peripheral vision allows for more serendipitous discoveries, and almost paradoxically, leads to insights with greater impact. For example, the lab’s work in advanced threedimensional printing might prompt a company to make the strategic decision to exit manufacturing altogether, a bigger decision than whether or not to produce a specific product.

Ito says one of his goals is to broaden the lab’s donor base beyond corporate sponsors to include more foundations and wealthy individuals. “I want to see a much greater emphasis on the social side,” he says. “I am connecting with philanthropists so the source of funding won’t only be from corporations, and creating a social network with lots of people outside of academia. I see us shifting away from consumer electronics to ecosystems and communities, systems instead of objects. As the network enables us to be more open, we need to collaborate not only with companies and institutions, but with individuals, engineers and students.”

Ito is uniquely qualified to lead the lab in this quest because his entire life is like an open-source software project. He famously posted his cellphone number on his blog and has always been happy to speak to anyone whose work captures his interest. While Ito professes to have no fixed agenda, the common theme among his interests and investments is always media and media-created communities. From blogs to wikis to his passion for the multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft, these are all instruments that allow people to communicate and collaborate in new ways and that, in turn, give rise to new kinds of organizations.

“He’s one of the few people I’ve met, particularly among venture capitalists, who really understand social networks online, and he understands because he digs in and gets his hands dirty full time,” says Jimmy Wales, founder and chief promoter of Wikipedia.

Ito has long been known as self-taught Renaissance man, who attended a few classes at Tufts and later the University of Chicago, but dropped out to work as a club D.J. and to organize raves, the giant dance parties fueled by electronic music and, often, the drug ecstasy. Ito says he is driven by a boundless curiosity, a horror of boredom and a desire to be where smart people are changing the game. “Just about everything I get involved in has a steep learning curve, has a lot of unknowns, and has risks. It may be a kind of addiction and obsession. Just as some people are obsessed with money and are willing to do
boring things day in and day out to be wealthy, I’m obsessed with always being in a state of wonder and
doing things with cool people.

"He says he’s found his perfect milieu in the Media Lab, where the sheer breadth and depth of the research projects challenge even Ito’s remarkable capacity for self-teaching. While the lab flourishes by being unfocused, Ito says he has to be more focused than ever before just to keep up. He is moving his wife, mother-in-law and their four dogs to Boston, and even thinking about having children. For the first time in his life, Joi Ito is putting down roots.

“Right before I joined, I was still flying around the world every month,” Ito says. “Partly because I had to stay in America to get my visa, I spent six months in Boston, getting to know the lab and the students. Now I’m traveling about half the time, and 90 percent of that is lab-related, going to conferences, meeting with partners. I’ve never been so focused in my life, and I still need to spend about half my time right here because the operational stuff is very peopleoriented. I’m much more local than I’ve ever been. For the first time in my life I don’t have jet lag all the time.”

The scope of the lab’s research projects has kept Ito on the steep part of the learning curve where he thrives. “Probably the thing I’m weakest on here is the biology stuff, but it’s also the most interesting,” Ito says. “I couldn’t do it, but I can explain a lot of it now, which is kind of my role. I tend to have one big cognitive model that I put everything into, rather than individual disciplines. We have tremendous depth and it may look random if you just walk through, but there are consistent narratives here.”

A sampling of lab endeavors gives a hint of the breadth of its more than 300 research projects, led by 26 faculty and 140 students. Consider Object-Based Media, led by V. Michael Bove, which asks, what happens when self-aware content meets context-aware consumer electronics? Bove’s group makes systems that explore how sensing, understanding and new interface technologies can change everyday life, the ways in which people communicate with one another, storytelling, and entertainment.

Or take Cynthia Breazeal’s work with personal robots. Breazeal and her students have developed numerous creations, including robotic flower gardens. Other projects include embedding robotic technologies into familiar everyday artifacts, like clothing, lamps and desktop computers, and creating highly expressive humanoids — including the well-known social robot, Leonardo. Ongoing research includes the development of socially intelligent robot partners that interact with humans in human-centric terms, work with humans as peers and learn from people as apprentices. The ability of these robot systems to interact, learn from and effectively cooperate with people has been evaluated in numerous human-subject experiments, both inside the lab and in realworld environments.

And it’s not all bits and bytes either. Tod Machover, an avant-garde composer, has produced a number of contemporary symphonic works and an opera of the future, Death and the Powers, which tells the story of a successful and powerful businessman and inventor reaching the end of his life and facing the question of his legacy. He is now conducting his final experiment, passing from one form of existence to another in an effort to project himself into the future. Machover asks, is it possible to see sound, or touch sound, or to have sound touch you so deeply that it can change your mind, your body, your life? And he answers yes.

Nicholas Negraponte is currently on leave from MIT, but he keeps his hand in, and Ito says they meet often. “The lab is about reinvention. That’s also one of its core principles, and I think it constantly needs to be changing.” Ito says. “In that sense, I’m supposed to be pushing for change. Nicholas and I spend a lot of time together now. And we disagree on half the things we discuss, pretty vigorously, and we agree deeply on the other half. Even when we disagree, it’s useful, because Nicholas is very good at explaining why he feels the way does. He is very supportive of me pushing the lab in directions that are slightly uncomfortable. They’d rather be uncomfortable than stagnant.”

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Global Strategy, Local Players: Joichi Ito’s World of Warcraft Guild 

Although Joi Ito has started a number of companies and served as chief executive of the Creative Commons for three years, he has relatively little operating experience, at least in this world. But he has voluminous management experience from thousands of hours in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft, where he heads a global group of several hundred in one of the game’s oldest and largest guilds — an association of players. It is a global team with local players and serves as a model for the way the world is evolving.

World of Warcraft is play, but for Ito it is a very intense kind of play focusing on strategy, tactics and role playing. He has no money in Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft’s creator, but the hours he has invested rising through the game’s rankings would probably have sufficed to produce a doctoral dissertation. And he is constantly in touch via e-mail, i-chat and cellphone with the many members of his guild, a diverse body scattered around the globe, across demographic groups and age levels.

Players advance in World of Warcraft by engaging in a series of quests in which they must battle autonomous foes to acquire weapons, capabilities and experiences. But to advance beyond a basic level requires at first small teams, to battle legions of automatons in dungeons, and later, very large teams, called guilds, to battle other players in raids.

Long frustrated by the conventional hierarchies operating in even the most innovative technology companies, Ito says he sees in his Warcraft guild a new way to organize, manage and motivate people. While he is not currently playing World of Warcraft, Ito remains in contact with his guild members and hopes to resume when he has more time. He calls himself “guild custodian,” rather than leader, and although he is constantly facilitating movement, he resolutely refuses to exercise power, instead letting solutions bubble up through the guild’s membership. He prefers to work the people issues, counseling a guild member with bipolar disorder to take his medication, or shifting play hours to accommodate an emergency room nurse’s changing schedule. Guild members live around the world.

“In World of Warcraft, much of what you learn is how to improvise or accumulate the resources you need, and I see this in Joi,” says John Seely Brown, a management writer and past head of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. “Once he knows what he really has to do, then he becomes incredibly creative in finding resources anywhere in the organization. He never even thinks about the fact that he’s just jumped over three silos. He has found out how to find who knows what, wherever they are, and how to engage that person to help him. It completely slashes through the barriers in hierarchies. World of Warcraft instills that spirit, finding the people wherever they are to master each new quest.”


  • Lawrence M. Fisher

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute