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Joi Ito named director of MIT Media Lab
April 25, 2011 5:02 PM   Subscribe

MIT is expected to announce tomorrow its naming of Joichi Ito as head of the MIT Media Lab (NYTimes). This is noteworthy because rather than being a star of academia, design, or engineering, he is a 44-year-old venture capitalist.

The MIT Media Lab was founded by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985, and has been considered by many to be on the forefront of practical technology research since then.

Media Lab on Wikipedia

Joi's blog post on the topic

his wikipedia page
posted by thedaniel (78 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
His career includes [...] becoming a “guild master” in the World of Warcraft online fantasy game; [...]
My resume needs some serious revision, apparently.
posted by ancillary at 5:11 PM on April 25, 2011 [10 favorites]


I'm proud to say that not only was I a student at the MIT Media Lab, but Joi used to be my guildmaster. He's a very interesting person, a true polymath, and if he can work the politics I think he'll be a good Director for the Media Lab. The Media Lab has had a few rough years and could use some re-alignment and new energy. I'm optimistic Joi can provide that.
posted by Nelson at 5:14 PM on April 25, 2011 [13 favorites]


The original group of Japan bloggers are all familiar with Joi Ito as an prolific blogger, entrepreneur and an envoy and technology adviser (and frequent harsh critic) to the Japanese government. He's also an inactive Metafilter member and was the first to recognize the concept of Emergent Democracy, a term he coined to describe the way that leaderless movements take shape online. His friend gen might have more to say on this.
posted by planetkyoto at 5:20 PM on April 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


And he clearly already understands engineering school.
posted by Zed at 5:31 PM on April 25, 2011


This is definitely a case of who you know.

Namely, other venture capitalists.
posted by jamjam at 5:46 PM on April 25, 2011


Holy crap. He's also an old friend of Timothy Leary or something, and he knows how to DJ.

I used to briefly hang out on his IRC channel. I don't know if he remembers me, but it was pretty awesome. The channel had a really cool living room vibe uncommon to IRC, lots of great discussions and wild ideas. A nice mix of homey and heady.

I totally support this choice. I hope he goes for it. The world could do worse than have "venture capitalists" like Joichi Ito at the helm, because from everything I've heard and can see he's a humanist first and a capitalist second. I think you could reasonably expect some insanely great things from this endeavor.
posted by loquacious at 5:46 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am optimistic. I think he's got just enough activist in him that this could lead to great things, if that makes sense.
posted by thedaniel at 5:54 PM on April 25, 2011


I guess that Dubai thing didn't work out. Quel surprise. Wherever Joi goes, you can pretty much be assured, that is where the action isn't. So he is the perfect person to be executor of the ongoing decline of the Media Lab.

The "original group of Japan bloggers" like me are all familiar with Joi as some guy who had a Sun workstation with a live webcam you could supposedly point interactively (although it never worked). I have no idea how he parlayed this simple, stupid thing into a whole industry of Joi sycophants.

Disclaimer: I have been paid professionally to disparage Joi Ito and his ridiculous projects. But I'd do it for free. I just did. My opinions of him far preceded my paid writings.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:54 PM on April 25, 2011 [12 favorites]


Cool guy. I discovered him through Justin Hall's blogging IIRC.
posted by mokuba at 5:56 PM on April 25, 2011


Hoo boy, this has all the makings of a real popcorn thread. Stay tuned!
posted by NoMich at 5:59 PM on April 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Is it too late to become a polymath?
posted by mecran01 at 6:00 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I hear that a venture capitalist is going to run the media lab, I really hope a meteor hits the building.
posted by eriko at 6:08 PM on April 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wish someone would give the wearable computing stuff at MIT a kick in the pants. No updates in five years? Broken links to important resources? The best effort sits comfortably in 2003? When will we get something less ... goofy ... than the Twiddler?
posted by adipocere at 6:13 PM on April 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


wow. am kinda torn. i met Joi thru the net art scene and seemed to really get it; but am more on the camp that MIT Media Lab isnt relevant AT ALL these days.
posted by liza at 6:20 PM on April 25, 2011


Urgent -- can't type for long -- this is the leaked short list from wikileaks -- they're on to me -- must close this channel before the black ice gets my deck

Joi Ito
Guy Kawasaki
Jaron Lanier
Cory Doctorow
Rudy Rucker
William Gibson
Gary Numan
Will Smith
posted by felix at 6:26 PM on April 25, 2011 [28 favorites]


The next wearable computing advance will use OpenTLD or something just like it. You heard it here first.
posted by DU at 6:33 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


before the black ice gets my deck

You just shorted my headjack. And I spat mineral water on my monitor.
posted by GuyZero at 6:35 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree with Eriko. Venture capitalists suck. The web would be a much richer experience for us all if creative people with great ideas but no money simply financed them by fishing around in the back of their sofa for change.
posted by joannemullen at 6:39 PM on April 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


MetaFilter: I have been paid professionally to disparage... But I'd do it for free.
posted by DU at 6:40 PM on April 25, 2011


This essay from a competing university lab does not mention Ito, but it's relevant. Essentially, the author accuses MIT (and his own school for that matter) of being patent happy to the point of stifling research.
posted by Popular Ethics at 6:44 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree with Eriko. Venture capitalists suck. The web would be a much richer experience for us all if creative people with great ideas but no money simply financed them by fishing around in the back of their sofa for change.

It worked for Apache.
posted by mecran01 at 6:59 PM on April 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Venture capital doesn't mean not having to fish around in the back of the sofa for change.
posted by ryanrs at 7:03 PM on April 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Since the Media Lab always has been the shiniest, happiest face of the corporatization of the university — an influential model for academia as an outsourced R&D lab for industry — this move shouldn't really surprise me, but it still does a little bit, lacking as it does any fig-leaf of added academic dignity. Does Ito have any advanced degree of any kind? Has he ever even worked in academia before? Or is this, as it seems, MIT attempting to turn Media Lab into a degree-granting version of Y Combinator, a startup academy under the guise of a research lab?
posted by RogerB at 7:03 PM on April 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


Does Ito have any advanced degree of any kind?
Ito dropped out of undergrad twice - CompSci at Tufts and Physics at Chicago - because he didn't enjoy it.

bonus fact:in contrast, Joi Ito's sister, Mimi Ito, has not one but two PhDs from Stanford (Education and Anthropology) and has Harvard AB too.
posted by Bwithh at 7:17 PM on April 25, 2011


Since the Media Lab always has been the shiniest, happiest face of the corporatization of the university

and yes, Media Lab has long been very much about the shiny toy tech demos for the visiting corporate R&D guys or venture capitalists
posted by Bwithh at 7:19 PM on April 25, 2011


Has anything ever made it out of the Media Lab into industry other than documentary appearances of Cog and Kismet? If it's a big corporate R&D effort I don't think they're getting their monies worth.
posted by Long Way To Go at 7:19 PM on April 25, 2011


hopefully it goes better than john maeda's time at RISD...

also btw, dee hock's response to emergent democracy i think is still worth reading :P

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 7:21 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've actually collaborated with Joi on a couple of JE translating projects, through which I got to work with Digital Garage. He's a neat guy. Didn't he found one of Japan's first ISPs? Didn't he help start up Wired? Global Voices Online? Last.fm? Strong supporter of Creative Commons?
posted by KokuRyu at 7:29 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am Joi Ito.
posted by ScottAdams at 7:31 PM on April 25, 2011 [14 favorites]


My view of the MIT Media Lab will be forever tainted by the One Laptop Per Child project. How about fresh water, food, and basic education? Guys?
posted by yifes at 7:33 PM on April 25, 2011


More on Ito:

His response to Johann Hari's article on Dubai: as far as he was concerned, the big real estate bust meant a shorter commute time and easier to get a table at his favorite restaurant.

His "What's in my bag" feature from Boing Boing: He carries four phones--four--with him when he travels, three of them smartphones, plus... well, take a look.

I'm sure that this new thing will work out great.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:36 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Who was the old director. What happened, smart drug overdose at one of those hacker raves that are full of like super geniuses with green dreads that just won't follow your rules man.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:50 PM on April 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


His "What's in my bag" feature from Boing Boing

It's cool that he carries a first aid kit, but a first aid kid and a bunch of certification cards aren't really dive gear.
posted by snofoam at 7:50 PM on April 25, 2011


Based on what he's carrying (especially the scuba gear) he's an idiot poseur.
posted by coust at 7:51 PM on April 25, 2011


At any rate, the only other place I saw this, hacker news, everyone praised his networking skills, which is I guess what you want for running a place like the MIT Media Lab.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:54 PM on April 25, 2011


On post-view, what coust says. Collecting a lot of certification cards, much less carrying them around wherever you go, is super lame.
posted by snofoam at 7:55 PM on April 25, 2011


mecran01: "It worked for Apache"

So you might have been joking a bit — I hope so — and this is a bit of a derail, but: this shows some real naiveté about how open source actually gets done. I'm on record in a number of places railing against the culture venture capital imposes on technology, but it's completely wrong to imply that open source is some sort of alternative or oppositional force to VC.

We free software types are not all bearded hippies living in our parents' basements. We have jobs and families, and some of us even have social skills. We don't release open source software because we're trying to subvert capitalism or promote anarchy. We do it because it's part of our aforementioned jobs. That is, the bulk of open source software is written by developers at work, being paid to write open source (either directly or indirectly).

I don't have specific numbers for Apache itself, but the Linux Foundation publishes an ongoing set of research on (among other things) who funds Linux's development (PDF). About 25% of the work is indeed done by unaffiliated developers, but that means that roughly 75% of the work on Linux is done on the clock. Red Hat, a commercial open source company is the largest corporate contributor (12%, but there's an enormous long tail — over 500 companies pay developers to work on Linux. The numbers for Linux are huge, but they mirror those seen in smaller projects, including the one I work on.

Further, much (most?) of this work is funded by these VCs we all (me included) like to denigrate. That is, the vast majority of VC-funded companies have well-formed open source strategies that include a healthy dose of giving back. This isn't being done despite VC: in most cases, it's actively being promoted by the VC advisors themselves.

Open source isn't something separate from the crazy world of venture capital; it's part and parcel of that system. The world without VC would undoubtedly be a world better in a whole host of ways, but it'd also a world devoid of open source.
posted by jacobian at 8:01 PM on April 25, 2011 [15 favorites]




Was OLPC really a huge failure? It didn't solve world poverty, and Negroponte may have dropped the ball; but it did coincide with a big investment push by computer firms / Intel to ramp up production of netbooks and smaller processors, (leading to iPads and tablets and the end of the PC?!).

And it did get several big governments to invest (at least momentarily) in computer education for the poor.
posted by stratastar at 8:05 PM on April 25, 2011


The world without VC would undoubtedly be a world better in a whole host of ways, but it'd also a world devoid of open source.

1) Bullshit.

2) Fair trade, if you're right.
posted by eriko at 8:06 PM on April 25, 2011


eriko: "1) Bullshit.

Care to elaborate, cite sources, or otherwise provide an explanation?

2) Fair trade, if you're right

Again, I've been quite public about my distaste for what VC's doing to the tech community, especially in the Bay Area. But even so I'd have to disagree: my life, without open source, would suck. I have no real skills beyond writing software, and the world of proprietary software is a dark, miserable place. I'd rather fight to fix the brokenness than throw the baby out with the bathwater.

posted by jacobian at 8:10 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


hopefully it goes better than john maeda's time at RISD...


I think John's doing pretty good, if you're not pissing off the conservatives in an art school, you really shouldn't be there.


As for this guy, i'm tired of the 'entreprenurial spirit' wafting through academia like a perfumed fart.
posted by sgt.serenity at 8:12 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Joi is a good guy. I've meet him several times and he's a thoughtful, smart and well rounded person. Perfect kind of person lead the Media Lab and bridge the world of academia, business, and the alpha geeks.

Joi gets passionate with what he finds interesting. His current interest in scuba is an example. He fell in love with diving and is now traveling to learn all the varieties and skills from experts around the world. When he gets interested in something, he focuses on learning and finding smart people to speak with. Whether it's World of Warcraft or investing in startups, he does his research, asks questions, and surrounds himself with smart people. Aren't those the kind if behaviors you'd want out of the head of the MIT Media Lab? Openness and curiosity?
posted by Argyle at 8:13 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Open source isn't something separate from the crazy world of venture capital; it's part and parcel of that system. The world without VC would undoubtedly be a world better in a whole host of ways, but it'd also a world devoid of open source.

That's true about certain kinds of projects, but it's definitely not universal. The Drupal project in particular went nearly a decade without any inherent VC funding, and the last several years -- in which millions of dollars have arrived to help the project's founder monetize the project -- has seen a leveling off in the number of long-tail developer contributors. The project is growing, but the nature of it has absolutely changed with the influx of funding.

There are VC funded projects, there are give-away-the-artifacts projects, and there are labor-of-love projects. Open Source is broad, and while some of those things would definitely vanish if VC weren't out there I think it's overstating your case to say that we wouldn't have any open source.
posted by verb at 8:14 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


[The MIT Media Lab]...has been considered by many to be on the forefront of practical technology research since then.

Wut.

I have some dear friends who have worked at the Media Lab, but "practical" is possibly the last word I would apply to the research I've seen out of the Media Lab. (Side note: I may have a different version of "practical" than is being employed here.)

That out of my system, I hope a VC guy will be a good match for the Media Lab. Keep showing Sony those shiny demos and bring in the funding so that the real AI geeks can pay freshmen to do their data entry and stave off the grad students and post-docs' carpel tunnel.
posted by maryr at 8:15 PM on April 25, 2011


Keep showing Sony those shiny demos and bring in the funding so that the real AI geeks can pay freshmen to do their data entry and stave off the grad students and post-docs' carpel tunnel.


Feudalism 2.0
posted by sgt.serenity at 8:22 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


verb: "I think it's overstating your case to say that we wouldn't have any open source"

Yeah, you're right. My main point is that it'd be impossible to untangle open source from the work funded with VC dollars (directly or indirectly). I got hyperbolic at the end; my apologies.

And yeah, I totally hear you about how direct funding can change the nature of a project. I've seen stories like Drupal's all over the open source world, and they're one of the reasons quite a few of the core developers of Django have turned down offers to be paid to work on Django full-time. Money and open source are inextricably linked, but it's a complicated, difficult relationship.
posted by jacobian at 8:22 PM on April 25, 2011


I hope a VC guy will be a good match for the Media Lab. Keep showing Sony those shiny demos and bring in the funding so that the real AI geeks can pay freshmen to do their data entry and stave off the grad students and post-docs' carpel tunnel.

Amen. It's high time that Interpet Explorer [see also] was brought to mass market.
posted by Bwithh at 8:25 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


The comments directed against Joi Ito and "venture capitalism" seem pretty mean-spirited and spiteful. Am I missing something here?
posted by KokuRyu at 8:33 PM on April 25, 2011


they're on to me -- must close this channel before the black ice gets my deck

*crashes*

Ok, you got me too.

Media Lab (and MIT) have always had a really deep relationship not only with capitalism but military projects as well. Ito may indeed be on the same list as Doctorow and others that may have indeed sold many of us a variety fantasy bill of goods about the non-tragedy of the commons, or the true state of affairs of technocracies. (But the future is increasingly difficult if not impossible to predict - so who is the real fool, the fool? Or the fool who follows them?)

However, looking at the real cultural context of MIT in general as well as the media lab, there's always been... compromises. More than a little tension between the Hacker Ethic and The Man.

Pretty much everything we know and love about the liberation of direct, hands on computing and what it means for personal empowerment, expression and communication was invented there, right in the heart of a hotbed of megabuck military and telco contracts. And at the peak of the Cold War, no less, at the height of the Red Scare and commie paranoia.

That's the unspoken, supposed between-the-lines anarchist heart of the Hacker Ethic at work, that these tools liberate themselves, that you can't invent new locks without inventing new ways to break locks, connections beget more connections, complexity increases complexity - and it's turtles all the way down.

So, I don't know. Having even a "poser" in charge there is kind of a win, historically speaking. I don't think Negroponte ever dropped acid or danced all night at a rave, or met utter mutants of human expression like Leary or Genesis P. Orridge, either. For better or worse.

I wish him luck. Sounds like a fun gig.

Ask yourself this? Would you trade Ito for Doctorow?
posted by loquacious at 8:36 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Correction/clarification: I don't know if Media Lab does military contracts, but MIT sure has.
posted by loquacious at 8:37 PM on April 25, 2011


The web would be a much richer experience for us all if creative people with great ideas but no money simply financed them by fishing around in the back of their sofa for change.

The last hundred years of popular culture disagree with you. If the creative people don't have money, then only the uncreative corporations will produce content (which will be uncreative, natch.)

Yes, yes, I know, open source, but the point being that just about every money-making site you use every day has danced with the VC devil.
posted by dw at 8:53 PM on April 25, 2011


Aren't those the kind [of] behaviors you'd want out of the head of the MIT Media Lab? Openness and curiosity?

No, they aren't. Openness and curiosity are nice enough attributes — particularly when "curiosity" isn't a nicer way of describing shallow dilettantism, as it seems to be in this case — but they're no substitute for a fucking PhD as a basic qualification to do the job. Serious academic institutions aren't run by people chosen on the Bush-campaign "guy I'd like to get a beer with" character criteria, because it leads too easily to disastrous intellectual failures. The person who is going to lead a research center at a university needs primarily to have substantial personal experience doing research, an understanding of what it means to have deep specialist knowledge in a field, and a good feel for the difference between glibly presented fluff and serious substance — this last has long been the Media Lab's weakest point, culturally, so in fact a strong feel for scholarly merit would be especially important to seek out in a new director there, as a corrective to the existing "demo or die" culture.

It's understandable that many people in the blogosphere don't really get, or care about, the difference between a specialist researcher and a recreational dilettante; a little sad that academia sometimes seems to have forgotten it too. But the real surprise here is how little of an actual difference in direction this choice suggests for the Media Lab; it's more like a surprisingly unabashed revelation of what's long been the case there, though it has previously been at least a little concealed behind a thicker veneer of credentials.
posted by RogerB at 9:15 PM on April 25, 2011 [14 favorites]


RogerB: in some ways, they're pretty up front about not really trying to be an academic institution. A couple of years ago, when I wanted to do different things, I applied to the Media Lab. I did know it was different than the other places I was applying, but I hadn't realized how deep those differences went. Fortunately, a couple of professors warned me off. One conversation:

"So, do you see yourself publishing papers?"

"Well, yes, that's something I'd like to do."

"Oh." Pause.

Any mention of a desire for a future academic career or interest areas not directly connected to building demos got a subdued reaction at best. I ended up at a more traditional institution and everyone is probably happier for it.

(On preview, I see you posted another comment. This was meant to be a reply to your previous one, but I guess it works for both.)
posted by Serf at 9:21 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


This will probably be ok as long as the people he'll have working for him have his trust.
posted by localhuman at 9:22 PM on April 25, 2011


Honest question: can anybody explain to this naif how VC money has made the web a less rich experience? Small words and lack of theory would be greatly appreciated.

It's common that the primary responsibility of these types of positions, particularly at private universities in the US, is to raise capital in the form of donations. Ideal candidates will have a large personal network and be able to extract donations from the network, and possibly have some academic feathers for show but ultimately won't get used at all in the position, and any research performed is completely incidental to their duties. It seems pretty bald-faced of the Media Lab to completely ignore academic certifications and just go straight for the money. I don't know enough about Ito to know if his type of network will be profitable work, but it bodes well for MIT and Ito's job prospects that he's well known enough to have dedicated detractors.

In fact, the Media Lab's money-driven policy seems to be bald-faced everywhere. They even offer a convenient menu to order from:
Consortium sponsorship is the most frequently selected option. A consortium connects a group of sponsors with a group of Lab faculty and research staff focused on a common agenda. The cost of joining a consortium is $200,000 per year, for a minimum of three years. Consortium sponsors receive full intellectual property rights—license-fee free and royalty free—to all work developed at the Lab during their sponsorship years.

Corporate Research, for $400,000 per year, provides all the benefits of consortium sponsorship with the added benefit of an employee-in-residence at the Lab.

Graduate Fellow sponsorship, which provides the sponsor with an opportunity to connect with specific students and research groups, in areas of particular interest. The cost of supporting a fellow is $75,000 per year. Student fellows can carry the sponsor’s name, and can rotate annually.

Directed Research offers a parallel funding track to accommodate federally sponsored research and large-scale contracts.
Note that this menu is out of date, as other sections of the website say they now have a $35 million annual budget, instead of the $25 million in this PDF.

Can't believe that they're also selling all the IP rights at the same time. Perhaps that's why they discourage publishing papers?
posted by Llama-Lime at 9:33 PM on April 25, 2011


I've actually worked for a government agency tasked with commercializing research. I have no idea what it's like in the States, but in Canada the vast amount of research funding goes to universities that have absolutely no interest in doing anything with the research. It's all about who gets the most research dollars, and very little attention is paid to applied research produces practical results for society. From my perspective anyway, applied research and technology commercialization is critical towards making Canada (I don't know about the States) more competitive. Applied research creates more jobs, and creates better jobs.

However, I can totally understand the perspective that an uneducated "dilettante" has no place running MIT Media Lab. Barbarians at the gates, etc. I've met those barbarians. I've worked for them, and I've been fired by them. Still, I don't understand the hate for Joi Ito here. He's not going to change the world overnight. He's up against an entire culture that probably wants nothing to do with him. If he wants to make drastic changes, the only way he can do it is to be ruthless and vicious, and I don't think he is. So he doesn't make any changes. It's the status quo. What's wrong with that?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:46 PM on April 25, 2011


jacobian: "I have no real skills beyond writing software, and the world of proprietary software is a dark, miserable place. I'd rather fight to fix the brokenness than throw the baby out with the bathwater."

A number of open source seems to be like the skeleton remains of profit seeking enterprises. Just going down the list of applications installed on my laptop for anecdotal confirmation: Firefox. Eclipse. LibreOffice. Virtualbox. Nautilus. Blender. Postgres? But there's still plenty of European names on the credits to other apps: Audacity, GNUCash, Xournal, many other gnome apps.

Kinda weird that ultra libertarians and socialists can agree that building open source is great.
posted by pwnguin at 9:49 PM on April 25, 2011


You know, the best part is I couldn't care less about what happens to the MIT Media Lab, and as far as I'm concerned, make Doctorow and Ito co-chairs and solve a multitude of issues at once.
posted by jscott at 9:55 PM on April 25, 2011


Pretty much everything we know and love about the liberation of direct, hands on computing and what it means for personal empowerment, expression and communication was invented there, right in the heart of a hotbed of megabuck military and telco contracts. And at the peak of the Cold War, no less, at the height of the Red Scare and commie paranoia.

I'm sorry, at MIT? I love me some MIT, and the Media Lab does get excess scorn -- they did, after all, produce Jon Orwant; but to my understanding nobody's ever confused MIT with the invention of, nor the liberation of, direct hands on computing. Richard Stallman alone has probably had more productively progressive 365 day periods than the entirety of MIT's best year in that vein. MIT is excellent at producing numerical engineers, and slightly less so at creating audacious game-changing visionaries.

Ask yourself this? Would you trade Ito for Doctorow?

Thing is, you know, you know that there was a conference table; one of those incredible seamless wood affairs, surrounded by gleaming Aeron chairs, and lit flawlessly by whatever recessed overhead lighting would be appropriate. And there were manila folders on that table; probably in a medley of engaging but not overly bright colors, and a lot of the faculty around the table were wearing suits but with loafers no socks, or wearing kaftans, or something something joke burka.

And there was a folder labeled 'Joi Ito' -- and active, thoughtful discussion of Joi Ito, his career, his variety of interests, probably even the contents of his lovingly curated rucksack.

What that strongly implies, and yes the horror is already creeping through your veins, through the use of Ockham's fuckin' Razor, is that there were other folders on that table...and that Joi Ito was the best choice.

What do you think the Eric S. Raymond folder looked like and what was the discussion around that?

The Cory Doctorow folder...we laugh but don't you think it really existed?

I'm going to go dig a hole in the side of a hill and live in that for a little while; in some ways this is more terrifying than the blank holes where Michelle Bachman's pupils should be.
posted by felix at 9:57 PM on April 25, 2011


I don't know if Media Lab does military contracts

I'm joining the media lab this fall (!)

loquacious: I can't speak for the rest of the lab, but I mentioned on my cover letter that I am a pacifist and avoid military projects. They said fine.

Also, as a member of the Center for Future Civic Media, I will be allowed to open source all my work.
posted by honest knave at 10:12 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I should mention that this was a great relief to me, since on visits to other universities' innovative units, staff had bragged to me about their work on drones and other military projects.
posted by honest knave at 10:15 PM on April 25, 2011


Hey honest knave, I'm going to Harvard in the fall & hoping to cross-register over there for a class. Maybe I'll see you over there.

I wonder if he reads his sister Mimi's work? I'd love to see some work done on taking the intersection between mobile learning & new media to the next level.
posted by smirkette at 10:53 PM on April 25, 2011


This seems like a natural consequence of the cult of the 'Designer' as a standalone title, non-prefixed by chip- or industrial- or graphic- or anything else related to, you know, stuff. To paraphrase Steve Albini, all you need to be a designer is the gall to call yourself one: it's becoming what used to be called manager, i.e. the guy who supposedly does all the thinking and who gets someone else faraway to do all the making.

It's a shame academia is so cheap: this ought to be resisted tooth and nail there of all places.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 11:02 PM on April 25, 2011


Richard Stallman alone has probably had more productively progressive 365 day periods than the entirety of MIT's best year in that vein.

Um.
posted by brennen at 12:10 AM on April 26, 2011


My view of the MIT Media Lab will be forever tainted by the One Laptop Per Child project. How about fresh water, food, and basic education? Guys?
You don't think computers can help kids get an education? I found OLPC pretty ridiculous in a lot of ways but the basic idea of getting computers to people is a good one. In particular lots of people in 3rd world countries have cellphones now. And it spurred the whole netbook trend. In fact it probably costs a lot less money to get someone a laptop then it does to get them a k-12 education. It's not like you have to do one or the other. Plus I'm annoyed by the general "why not do this when there's $other problem if no one did anything until the biggest problems were solved nothing would ever happen. Multiple people can work on multiple things simultaneously.


----

Also the idea that "VCs" are the major funders of open source software is pretty weird. Open source is funded but a lot of the funding comes from established corporations like Oracle and IBM, as well as Google. Maybe VCs helped start those companies, but that doesn't mean that the companies couldn't have started without them. VCs help companies grow quickly, but they aren't required to start businesses. It isn't like there's a switch between total non-profit and funding only from VCs.
Richard Stallman alone has probably had more productively progressive 365 day periods than the entirety of MIT's best year in that vein. MIT is excellent at producing numerical engineers, and slightly less so at creating audacious game-changing visionaries.
Uh, you know Richard Stallman worked at MIT, right? Or was that the joke?
posted by delmoi at 12:24 AM on April 26, 2011


So... how do I tell Ito and Maeda apart again?
posted by infini at 2:14 AM on April 26, 2011


I become interested in the Media Lab after hearing Nicholas Negroponte talk back in 1991. He lectured to our R&D lab audience entertainingly - about 90s minutes without notes - covering a lot of the material from Stewart Brand's "The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T.": our TVs were going to become smart and take on a higher resolution, our news was going to arrive in customised packages ("The Daily Me"), that which was wired would become wireless, that which was analogue would be digitised, that which was tedious would be controlled by automated agents. And he happened to be the guy in charge of a place which was making all this happen. Were we interested?

Those who he wished to influence were. Negroponte had an architect's approach to selling: to CEOs he was the smart-suited, well connected guy who had grown up with old money, to geeks he was somebody who could get down to the nitty-gritty of why a particular technical standard was not going to work and what had to be done about it, to the world at large he was the showman who could work magic with a good demo (and even do justice for a mediocre one), to academics he was an MIT postgraduate with a record pioneering CAD applications in the 60s. Finally he was curious about everything - a substantial part of his presentation involved him asking us questions.

Which is my way of saying that Joi Ito has some big boots to fill.

In the mid 90s I spent a few months at the Media Lab as an employee-in-residence. As a corporate sponsor my employer had various PR opportunities: newspaper articles, demos, the occasional talk by visiting professors. But the several hundred thousand dollars that the program cost each year(we had no right over any IP at this point) meant we felt under pressure to get the most from it. The problem was that the people doing the really interesting work were the professors and the graduate students: frazzled geniuses, often unencumbered by small egos, working crazy hours to change their own small piece of the world. These people, certainly back then, were under heavy pressure to publish, to teach and to learn. My job was to track them down, talk to them and try to build some bridges between them and other R&D colleagues back home. I had fun, hopefully accomplished something and learned not to challenge them to poker.

What I mean to illustrate is that the demos were really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential relationship between lab and sponsor:there was also a certain amount of technical exchange. Students and sponsors would also benefit from industrial placements and from a certain amount of recruiting.

Times have changed a great deal since the mid 80s to mid 90s period when the lab was doing some of its most influential work. It aimed to be a sort of Bauhaus for the information age. While the set of people who were working on media technologies was small - and the technology was hand-crafted and costly - that made sense. These days,when we are all in on the game, somewhere like the Media Lab needs to be something a bit different. Personally I believe that Joi Ito would be more likely to fail by not changing it enough than by doing so too much.
posted by rongorongo at 3:06 AM on April 26, 2011


I wonder if he reads his sister Mimi's work?

I have. Some time ago, Ito posted a link to her most recent "thesis." It was a dreadful pile of crap about Japanese kids' attitudes towards reading manga. I have never seen a more laughable piece of dreck that was ridiculous even by the "soft science" standards of sociology. She took a survey and made some huge, unsupported leaps of logic in an attempt to prove her preconceived idea. This is apparently an Ito family trait.

From another commenter:

Pretty much everything we know and love about the liberation of direct, hands on computing and what it means for personal empowerment, expression and communication was invented there, right in the heart of a hotbed of megabuck military and telco contracts.

What in the hell are you smoking? That is utterly ridiculous. I remember back around 1974, I was on a recruitment visit to MIT, as a high school senior. One guy said, "hey, come with me to my EE lecture, it will be awesome." I went there and this guy lecturing to a room of about 150 students held up this little chip, an Intel 8008 chip, and he extolled its virtues as the first real computer on a chip. He was right.
So, you know this chip was commissioned by a Japanese calculator manufacturer, and built at Intel in California? And it had nothing whatsoever to do with military or telco contracts? And that this was the start of the microcomputer revolution, which largely took place in California, based around videogame manufacturers and homebrew computer clubs? Even the big mil-tech companies like Hewlett Packard passed on the early generation of microcomputing.
Come on man, do not tell us that MIT was the center of Personal Computing, because that is bullshit. Sure, they recognized the importance of what had been developed across the nation on the other coast, but I can't think of any single major contribution from MIT during the formative days of the field. Even Bill Gates left Boston and moved to Arizona.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:48 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


My main point is that it'd be impossible to untangle open source from the work funded with VC dollars (directly or indirectly).

This modified point now doesn't support your argument that we need VC for open source to exist. Things would change without VC, sure, but I struggle to see them getting worse in very many ways.

VC allows websites to expand into a fictional realm, beyond what a market will actually bear. It supports Twitter flailing about trying to invent a business model, it supports Facebook's quest to know everything about me, it supports Color being fucking idiotic, it supports StackOverflow turning trolling into a game, it supports a sub-culture of money-crazed early-20s Californians churning endless amounts of otherwise-productive effort into the MVP lottery.

Without it, sites would have to grow with their revenue and audience and we'd have an ecosystem of supportable businesses. VC supports the Wal-Marts of the web; without it we'd have main street. I'd strongly prefer the latter.
posted by bonaldi at 4:30 AM on April 26, 2011


There is a tremendous amount of confusion in this thread about:
  1. What the Media Lab does.
  2. Why sponsors pay the Media Lab.
  3. How incentives are aligned for students at the Lab.
  4. What the director of the lab does
A lot of this has to do with the Lab's attitude about PR. Of all the criticisms you can make of the Lab, I think the strongest and most accurate is that it is overwhelmingly concerned with PR. The fundamental difference between the Lab and, say, the CS department across the street (CSAIL, in MIT-speak) is that our audience is primarily a popular one, while their is primarily other academics. It is fair to say that the Lab does not prepare its students for an academic career, but people do go on to be faculty after the Lab, and there are few illusions among students about what a degree from the lab actually means in an academic context. This PR focus means that students are encouraged (not always explicitly, but certainly implicitly by seeing which other students get lots of attention and support) to produce work that's "cool" in some sense and speaks to a general audience.

This most definitely doesn't exclude participation in scholarly discourses at the same time. We publish all the time, too (this list is not exhaustive - I don't show up on it for some reason, even though I have a few ACM papers). The difference is that while most research organizations only do the publishing route, the lab's publishing is drowned out by its PR effort because the lab made a strategic call 25 years ago that it was better to be seen as cool than seen as good researchers, at least as far as fundraising went. But both processes go on in parallel. The drive for cool certainly scopes the kind of research that gets done. But I deeply believe that "cool" in no way precludes something being good research, too. Everyone loves to dump on the Lab for not being a serious research organization. It's not, in some ways - it's multidisciplinary to a fault (and that fault is a complete lack of training on research methods or scaffolding into academic communities because no one agrees on what that acceptable methods are, so we just awkwardly avoid the convo at all times) but it's clear that it still manages to produce work that is interesting to both general and scholarly audiences. For all the shit people talk, they still all show up at talks from Lab students at conferences.

As for Ito's resume and whether he's going to turn the Lab isn't some sort of Y Combinator-experience, that's patently false. The Media Lab, like all such similar organizations at MIT, has a twin management structure. There's an academic program (Media Arts and Sciences) and a research lab (the Media Lab). You can see the same split with CS - there's Course 6 (CS + EE) the department and CSAIL the research lab. The job of a lab director is predominantly fundraising, and that's precisely what Ito is notable for. If he succeeds at that and stays out of the way otherwise, the faculty will view him as a success. He's essentially a PR functionary. He'll open our big sponsor events, chat up our sponsors, generate media attention for the lab's work, and make sure the rest of us don't have to worry about where our money comes from. In some ways, he's the perfect candidate precisely because he's a bit of a sponge. Someone who came in with a specific world view would get torn down by a very argumentative and problematic faculty. It's easy to see how this would preclude lots of other administrative academic types (who I know were on the list at various points in the process). The faculty at the lab want status quo, and a non-academic director satisfies that desire on their part. In no way would a PhD prepare Ito for this job. His experience, in my view, is pretty much perfect for the job as imagined by our faculty. That's not to say that I think the status quo is great. I might have preferred someone a little more inwardly focused who would do battle with the faculty. But given that the faculty likes the status quo, I think Ito will do a very solid job in his assigned role.

Also, OLPC is hardly a project of the lab. Nicholas spun it out partly because not everyone in the lab loved it from the start. Since I've been at the lab, there is deep skepticism about that approach from many (but by no means all) students. Some people love it as a platform, but very very few people were ever that closely involved with it from the lab proper.
posted by heresiarch at 5:15 AM on April 26, 2011 [9 favorites]


hey, come with me to my EE lecture, it will be awesome." I went there and this guy lecturing to a room of about 150 students held up this little chip, an Intel 8008 chip, and he extolled its virtues as the first real computer on a chip. He was right.

So, you know this chip was commissioned by a Japanese calculator manufacturer, and built at Intel in California? And it had nothing whatsoever to do with military or telco contracts?
Well, first of all the first real CPU was the 4004. And second of all the industry did a lot of 'technological laundering' to get products designed for the military out into the consumer space. Intel may have made the first CPU on spec for a calculator company, but the company the founders came from, Fairchild Semiconductor obviously had lots of military contracts.

In fact all of the SF bay area and Silicon Valley were built on the back of military contracts in WWII and the cold war. That's why all those techs were there in the first place.

There wasn't really any military use for PCs, of course and that did come out of a genuine desire by regular people to have their own computers. But the tech was initially for military applications.
posted by delmoi at 5:55 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Heresiarch, you really aren't selling the notion that academia is the best home for this outfit, no matter how creative it may be.

For example:

Of all the criticisms you can make of the Lab, I think the strongest and most accurate is that it is overwhelmingly concerned with PR.

[...]

our audience is primarily a popular one [...] It is fair to say that the Lab does not prepare its students for an academic career

[...]

The job of a lab director is predominantly fundraising

[...]

In no way would a PhD prepare Ito for this job.


Wouldn't it be better off issuing an IPO and going its own way? If not, can you say more about what the benefits are to MIT, to academia in general and to the lab itself of this arrangement? I don't mean a history-of-how-how-it-came-to-be, more a statement of (or link to) its intellectual goals and some sense of how these are furthered by an academic association.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 7:56 AM on April 26, 2011


Even Bill Gates left Boston and moved to Arizona.

1. Bill Gates dropped out from Harvard, not MIT.
2. He moved to New Mexico, not Arizona. Albuquerque was where Altair was located at the time.
posted by dw at 8:00 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just popping in to offer a book recommendation re: East coast/West coast & development of computing - Hackers. An oldie but a goodie. (My long rambling review: "Shockingly, the hippie hacker community actually manage[d] to get more shit done." and "There's some interesting moments of cognitive dissonance of the radical openness within the lab vs the military funding for the lab.")
posted by epersonae at 8:19 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


GeorgeBickham: the Media Lab is deliberately something different. It's research, for sure, but applied research. My own experience there was the Master's program was great, the PhD program not so much so. Students have done excellent PhD research there, but it's up to them to make contacts outside the department and work on fundamental research that contributes to academic discipline, not just shiny demos. (Actually it's not required: a couple of the Media Lab PhDs that were granted when I was there were awfully flaky.)

Joi is deliberately someone different. I think he fits the Media Lab creative hacker ethos perfectly. He does not fit the staid academic PhD ethos very well. But that's ok, neither does the Media Lab. The fact that the Media Lab (via Media Arts & Sciences) is a PhD granting department of MIT is a source of constant tension. That's OK.
posted by Nelson at 8:40 AM on April 26, 2011


delmoi: "You don't think computers can help kids get an education? I found OLPC pretty ridiculous in a lot of ways but the basic idea of getting computers to people is a good one. In particular lots of people in 3rd world countries have cellphones now. And it spurred the whole netbook trend. In fact it probably costs a lot less money to get someone a laptop then it does to get them a k-12 education. It's not like you have to do one or the other. Plus I'm annoyed by the general "why not do this when there's $other problem if no one did anything until the biggest problems were solved nothing would ever happen. Multiple people can work on multiple things simultaneously."

I don't think you even understand the problem. We're talking about countries where the literacy rates are in the <60% range, where children don't even get to go to school. You are asking their governments to dish out ~$260 per child, an enormous sum of money when compared to GDP per capita, so that their country's elite can give their children an enhanced education, while the rest of the country can't even afford to buy textbooks.

You don't really think they're going around to random villages, giving laptops to illiterate children who have never seen the inside of a school building, and expect them to suddenly become edumacated do you?
posted by yifes at 10:49 AM on April 26, 2011


GeorgeBickham: This is a tremendously complicated thing you want. Why does any research lab exist in any department? There's a web of connections that are beneficial to everyone involved. First and foremost, the lab brings in money that would not necessarily go to research otherwise. Resaerch labs are as much about fads as any business. When a school feels like there's a research niche that's unexplored and they can build a place to do that kind of work effectively and it somehow fits with its overal vision, they go for it. MIT gets a certain kind of brand value out of the lab, and the Media Lab gets huge mileage out of the MIT name. We couldn't charge the sponsorship rates we do if we weren't part of MIT.

Plus, you wouldn't see the same kinds of people and vibrance if it wasn't a degree-granting program. If you look at private research labs like PARC (which went through the spin-out experience you're proposing) they do very good, but very focused work. They employ senior researchers and aren't so much about generating new ideas as they are about doing sponsored focused work. The flow of students (who come partially for the credentials) are a core part of what makes the lab work. I can't really imagine a way for the lab to do what it does as an independent entity. We do work that is compelling to us as researchers.

The other thing to understand about the lab is that it is intensely feudal. Each group has different practices and attitudes about things. But non-academics are going to see the groups that disproportionately engage with the popular press. More scholarship oriented groups will be largely invisible from the outside. There is no monolithic lab, really. Maybe there once was, but it's not (in my view) a particular cohesive organization at this point. If you don't think the Lab has any intellectual heft, it's probably because you're getting a biased picture. From my seat, there are a lot of very smart, thoughtful, and engaged researchers in these two buildings, all of whom are trying in their own individual ways to make meaningful research contributions. They don't always look the same to each other or to things you might normally recognize as research, but it's not always meant to. I think that's okay, and that the struggle is part of the process of finding new ways to do research that speaks to new audiences. But if you think that makes it not worthy of being part of an academic environment, that's a fair position to hold.
posted by heresiarch at 11:42 AM on April 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


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