Joi Ito: How to Save the Internet from its Success

fl20061105x1aIf the Internet dream could take human form, it might look and sound a lot like cheerful, boyish, 44-year-old Joi Ito, the new director of the fantasy factory known as the MIT Media Lab. Like the Web, he’s everywhere and nowhere — often, in fact, 30,000 feet in the air, circumnavigating the planet every couple of weeks, but wrapped always in a digital cloud of conversation and omnidirectional exploration.

Joi Ito draws on Japanese roots and American experience. Born and continually tutored by his grandmother in the old cultural capital, Kyoto, he was raised also by his parents in surburban Detroit. But his air seems less East-West hybrid than a spirit of self-consciously detribalized human energy. His home airport now is Dubai, because he wanted to cultivate a Middle Eastern perspective on events, investments, social turmoil.

Joi Ito is as complexly “global” a citizen as Pico Iyer, the English-Indian writer who went to university in the States and now bases himself at TIME magazine and in Japan. But the effects, and the affect, are entirely different. Pico Iyer’s passions are literary; his oldest best friend is the Dalai Lama. Joi Ito’s issues — applied urgently to technology, culture, teaching and learning — are innovation, openness, connectedness. His passions — which seem to be engaged serially — have evolved from experimental “industrial” music, which he transported from Chicago to Tokyo, to start-up investments (early into Twitter, Kickstarter, Flickr). Then came on-line games, and scuba diving. In conversation, he might impel you to join his advanced World of Warcraft guild; but then he might make others scream “Only disconnect!” and go home to a Victorian novel.

Like the Web, Joi Ito is a natural-born connector — cherished by fellow futurists for giving them courage. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab 25 years ago and author of Being Digital says of his heir: “Joi got the job because he is the most selfless young person I know who has made his short life-time one of enablement. This is so key. The Media Lab is now much broader than I ever knew it, where the ‘media’ du jour is the mind.” Joi’s job, Negroponte adds, “is to make the Lab crazy again.”

We are talking about wrinkles in the Internet dream — about the self-cancelling possibility, for example, that digital tech has leveraged the surveillance state as much as it has linked up the social-justice crowds. I’m asking Joi Ito about Doc Searls‘ dread, that “our commons is being enclosed” by phone companies, the entertainment industry and regulators who see the Net essentially as “a better way to get TV on your mobile device, delivered for subscription and usage fees.” And I’m venting some of my own latter-day anxiety about the damage the Internet has done to the old-media institutions we miss more and more, and maybe didn’t cherish enough — the late great New York Times, to name just one.

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  • The ROS interview with Joi Ito was especially charming and resonant when the discussion came to be about interdisciplinary learning-by-making and “The Power Of Pull” and serendipitous openness.
    This is a refreshing corrective to the bootcamp/”another brick in the wall” tenor of today’s education factories.
    Internet-watching as such might profitably be perspectivalized—these should not be taken as attacks but as enrichments—in the following two ways:
    Tom Standage wrote a book a few years back called “The Victorian Internet.”
    Standage writes:
    “In the nineteenth century there were no televisions, aeroplanes, computers, or spacecraft; neither were there antibiotics, credit cards, microwave ovens, compact discs, or mobile phones.
    There was, however, an Internet.
    During Queen Victoria’s reign, a new communications technology was developed that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances, in effect shrinking the world faster and further than ever before. A world-wide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionised business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users, and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates, and dismissed by the sceptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes to everything from newsgathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself.
    Does all this sound familiar?”
    “I was particularly pleased that Vint Cerf liked the book, since he is the modern-day equivalent of Samuel Morse: Cerf is known as the Father of the internet, just as Morse was called the Father of the Telegraph.”
    “An inspired and utterly topical rediscovery of the emergence of the earliest modern communications technology.” – William Gibson
    “Marc Andreessen gave me this book called ‘The Victorian Internet’, which is a fabulous read. The book makes the argument that the telegraph in its day was much more revolutionary than the Internet is in our day.” – Jimmy Wales
    Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley wrote a classic called “What Computers Can’t Do” where he predicted that “naïve AI” (a la Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky) projects would all fail as they did.

    He also has incisive philosophical caveats about the Internet’s meaning:

    On the Internet (Thinking in Action)
    Hubert L Dreyfus (Author)
    Product Description
    Drawing on a diverse array of thinkers from Plato to Kierkegaard, On the Internet is one of the first books to bring philosophical insight to the debate on how far the internet can and cannot take us.
    Dreyfus shows us the roots of the disembodied, free floating web surfer in Descartes’ separation of mind and body, and how Kierkegaard’s insights into the birth of the modern reading public anticipate the news-hungry, but disinterested risk avoiding internet junkie. Drawing on recent studies of the isolation experienced by many internet users, Dreyfus shows how the internet’s privatization of experience ignores essential human capacities such as trust, moods, risk, shared local concerns and commitment.

    On the Internet is essential reading for anyone on line and all those interested in our place in the e-revolution.
    Product Details:
    • Paperback: 136 pages
    • Publisher: Routledge
    • May 20, 2001
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0415228077
    • ISBN-13: 978-0415228077

  • Sam Sanchez

    Indeed, great interview.


    I have yet to pick up Dreyfus’s On the Internet but have stumbled across an article of his giving a sound critique of A.I. and it’s numerous blunders, using of all things, are few arguments from German philosopher Martin Heidegger as well as French thinker Maurice Mearlu-Ponty. Dreyfus does seem to pull together ‘seemingly’ unrelated and fairly abstract, yet also very concrete thinkers and ideas into a highly articulate circumspective approach to ordinary phenomena. Thanks for the suggestion. Glad to see radioopensource is attracting great minds.

  • Potter

    Wow and yikes that his sister has 2 PhD’s but I entirely agree that learning/education is best when it’s interest based, inspired by some drive or influence or fascination. I love the word serendipity, coming upon something unexpectedly– and the phrase “follow your bliss” ( what Joseph Campbell left us with after all else).

    Regarding Twitter and tweeting my initial feeling was ( and is) that it’s not for me. I thought it a rather self-indulgent, self – involved thing for some- I mean who cares what I am thinking while I am waiting for the bus? I don’t I have better things to do with my time than tweet and read other people’s tweetings? But folks are tweeting! And I have reversed myself about it’s value during these uprisings, insurrections and revolutions (about which Hugo attempts to tell the difference).

    I am so thankful for podcasts. We can go back over and hear again- listen when convenient. But I am thankful specifically for the paper version of the New York Times ( every day) still as well as the online version. I find the latter essential for images, picture quality, especially multi-media ( slide) shows and videos). The Nazi photo album published this week was astonishing .
    Thank you.

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