The Ito Factor
Profile and interview by Scott Wilson > Photography by Matt Lennert
In the world of digital startups, Joi Ito is a bona fide rock star, but the outspoken entrepreneur faces his biggest challenge yet in revitalizing MIT’s venerable Media Lab.
Mention Joi (pronounced Joey) Ito in Silicon Valley circles and eyes light up. The Japanese-born entrepreneur, venture capitalist and online activist commands a far-reaching respect unusual in the here today, gone tomorrow world of Net startups. Ito, at the ripe old age of 45, is a sage voice on the Internet, web innovation and technology policy. Depending on which side of the country you call home, his background is either entirely fit for purpose or extremely unconventional, to say the least.
His story is well-known in the digital community. A string of early successes founding and running Internet companies in Japan in the early ’90s established his tech cred. This included Digital Garage, one of the most actively traded public companies in Japan, and PSINet Japan, the first commercial Internet service provider in that country, where he also served time as CEO. Ito’s initial successes then paved the way for forays into Silicon Valley and beyond. An early investor in a number of startups, including the likes of Twitter and Flickr, he soon established a powerful network that saw his impact in the Valley soar, along with his profile.
As his interests expanded, so too did his digital activism, as he became increasingly vocal on a variety of issues such as protecting the freedom of the Net and promoting the use of Web technologies in a variety of nonprofit causes centered on protecting human rights and free speech. The accolades soon followed, beginning with Time magazine in 1997 proclaiming him part of the “cyber-elite” shaping the new digital world, and continued by the likes of Newsweek and BusinessWeek over a decade where he has been named “leader of the pack” and one of the “25 most influential people on the Web.” More recently, Ito again made headlines when, in a surprising move to some observers, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced last year he would be their new director of the world-renowned MIT Media Lab.
I ponder all this as I think of an opening gambit to our sit-down discussion. I’ve only got 90 minutes and where to begin. This guy has been everywhere, done everything twice and knows everybody there is to know.
So Joi, where did it all go wrong? No, too informal. I take the easy way out and open by asking for the abbreviated bio straight from the source.
Who is Joi Ito?
“I was born in Kyoto. My father was an associate professor at Kyoto University, and I think I moved to the U.S. when I was around two. After that, I moved to Canada and then traveled around the U.S. until my father got a job in a technology company in Michigan. So I grew up in the U.S. until I was around 13 but then moved back to Japan when my parents separated. My mom went to work in Tokyo, and after that we went back and forth. For college, I went back to the States but then back to Japan. Most of my life I think I’ve been in Japan, but I did spend a lot of my formative years in the U.S. Funnily enough, my sister and I were brought up with roughly the same sort of opportunities and advice, but we are very different personalities. She got straight A’s and went to Harvard and Stanford and got two PhDs. And I sort of made it through school, but I didn’t find formal education interesting or easy.”
He pauses to let that sink in. But I’m already well aware that part of the controversy surrounding Ito’s appointment to MIT came from a section of the academic establishment who were quick to point out his lack of a formal college education.
“I went to Tufts University and dropped out and then was working in a company that my mother and father both worked at. A physicist there convinced me that I should study physics, so I went to the University of Chicago but dropped out again and became a disc jockey.”
Brilliant, I think—the perfect embodiment of the Web 2.0 wandering tribe.
“It was really when I saw the early Internet begin to evolve in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that I realized that the old media industry, where it felt like you had to spend decades of paying dues and climbing ladders before ever actually having control over your own stuff, was over. I realized that the Internet’s going to change everything.”
“I’ve been doing computer networks all along. I’ve loved computers since I was a kid. Initially, I used to play a lot of video games, but later I began to write video games and then eventually worked on using the computer as a communication tool. I dropped out mainly because I really thought the concept of community was more interesting. I became a disc jockey in a nightclub in Chicago, and I found that I was learning more from a sort of working class, AIDS-riddled community in Chicago in the late ‘80s than I was from anything I found interesting in university. I spent about a year as a professional disc jockey in the north side of Chicago and then moved back to Tokyo where I still ran a nightclub and organized events.
“My main thing is I like to learn—my sister calls me an “interest-driven learner”—and I like to learn things that I need in order to get something done that I want to do. I learnt about computers working in a lab at the company my father worked for. I’ve worked on movie sets and TV sets and nightclubs and even been a bartender. Whenever I’m interested in anything, I like to do it as a job and learn from the experience. I worked as an assistant in Hollywood and promoted records and managed artists, and when I had enough of that, consulted for American movies, Japanese investors and all kinds of things.”
So how did this eclectic beginning, this process of finding yourself manifest to where you are today?
“I was always interested in media and computers. After I’d dropped out, I’d been doing record promotion, television production, but I was always working on computer networking. I had been developing email and generally helping people understand computers. It was really when I saw the early Internet begin to evolve in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that I realized that the old media industry, where it felt like you had to spend decades of paying dues and climbing ladders before ever actually having control over your own stuff, was over. I realized that the Internet’s going to change everything. So I dumped all the media stuff I was working on and focused completely on building the Internet. I was in Japan at that time, and I helped build the first commercial Internet service provider and became the CEO. I built one of the first Web companies and arguably one of the first personal websites in Japan. Then I helped develop the first Internet advertising consortium in Japan, DAC, (which is now publicly traded) and the first search engine in Japan, Infoseek Japan. So I was sort of building the Internet layer by layer, and I learnt a lot about entrepreneurship just by doing it.”
"I am very much an on-the-ground person who likes to learn through experience. At the Media Lab we call it learning through construction rather than instruction. I hate education, but I love learning, so to me, that all comes from this idea of collaboration and working in communities and working in networks.”
It could be said that you more or less followed the classic entrepreneur’s route to success: follow your passions, somehow be in the right place at the right time, learn by doing, move onto the next project and keep building. Was it as smooth as that sounds?
“When I started I didn’t know anything, and my first 10 companies were failures. But you know I was uneducated but trainable, so eventually I kind of learnt it as I went along. I started shifting my focus to investing because it seemed a little more scalable, and I didn’t really like the operations stuff that much anyway. I started investing in a lot of early Internet companies like Flickr and Six Apart and Technorati and Last.fm and more recently Kickstarter and Twitter and stuff like that. As I was doing this I also became active in the nonprofit sector. From a young age I can remember my mother being very involved in social elements of society and nonprofits, and I became active in these areas too when I was younger.
“A lot of this work has been around Internet governance. I was on the board of the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Open Source Initiative (OSI), and I’m on the board of the Mozilla Foundation (which promotes openness on the Internet). I also ran Creative Commons, the nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the sharing of digital information. As my business focus progressed up the layers of the Internet stack I started working on human rights and getting involved with Witness, which is Peter Gabriel’s nonprofit for human rights defenders, and Global Voices, a network of bloggers focused on preserving free speech around the world. This coincided with my more recent move into investing and being on foundation boards, such as the Knight Foundation board and the MacArthur Foundation board, trying to scale-up the influencers, the direction, by trying to help the people who are giving the money to these startups and nonprofits.
“From there I ended up at the Media Lab from knowing a few people in my network … They asked me if I was interested in the role, but then I think they went through all their other candidates and didn’t find anybody. I don’t know if they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, but they decided to try me out again! They had me come in and meet everybody, and that’s when it got worked out.
“I think it makes total sense as the whole point of the Media Lab is to be undirected and interested in everything, and my problem was that I was interested in everything and couldn’t find any one place to do it. I was sort of stretched …all over the place, but it turns out focusing on the Media Lab is about focusing on everything. My skill has really been connecting things together that are out of context. It’s all about creating these anti-disciplinary contexts, which is kind of what I really enjoy doing. So I am very happy now. I think I found my tribe.”
Ito pauses and I ask if a lot of the experiences that he went through earlier in his life, particularly during his time in Chicago, have helped him shape a vision for the Media Lab. Indeed, I wonder if his views on the concept of community are something that has influenced how he looks at the business world today?
“Community and the role of technology on communities is a key interest of mine, and the Internet is really about this new kind of distributed innovation that’s a community innovation. I’m interested in networks, systems and communities and context. I am not that interested in objects and property and individuals and material things. That’s been my bias: to always look at systems and explore complexity and change. So when you look at the Media Lab it is interesting because it has got some of the basic DNA of the Internet, which is about embracing change and reinvention and risk and building things. It is okay for something to work in practice but not in theory, you know. It is the opposite of the scholarship of the economists who, when theory and practice don’t match, question reality rather than their theory.
“I am very much an on-the-ground person who likes to learn through experience. At the Media Lab we call it learning through construction rather than instruction. I hate education, but I love learning, so to me, that all comes from this idea of collaboration and working in communities and working in networks. In that regard, I am very comfortable with the basic ethos of the Media Lab, which is a massively anti-disciplinary group of people that are focused on thinking through building and learning. What I think I bring is the realization that the lab was created before the Internet really got going, even before the personal computer revolution. It was originally very much about empowering individuals. Right now we’re going through a transformation where the focus is shifting toward distance and complexity and things of that nature. In a sense, it’s a perfect time for me to be at the Media Lab. We have the same DNA, and what we are transforming into is something that will draw on a lot of my experience.”
“I have a very strong desire to cause positive impact, directly or indirectly. My main skill is sort of pattern recognition and connecting people and things, usually across as wide a network as possible. So sometimes it is connecting people to money, like venture capital, or connecting people to people or people to research. But really what I do is I scan and am pretty good at pattern recognition … And it turns out you still have to learn quite a bit to be able to connect things properly; you have to go deep enough to know that the organ transplanted doesn’t get rejected. So there is a certain amount of study you have to do. I don’t know if you’ve read [Stanford sociologist] Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties”—but in that paper he argues most people find jobs and mates from people who aren’t in their strong-type close network; you find jobs or get valuable information from networks that are somewhat far away from your comfort zone. My skill is pushing myself out of my comfort zone to learn and also connecting things together that usually aren’t in the same network. And so, that manifests as becoming an activist sometimes, becoming a venture capitalist sometimes.”
At that I ask, having been on the ground now for just over six months, if he has felt any resistance to the ideas and the ideologies that have formed his views and shaped the direction he’d like to take the Media Lab. Has he created opportunities to open the lab up to the outside world, and how easy is it to do that—particularly in an academic setting in a city that is known to be somewhat staid and conservative?
"I think you always have to be vigilant because there are always those forces that are trying to close the Internet and control it because they fear openness. Basically anybody who doesn’t benefit from democratization is going to want to close the Internet and all of its various layers.”
“Everybody has been very supportive. Most of the things we’ve been trying to do seem to be going well. In many ways, the staff and the students had already moved in the right direction, and I am just making a lot of decisions that are somewhat obvious but just hadn’t been made. And I believe where we’re at in Boston is where the potential is. When I first got here, I started a blog; I started releasing things under Creative Commons for the first time. We are now streaming every single talk and putting the videos online and getting tweets from the outside world. I’ve also created an IP (intellectual property) commission—right now we are reviewing the IP policy and probably going to change that. This spring meeting, which is our annual meeting, we are going to be streaming all of the research updates to the Internet and providing the content. For the first time ever, you’ll be able to see and watch the videos of reports from all of our research groups. So far the staff and the faculty are embracing the openness. I think that they realize that sharing and openness is really how they are going to find other people, peers and collaborators and get attention to the work that they are doing. So yes, it is interesting because before it wasn’t really that open. But I’ve found less resistance than I expected to pushing it open, and I intend to continue making it even more open. The danger is a sort of closed state can happen if you don’t do anything; you can just fall into this trap of not getting out. We’ve got a lot of smart people, we’ve got resources, we’ve got a great lab—in many ways it is pretty convenient and fulfilling just working within your own community. But once you start to reach out you realize that there really isn’t anything holding you back from being more open. There are little tweaks we need to make legally so that we don’t get into trouble when we do what we want to do, but those are minor things. We are going to go all-out open.”
With so much being written about the benefits of collaboration and opening up to stimulate innovation in organizations, do you envisage what you are trying to do will have a positive impact on the lab’s ability to become more innovative and entrepreneurial?
“Yes I do. I think timingwise it is an interesting period for innovation, and I think we can learn from this in the lab. For instance, if we look at startups in the consumer Internet and software space, a lot of innovation was achieved through using open-source software, which made the cost of producing, distributing and collaborating for the creation of software and consumer Internet services so cheap. It lowered the cost of innovation so that most of the services we have today were created while the founders were still in school, and you didn’t have to raise money first in order to develop anything; you could just build stuff and raise money once it started to do well. That really pushed innovation out of the big labs and more into startups. And this is happening with hardware now, too, where you’ve got these specialist supply chain companies like PCH making the supply chain function relatively risk free for startups ... And then we have new open technology such as 3-D printers, laser cutters and CADD, which means the design and prototyping is becoming really, really cheap. You are going to find the same kind of diminishing costs in innovation in hardware as you did in software, and I think the Media Lab has particular strengths in this area.
“The same sort of thing is happening in biotech, whether it’s drug discovery or gene sequencing or gene production or biofabrication. Those areas are also going through the same sort of changes, which are having a big impact on reducing costs. It is this kind of startup venture culture which utilizes the open-sharing mode versus the closed, proprietary big lab mode that is just coming to hardware and biotech. Those are two areas that I think we are pretty good in, both MIT and, in particular, the Media Lab. So it’s good timing right now for us to think about startups, to think about innovation and openness, because those are the kinds of ideas that are powerful when it comes to networks. The lab has done groundbreaking work in areas such as synthetic molecular biology and robotic prosthesis for emotions and autism and lots of really amazing stuff that will suddenly start to create a lot of momentum as we start to see what I think is going to be a revolution in hardware and biotech. And we can use the Internet to push that in new ways.”
On that subject, I float the idea that we may be entering a plateau in our love affair with the Web. Despite all the advances and the social impact for good when used as a change agent for democracy in countries like Egypt and Syria, its halo is sullied in other areas such as privacy and security, which threatens to undermine its true potential. I ask Ito if he remains optimistic about the future of the Web and whether he thinks we are still progressing, or perhaps regressing, when it comes to how the Web is being used and developed.
“I think you always have to be vigilant because there are always those forces that are trying to close the Internet and control it because they fear openness. Basically anybody who doesn’t benefit from democratization is going to want to close the Internet and all of its various layers. You have to be vigilant at every layer, and there is always a risk that you either create a closed layer or that a layer that is fairly open becomes closed. So you can’t just count on it to be okay. For example, I am quite concerned that the mobile networks and the mobile operators are very much part of a non-open system and that they are building different layers that are closed. And these are areas that are becoming key elements of the broader Internet ecosystem.
“And so my biggest fear is that power aggregates secrecy, and citizens become transparent and completely manipulated, put under surveillance, and democracy breaks, then society breaks. That is the worst-case scenario, so you have to fight against that. But how do you fight against that when the people don’t care about their privacy because they don’t understand it?
“But, even the stuff that is open, you’ll still find people attacking it with proposed legislation that limits its use. There are constant attacks, so you’ve got to continue to fight because I think there’s always a risk that the Internet will take damage or the idea of being open will take damage. I do think we are going to win—that open tends to overrun closed in the long run—but in the short run sometimes closed systems make a lot of headway. So I definitely think it is an ongoing battle but one that we’ll win.”
Is it possible that you can protect privacy and transparency without affecting the whole idea of being open?
“There are two things I’d say on this. First of all, what you are trying to solve for or fight against is the natural tendency for those in power to have secrecy and those without to be transparent. The reason that causes an extreme failure case is that it prevents the ability to question authority without the fear of retribution, and dissent doesn’t happen. When you can’t dissent, democracy breaks.
“And so my biggest fear is that power aggregates secrecy, and citizens become transparent and completely manipulated, put under surveillance, and democracy breaks, then society breaks. That is the worst-case scenario, so you have to fight against that. But how do you fight against that when the people don’t care about their privacy because they don’t understand it? That’s kind of where we are today for the most part. People are happy to give away all their privacy without really thinking about it. So at some point privacy is going to get out of control; it is going to get messy and yucky, but then eventually customer needs and the user needs are going to change. Once that happens we’ll see robust systems being developed that protect privacy but allow us to do what we need to do, allow people to control their own data. I think it is great that governments are coming up with privacy policies, but ultimately the system is going to figure out on its own what it needs, as long as we don’t allow those in power to create such destructive policies that the natural systems just break.”
With our time drawing to a close, I ask Ito how he thinks the Media Lab is going to be judged five years out in terms of the impact he hopes to make and how he plans on ensuring a strong legacy.
“I am working on trying to come up with four or five grand challenges that are super impactful, unique and magical. Right now in the Media Lab, we have 350 projects in 26 groups doing lots of interesting things, and there is some collaboration. But I am trying to come up with 4–5 stories about the big ideas we will be working on that links everything together. I think we need to create a narrative. I would like to see five years from now the lab having taken a couple of these grand challenges and significantly moving the needle and hitting the high-water mark on them. Actually today we were literally brainstorming what these ideas would be, and it is wonderfully fun and inspiring to sit around the room with our faculty deciding what these challenges will look like. I think as the institutional custodian of this place it is my job to make sure that I cause those conversations to happen across the groups more intentionally than just leaving it up to chance.” DR
Scott Wilson leads Technology, Media and Telecommunications research for Deloitte Research, Deloitte Services LP.