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New Director of MIT Media Lab Talks of Encouraging Openness

Joi ItoThis week the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named a new director for its high-tech Media Lab, and its choice, Joi Ito, is someone who says he has learned more from World of Warcraft than from traditional academic institutions. Mr. Ito is chairman and former chief executive of Creative Commons, a nonprofit that advocates for new, more-open copyright licenses that make online sharing easier. He has also been a high-tech entrepreneur and a venture capitalist. Though he briefly attended Tufts University and the University of Chicago, he never completed a college degree. Mr. Ito talked to The Chronicle about his hopes for the new job and about how video games have prepared him to lead professors.

Q. You’ve led information-sharing efforts—most recently as head of Creative Commons. Do you anticipate more sharing coming out of the Media Lab on your watch? Will we see more open-source or open-knowledge projects from the Media Lab itself?
A. That will definitely be a bias I have going in. I think being director of the Media Lab, I don’t have the illusion that I can order people around. I can encourage people, create processes, and kind of set the tone of the conversation. But the great thing about the Media Lab is that everyone’s allowed to do what they want to do, and so I will definitely encourage openness. I will encourage more use of social media and Internet tools. And I will encourage communication in different modes that the Media Lab hasn’t traditionally used as much.

Q. I’ve seen you quoted about your love of playing World of Warcraft, the multiplayer video game, and how it has taught you to be a better leader. How has online gaming prepared you for this job at the Media Lab?
A.
What’s interesting about a World of Warcraft guild is that you’ve got a group of people who are showing up and actually paying money to play this game, and as a leader of a guild, you’re trying to encourage a bunch of people to do a bunch of administrative work, come up with guild bylaws, and cooperate. And this is similar with volunteers at Creative Commons and open-source projects. It’s trying to lead a bunch of people who are just there because they want to be. It’s a very different kind of management than say managing a bank or an investment bank, where you’ve got sticks and carrots and structure. The leadership method of online communities and World of Warcraft and open-source projects is actually really similar to doing something like leading a bunch of super-smart, creative academics and students.

Q. Do you worry that because you don’t have a college degree coming into a job like this, that you might not be taken seriously by some people in academe?
A.
While I don’t have a college degree, I do spend a great deal of my time with academics. I really do sincerely believe that I can have a positive impact on academics and academia in general. There will be some academics who might not take me as seriously or might have a problem with the idea, but I do think I’ll be able to contribute. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Q. What was it that turned you off in your undergraduate experiences?
A.
My problem was I could get on the Internet and learn most of the stuff that I needed to learn. What I wanted from academia was coaching, was excitement, was projects. And the undergraduate programs I attended didn’t have that. They were trying to teach me stuff, instead of coaching me along my path. And that’s the kind of people that the Media Lab attracts.

The problem is that the Media Lab is only one institution, and so I’d love the Media Lab to invent a way to take what we’re learning about learning and be able to allow other people to replicate it.

Q. The Media Lab tried replicate it with offshoots in other countries, but they didn’t take off. Why do you think that is?
A.
Part of it is when you’re working in expensive sciences, you need a lot of money—when you’re building robots, when you’re poking brains. The thing that’s interesting about the Internet and about software is that the cost of failure is really low. And so the key is going to be to take the Media Lab’s DNA and put it in institutions that don’t cost as much money to start, and maybe in fields that don’t cost as much money to start, and just kind of get the method. It’s my mission to try to help figure it out at the Media Lab and how it’s going to be able to scale across the world.

Q. What’s most exciting to you about taking this job?
A.
It wasn’t until I visited that I really fell in love with the idea. When I understood what the lab really was—sitting down with faculty and students and having these streams of conversations that crossed disciplines. The word “interdisciplinary” doesn’t really do the Media Lab justice. There are a lot of interdisciplinary programs that really kind of build bridges between distinct disciplines, but the Media Lab is really a synthesis that allows and actually encourages people to break traditional academic frameworks and think about science’s view of art, say, or think about art from a mathematical perspective. I think the problem is we don’t really have a good word for it. And that should be one of my first projects is to try to explain that.

Q. What would be a good word for it?
A.
I can describe the elements and maybe you can help me think of the word. A lot of it has to do with the lab’s layout, and the fact that there’s only one of each category of academic there. You’re forced to explain what you’re doing in other people’s terms. And it’s also very spontaneous, and it embraces serendipity because it’s not planned as much as, say, if you have a multiyear project to bring this department closer to this department.

Q. It’s kind of a mashup?
A
. Yeah, it’s kind of a mashup. A lot of people call America a melting pot of cultures. I don’t actually think it is. I think of America as a tossed salad. You’ve got kind of this dressing that tastes the same but actually you’ve got very distinct cultures. I think Japan actually is more of a melting pot in some ways because you’ve got these cultures that have been there for so long that they kind of mash into one. I think the Media Lab is somewhere in between. Interdisciplinary is different kinds of food on the same plate, and then once you get to the Media Lab you’re going from a tossed salad toward a stew, and I think it’s fundamentally different because you get a very different chemical reaction when you sort of melt the stuff together.

Q. You mean getting professors to mix those disciplines together and really talk to each other across boundaries?
A
. Yes, that’s the difficulty that a lot of the multidisciplinary work has right now—not only between academics but to government, to nonprofits, to social entrepreneurs, to start-ups. That part of it can be improved. That’s where I’d like to make a lot of impact is to try to reach out to different cultures, to different sectors.

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