If 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.