Interview with Joi Ito

This interview was conducted by Agata Jałosińska and Alek Tarkowski in 2011, during the Creative Commons Summit in Warsaw, Poland. Originally published in Polish in “Medialab. Instrukcja obsługi” [Medialab. Usage manual].

Agata: You once said that informal education comes down to how many people you meet and how many different types of people you get to can talk to. These interactions shape you, and give you access to information that you would never obtain at school. How would you describe a situation of meeting people and taking from them as much as you can, like i.e. in medialabs? Could a school acquire this model?

Joi: One thing is, I think, that different people learn differently. One way of learning we call an “interest driven learning”. Another, similar is a “project driven learning”. Let’s explain it on an example: my sister and I, members of the same family, with the same background, differ in the way we learn. She got two PHD’s and became an academic, and I wasn’t able to achieve it. When you think about formal education you are basically thinking about a structure whose function is to prepare you for finding a job. You have to go to college (and everybody goes to college right after high school), and then you have to be quite good at planning, and you have to be quite self-motivated to go through with the entire process of formal education, because it’s a promise to be fulfilled in around 25–30 years. And it is very difficult to be able to visualize yourself in 30 years looking for a job in order to feel really motivated when you are only a child. Some are motivated by the pressure coming from their parents. However, it is still hard to do all this work, because it doesn’t include a lot of immediate positive feedback. It is mostly a long-term effort.

Agata: So, you didn’t follow this path for too long?

Joi: I’m not a very good long-term planner. I don’t like to plan at all, so I loose interest, unless I get some feedback immediately. And if I’m not interested — I don’t study. Actually, I think that more people are like me, not like my sister. I think that there are few people who, as children, are capable of planning ahead. That’s why I think most kids don’t do that well at school, because they are mostly interested in what’s going on around them. An average child is more motivated by achievable goals, by short-term projects, by having fun. The current educational system, on the other hand, is based on the idea that a child can plan and be motivated by long-term plans.

Alek: But then, you know what they say, that key jobs of the future don’t exist yet, and you can see that this “long-term plan education” is flawed just due to the circumstances.

Joi: The other side of it is that you used to have this carrier ladders, or escalators, but today they can’t exist. Nowadays you need to have a trajectory, not a plan — you have to know, in general, which direction you’d like to follow, but the best career development method is to invest in yourself, look at your network, possibilities, and figure out what to do next. John Seely Brown had this great book called “The Power of Pull” — you should pull the resources as you need them, don’t stock them, and if you plan too much (I always use this phrase) — if you plan too much, you can’t be lucky. And the entire point is: you have to be kind of lucky.

Alek: Does it mean, that it’s enough if you’re lucky and your educational effort doesn’t count? Is it like an educational lottery?

Embracing serendipity is actually really important if you have a plan, ok, I can’t talk to you, because I have to go, and I can’t do this, because I have this other job. I have a friend who works for NTT. Every single work day is filled with regular meetings: there are weekly engineers meetings, a weekly board meeting, and all of those meetings are regular meetings, where you talk about the same process which has already been designed. There is no room for creativity, serendipity or iteration. That is extreme. So I think that what’s important is to be able to be kind of opportunistic towards the opportunities that are coming along — be it through networks, technology changes, or context changes.

Alek: Don’t you think we get distracted this way? You reckon that we don’t need a plan, which could stand for a project for our life, that is: to be really good at something?

The other thing is that when you stock stuff, when you spend your life studying one thing, and suddenly that thing is moving tight, like a movable type on a press-printer, it suddenly becomes absolutely frizzed. I think that it is very important to be able to change your focus, and if you waste too much intellectual energy on one thing, you cannot pip it away. All in all, it’s important to have a plan A, which is your main job, and a plan B which is your dream next job. This is what my friend from LinkedIn says: he has a plan A, B, and Z. Z is your parents’ house, where you go when both A and B fail. But you have to have a plan Z because otherwise you’re too afraid to test plan A and B. When plan A is your main job and plan B is your dream job, when plan B is getting really achievable you may pip it, when plan A disappears you go to plan B, but you keep playing with your plans A and B with the plan Z in the background.

Alek: Don’t you think that you have to be a little privileged, to have the connections you’re talking about, the opportunities? Because, you know, schooling system in theory has always been a mass system that would educate those unprivileged.

Joi: I think there are privileged and unprivileged people. I come from an unprivileged family. However, my privilege was mainly my mother being ok, with whatever I wanted to do. When I went to the commencement for the medialab at MIT, most of the kids were coming from the working class families. MIT is not like Harvard, you don’t get in with connections, and you get in because your child is smart. Some of these kids are like their parents. Asian parents make their children study math and science, but still. I think that today, also because of the Internet it’s very easy to build connections. You could have come to this meeting from anywhere, and you can talk to me, I can talk to you, you make a connection. Obviously you need a right spirit, but I don’t think the spirit is exclusively for the privileged. In fact, it may be the reverse: I find that privilege people turn me off, mostly because they are snobs, they expect too much, and they want control. I dropped out of college to become a DJ in a night club, because I found out that people who work at night clubs, the working class of Chicago, were more authentic. I hated privileged kids I was studying with. I think that authenticity, and the sense of community — things much more available to the working class than the upper class, are like survival tracks. If you look at the open source projects, their autocracies and the environment you have to incentive people who are paid for their job. It is a lot more to work inside a community and I think that privileged people, like these with MBA’s, come from privileged families, and they are given power from above. They are used to having the carrots and sticks, bonuses, and other elements of a management structure. This doesn’t work in an open source project. It doesn’t actually work in creative environments either. In creative environments you have to encourage people to do their work out of loyalty, out of creativity, and out of passion. These skills are much more common among working class people, than among these from the privileged classes.

Agata: You said that Internet makes it easy to connect with one another, to find new people who are interested in the same things. However, right now we are facing a reverse situation, where we had Internet, which helped us in talking to people from China, Thailand that we would never meet offline, but we are still looking for spaces, for a places, where we could meet face2face. This interaction is really important, and a lot of things are happening only if an interaction like this can take place. A good example here might be a punklab — a face2face meeting that happens spontaneously, without any funds.

Joi: I think you are right, I think the network is just a way to connect people, so that they can meet physically. If I haven’t seen Alek in person, I would obviously never get the full experience. However, if you look at hackerspaces, and at hackerspaces.net it is clear that we only have so many hackerspaces, because they also exist online. I think that online stuff supercharges the real world with so much technique and ideas.

Alek: Just to finish with schools — I understand that this model is vibrant, but you have these kids sitting for 8 hours at school every day, and I wonder: what’s your opinion? Because mine is that “school” won’t change very quickly.

Joi: No, they won’t change quickly and for some students they are good as they are, but for some students not. It depends on the personality of a child: school can destroy some of them, but you also find that there is a certain category of students who will be fine. I think that Internet helps these students who aren’t fine. These students would be nothing without the Internet. As I would have turned completely nothing without it, I would have failed completely. It was because of the Internet that I started meeting people and learned much through and from speaking with them.

Alek: So you learn from other people, not from the Internet, right?

Joi: I don’t read anything on the Internet, I communicate with people, and then I meet them f2f. However, everybody has their own style of learning. Internet, hackerspaces — they all present new ways of learning for different types of people, and I think it’s the diversity which is really important. There is nothing that would suit everyone: not everyone will work better in a hackerspace, not everyone is going to work better at school. I don’t think schools are bad, I only think that they are bad for the majority of people.

Agata: Do you think that medialabs could be implemented in schools?

Joi: I think so. The tricky part is that there is much structure around schools; but then schools are a good filtering mechanism (used for getting jobs and things like that). My favorite thing is that education gets in the way of learning, because you don’t really learn at school and a lot of time is devoted to getting out of school, graduate (like what do I need to do to graduate), and I think it’s not enough. Learning is more important that education. Degrees are very practical, and I don’t think that everyone should drop out of college. A degree helps you in getting a job; a degree does help you — especially if you come from a working class family — with your career. This is not going to change. If you have a lot of confidence, and you can’t make it through school, yes, you can find a different way to achieve things. All in all though, I think that people who encourage dropping out of school are also irresponsible. They say that all these big guys from start-ups are drop-outs — Joi is a drop out, but there are no female drop-outs CEO’s in Silicon Valley. There are hardly any minority drop-outs CEO’s. These people are all white male Americans, and come from privileged families. If you’re privileged and you’re from Harvard, and you managed to raise million dollars, yeah, you may drop out. On the other hand, if you’re an Indian women trying to study computer science in order to get a job, the degree is going to help you lots. It is unfortunate, and I’m not saying this because right now I’m in it, but for some people it’s crucial to get a degree. It is a practical matter as there is a bias against people who don’t have degrees.

Alek: So you have all these opinions about informal education and you still become a director of a university department.

Joi: Because I think we need to change education, and the best way for me to change education is to lead by example. Right now there are no requirements, no tests blocking you from becoming a medialab student. You can be a college drop-out and you can still enjoy the MA program. There is a portfolio review and an interview, but there are no technical requirements to become a student at the medialab. It is just who you are. Once you’re in, you barely take any classes, you don’t write papers, and you just work on research projects, and come up with a good idea for your thesis. If I was studying at a medialab I think I would have stayed at school. This way kids are learning so much, they are building stuff, having fun and they are really enjoying it. I think that by “producing” students who become very valuable members of society, we can get more universities to adopt or imitate a medialab structure, and still preserve a degree system. In our lab we pay the tuition for all our students, and we pay our students $2000 as a monthly scholarship, we give them an MA, and they don’t have to write papers at all.

Alek: You once said that medialab is like a cathedral — a medialab should inspire us to build our own MIT like venues. Do you think it’s a scalable model?

Joi: I think it is. I’m trying to change the medialab concept to be more open, and I think that we should all be connected, and inspiring each other, sharing. When I’m doing an IP submission and I put Larry [Lessing] in charge, I don’t know if it’s a good idea (laugh). We want to be more open, we want to connect people. This entire fablab business is interesting, and what is interesting even more is how it’s going to link with the hackerspace business.

Alek: With the tuition that you have to pay to use the fablab name, you can probably buy a cheaper equipment and just call yourself a hackerspace… There is a medialab in Budapest called Kitchen Budapest, they are founded by T-mobile, they have a lot of freedom, but they are kind of a commercial branch. Many criticize them for getting tainted by business. What’s your take on this?

Joi: I think it really has a lot to do with an agreement between a founder and a recipient. At the MIT medialab I’m trying to push it even more: the core funders don’t have any rights to tell us what to do with the money. We have a core pot, which is my money, and the faculty, and students generally speaking — the sponsors can’t tell us what to do. It is a tricky thing to build more medialabs though. Our medialab has now 70 sponsors, and the core is unrestricted, it’s a non-directive funding, so everyone can do whatever they want. We have 300 projects on research now. We say: “you can have access, to whatever we are making, but you can’t tell us what to make”. This is important.

Alek: You represent a rich and big institution, but does what you say have anything to do also with hackerspaces?

Joi: They both enjoy a certain freedom. I love hackerspaces and I love medialabs, because of that. The stuff inbetween is tricky, cause if you take money and you don’t have skills, as a medialab you end up having to compromise and take directive research; and suddenly what you become is work for hire, and then the only option is to have very simillar interest to your sponsors. Hackerspaces are free because they are not funded, and the MIT medialab is free because we have enough funding and enough sponsors to say: “you can’t tell us what to do”.

Alek: And what about startups? Polish start-up culture is relatively vibrant, they use social media, organize parties, and hackathons for the community, but at the end it’s all about money, cause this work might be worth millions. It doesn’t sound very fair — do you think that there is a fairer model out there? Is the start-up culture more of a business or culture phenomenon?

Joi: I think that the huge percentage of a start-up scene is shallow and stupid, so I don’t really like big start-up events — what you find there are greedy people who don’t make things, and really good start-ups are usually people who make things, who built something, and they don’t need this entire start-up contest. The percentage of people in start-ups that I like is really small, the number of VC’s is less than 1%, the number of entrepreneurs is less than 1%. Even though I’m involved in start-ups, I don’t like most of the people in the field. I still think that the mechanism of investing in the technique market is very important for innovation. I just don’t really identify with these communities so much, I think that certain elements like risk taking, agility are good, but not the focus on money. The problem is that when you have money it attracts people who want to make money. So I usually like the start-up scene in places, where there is not that much money, like in the middle-east. There are people there who are building products just because they love it, and that is something I like, but once everyone shows up, it gets crowded and load, everybody has bluetooth headsets — that’s really horrible.

Alek: You used a phrase “build culture” — do you think it refers to a new kind of ethics — something that should be taught to our children?

Joi: Yes. The future is so complex, so ever-changing; planning takes more energy than actually doing things. Very often we say: “shut up and do it”, because the thing is, talking about stuff, thinking about stuff, planning stuff, anticipating problems, hedging the risk costs more money that the actual doing. Costs of production and distribution are so low now — you can get a developer and a designer and you can put a website together over a weekend — so why just not build it first? Build culture comes just from the fact that building hardware, riding software is so easy, and so cheap, and putting it on the internet to test with people is so easy, that there is no reason for you not to make it first.

Alek: What if I don’t know how to make things? The question is: should and will everyone have these skills soon?

Joi: Yes. And you will always have somebody who knows. It is really not that hard — I can code software now, it should be part of literacy

Alek: My college education consists of neither all theory nor all research, and I’m still trying to get out of it. I also understand that building can also be with hands. It’s getting very important.

Joi: There is a class in the MIT medialab, it is very popular, comes down to building just about anything. By the end you can feel like you can build a car, you can do anything, it gives you a tremendous sense of freedom. I think that’s a kind of education you need for kids, teach them how to build software, and how to build chairs.

Agata: We invite people to create, experiment, but is our aim to end up with a society or with big groups of creators, people empowered to do things? How will it change the world when everyone wants to create and produce?

Joi: You see creativity, when a person who uses a tool can modify it, let’s take blogging — writers who can write software. The problem right now is that you have producers of the tool and users of the tool separated from each other, and you get packages, which are produced by companies professionalizing in selling them to other companies using other tools. Same with people — if everyone could build tools, their own tools, you would get a lot of innovation from everywhere. For me, I think, it’s important to go back to the old days, where there wasn’t as much division in labour, because the division in labour is great for scaling, for mass production, for industrial revolution, but it’s not good for creativity. The real creativity happens when in order to do something, you start building your own tools, and you ask friends to help. The thing is, high level programming languages are easier.

Alek: Do you think that we will go back to manufactures, pre-industrial days?

Joi: Yes. Even in the CC [Creative Commons] culture site you have these mass produced musicians who suck, and they are not very good in music, they just look good in investments. Mass production is important for making basic things for the society, but it really diminished creativity and innovation in culture, and I think what we need to do is to limit mass production to these basics.

Alek: You have recently written a piece on institutions, how “closed” (as oppose to “open”) they are, how they are experiencing problems with becoming more transparent.

Joi: It wouldn’t apply to all institutions I think. The state should be completely transparent, but I think you need all these institutions that introduce transparency, this is Lessig’s point. He was against transparency, but you need to educate journalists and people to take data, open government data and to interpret it properly because otherwise you will have people misinterpreting them. You need literacy together with the openness.

Alek: You called these closed institutions containers, and the word for the open one would be “platforms”. Do you think that it is a general tendency?

Joi: We are trying to do this with CC, but you see this in the video game industry: usually players are giving ideas for new features and a good platform — their players become their employees, and their employees are players. They don’t have boundaries between the core and outside, and the platform is the brand, some of the core content, some of the rules are there but on top if that is really difficult to tell the difference who is an employee, and who is a player.

Alek: Do you think that the MIT Media Lab is such a platform?

Joi: Not yet, but I am working on it.

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