Joi Ito dives into the MIT Media Lab (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: New head of famous tech and innovation center talks to CNET about why he's a good fit, what it will be like to merge his network with that of the lab, and why he's passionate about diving.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
10 min read
Joi Ito was named the director of the MIT Media Lab on Monday. MIT Media Lab

Consider this list of institutions and companies that are at the center of the Internet and technology worlds: Creative Commons, Mozilla, Technorati, ICANN, Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Twitter, Six Apart, and Flickr. What do they all have in common?

If you answered Joi Ito, you're spot on. And now you can add the MIT Media Lab to that list. Ito is a Japanese venture capitalist and entrepreneur who has been running and investing in technology companies like those listed above and serving on the boards of important institutions for years. And on Monday, he was named the new director of MIT's Media Lab, the cutting-edge research center founded in 1980 by Nicholas Negroponte, who among other things, is known for the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

Ito's appointment makes perfect sense to many, given the breadth of his experience, his impressive personal network, and his many interests. But as someone who doesn't hold a degree of any kind himself, he is an unexpected choice to head up such an important academic institution. Still, when news of his selection by the lab broke Monday, many of the digerati's best and brightest could barely contain their pleasure. Across the board, Ito was seen as a great fit.

For Ito, who pioneered the idea that World of Warcraft is the new golf--building a now-famous guild populated with CEOs and other luminaries, and getting his teams to work together inside the virtual world of WoW--the lab may be the intellectual opportunity of a lifetime. But as anyone who follows him on Twitter knows, staying still is not Ito's thing, in any way. This is a man who travels the world at a rate unlike almost anyone else, and so a position at the helm of a place like the Media Lab would seem certain to curtail his accumulation of airline miles.

Yesterday, while he was on a brief trip to Jordan, Ito sat down with CNET for a 45 Minutes on IM interview and talked about whether he'll have to give up looking out the windows of airplanes, about what the Media Lab opportunity means to him, and much more.

Q: Thank you so much for doing this, especially on no sleep. So, the first thing I thought--after being very pleased about the news--was, How's Joi going to keep flying all over the world with this new job? Is it going to be like George Clooney getting grounded in the film "Up in the Air"?
Joi Ito: Ha. I think there will be a few phases. I think I'm going to have to ground myself for a bit to get to know the lab well. But I think a lot of what the lab wants from me is to be a conduit to lots of external things, people, sponsors, institutions, cultures. So travel will be part of my job once I've synched with the lab. Also, a lot of my crazy lack of focus is because I quickly break out of molds or want to go do new stuff. My feeling is that the lab can almost do anything. It will allow me to almost "focus on everything" while being focused on the lab because of its diverse and interdisciplinary nature. So I don't know how that translates exactly into my travel schedule, but I think that at least I'll have more of a "home base."

So, you sort of already answered this, and it is kind of a duh question, but why did you want this?
Ito: The main thing is that there are so many smart, cool students and faculty there empowered to think creatively and big and I really connected with the energy of the place when I visited. That's the main reason. And it turns out that I have accumulated some skills that fit some of the needs and the role of the director position they were looking for. It lets me continue to be interested in just about everything I'm already interested in, but in a community with a platform that will enhance everything. Also, I really enjoy providing context to people who have lots of substance and depth. I learn through interacting with smart people and love to surround myself with mentors and friends who stimulate my thinking. My output is usually context and connections and overall trajectories and vision stuff. So it's also a perfect fit for that kind of activity. Also, there's the right balance of academics, theory, business, short-term, long-term, etc.

Can you give a synopsis of the kinds of things that most interest you?
Ito: Not exactly in order, but: Diving, human rights, innovation, copyright, Internet policy, media, art, the Middle East, the mind, video games. Sort of everything actually. I'm trying to think of things I'm NOT interested in.

I liked how in your blog post about joining the lab you said that your initial conversation with Nicholas Negroponte was over a horrid cell phone connection. Did you worry that this great opportunity might get lost to the haze of a bad signal?
Ito: Well, there are challenges. We're definitely in a honeymoon period. We're all very excited about each other, which is a good thing. But the devil is in the details in delivering impact. Raising money, etc. There's lots to do. I've never worked in an academic institution and the Media Lab and MIT have never worked with someone like me. We're going to have a challenge, but I think everyone's going to give it their best shot. I met many of the senior administration at MIT and they were all supportive--not just the Media Lab folks. It was very heartening, and also added a great deal of positive momentum for me.

The Media Lab is obviously already a great and important institution. But do you have a sense of a couple of the initial things that you'll do to put your impact on the place?
Ito: I think that the Internet has changed the way that we communicate with the rest of the world, and I think the Media Lab--although it invented a lot of this stuff, hasn't yet embraced all of the tools out there. I think there is a lot of Creative Commons-like openness and sharing, as well as external community building that can happen. Having visited the Media Lab, it's very easy to see how you could spend your whole life immersed there. But I think that some of the things could be opened up more and connected to more outside things. It's not that they don't collaborate, but it could be augmented. Also, the connection to Silicon Valley could be strengthened, as well as with other regions in the world. Nonprofits could have more of a connection. There are some relationships like with the Knight Foundation, but there could be much, much more, especially with social entrepreneurship becoming such an important part of the nonprofit landscape. I think there is a good fit there. But really, I'll decide more once I know what's going on and have a better inventory of what's going on. I want to understand before I make too many recommendations

So, be honest with me. You said "the Internet has changed the way that we communicate with the rest of the world." Does that mean you'll be having all your faculty and students doing classes and interaction through World of Warcraft?
Ito: Ha ha. No, although I'd be happy to have students and faculty join the guild. There are several levels I guess and I'm being sort of intentionally vague because I don't yet know what will work exactly. But I think that the Media Lab could do more with online communities or the Web in general. Also, IP policy is an important part of universities, but I think it can also be friction when trying to connect online. But I'm sort of out on a limb here so I don't want to commit to anything specific since I haven't had long conversations about operational details yet.

In your blog post, you talked about merging your existing network with the lab. That sounds like a scary powerful new network. What do you imagine that would be like?
Ito: Simple stuff initially. I'll have my friends come to the lab and meet the students and faculty, and also bring students and faculty to meet people in my network and join interesting meetings. It's really about connecting people in my network to people at the lab and vice versa. It's not like one big connection, but in a highly contextual way, like synapses in a brain. It's not about power or influence. It's about exactly the right connections that have exactly the right effect. It's all about nuance, which I think people don't really get sometimes when they talk about "networking," since traditional structures are so monolithic. The key is to make sure that the biologist in Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) working on turning sand into bricks talks to the architect working on open architecture.

You've been involved in so many amazing initiatives--Creative Commons, Mozilla, ICANN, Technorati, Neoteny, and on and on...That's more than most people do in a lifetime. How do you do it all? Do you sleep?
Ito: Well, I try not to get too "operational" and focus on my areas of strength, which is the high-risk periods, the connections. At Creative Commons I did more "operations" than I normally would because the organization needed it. And at the Media Lab, I have more operational responsibilities too. But in the past I sort of avoided operational stuff and tried to work in a project-oriented way, with exits and ends sort of built in. Like my three-year term at ICANN. Also, since I'm mostly a connector, doing stuff in parallel has a positive network effect even though it limits focus sometimes. But I wouldn't recommend this mode for everyone. It's hard to manage, and you don't get much sleep.

I'm sure. Well, getting back to the lab, based on the time you've spent there, and conversations I'm sure you've had, can you tell me about any projects you've seen there that you're particularly excited about?
Ito: All of them/lots of them. I'd rather not call out any one in particular right now until I've spent more time there. But I love that they connect all of the areas--biology, art, robots, artificial intelligence, etc.

You said that being at the lab made you feel at home for the first time? Can you say a little more about what that means to you?
Ito: Well, the focus of the lab, and the fact that it's a good thing to be interdisciplinary. The energy just felt really familiar and made me happy.

One of the things I saw pointed out was that you don't have a degree yourself. Did that pose any kind of problem with faculty or anyone? Or is that not important in any way?
Ito: I think the faculty were OK with it, but it was probably tricky for them to think about how it might affect various things. I wasn't privy to all of the conversations, but you have to remember that part of my role is to convince students to finish their Ph.Ds. But I think they were very courageous to do this, frankly. I don't think a Japanese school could do it.

Is there anything you can imagine about being in an academic institution that will present a particular challenge for you versus having been in private or nonprofit type organizations?
Ito: Yeah. The biggest thing is my lack of experience. I'm a quick learner, but there's lots to learn. Also, I need to support my faculty and I worry that my lack of experience and "creds" might hamper my ability to support tenure arguments, etc. Which is important in a university.

Switching gears, you said earlier that one of your interests is scuba diving, and when we were setting up this interview you said you were about to take your instructor's exam. How did that go?
Ito: I passed! I'm a PADI open water scuba instructor.

I assume that means that the lab should worry that you're going to chuck it all and go teach scuba in Thailand someday soon?
Ito: No, but I might start bugging people at the lab to go diving. Or play World of Warcraft.

What is it that you love about diving?
Ito: It requires a lot of focus, so it serves both as a focused thing to do, but also something where I'm not thinking of anything else. It's like a reset. I also learn so much--physics, physiology, ecology, etc. And, many, many of the divers I meet are really cool people. And I can do it everywhere, sort of.

I remember your blog post about going and visiting a friend in Costa Rica. Why was that trip so important for you, especially the surfing?
Ito: That trip was important because the town he lives in has no sense of time. You're never anticipating the future. You're living in the "now." Surfing is kind of like that. And scuba diving, once you get the organization down to a ritual, it's like that too. It's important to live in the "now" to embrace serendipity. That sounds a bit hippie, but it's true.

Last question, and it's my standard last question in this interview series. But I think it's particularly applicable for you. So, I love doing IM interviews for many reasons: I get a perfect transcript, and it gives my interviewees a chance to think a bit more and be a bit more articulate than they might otherwise be. But also, IM allows you to multitask. So, tell me what else you were doing while we were chatting?
Ito: Ha ha. I was watching my Twitter stream. I triaged a bit of e-mail. I sent all of my IM info to everyone at the Media Lab and have been accepting connection requests. And I looked at my World of Warcraft guild forums, and wrote a note saying that I've invited my Media Lab community to join the guild.

Well, thank you so much. And again, congratulations! I'll be putting in my application to the lab soon.