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EmTech: Some Wisdom from Joi Ito

The head of MIT’s Media Lab extols the benefits of being a “now-ist.”
October 25, 2012

On stage at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference this morning, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito was asked a great question from a member of the audience: what will be the three most important technological trends in the next few years?

Ito had an even better answer: essentially, today’s trends don’t matter.

“I’m going to give you a nonanswer,” Ito said. “I don’t really believe in futurists. I don’t believe in the ability of people to predict the future that well. We usually get it wrong.”

Earlier in his discussion on stage with Jason Pontin, Ito had said that because the Internet and computing have made it much easier for small startups to create innovative products and services, the world has gotten more complex. With more innovation happening at “the edges,” out of the control of large institutions, life is less predictable. So the audience member’s question gave Ito a chance to explain how this phenomenon affects his worldview.

“I’m a now-ist,” he said.” Now-ists “don’t think about trends. We think about being resilient and being prepared for anything.” As an example, he cited last year’s massive earthquake and nuclear disaster in his native Japan, which struck while he was in Cambridge interviewing for the Media Lab job. In the aftermath of the quake, “everyone with a plan failed,” Ito observed. Meanwhile, using Twitter and other online connections, Ito was able to quickly organize a response to the nuclear crisis: a volunteer operation that coordinated Geiger counter readings from volunteers all over Japan.

The lesson: be agile and be willing to try new things, even if it means discarding the way things have always been done before.

“I think that the most interesting things that are going to happen in the next couple of years,” he said, “are things that we don’t know.”

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