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EmTech: Infusing the Media Lab with Startup Spirit

“We’re doing a lot of things here that can, and should, influence the way higher education is generally thought of,” says Joi Ito.

The MIT Media Lab’s fourth director, Joichi “Joi” Ito, dropped out of college in the U.S.―twice―before becoming, variously, a successful DJ, an Internet entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, a digital activist, and a writer.

A fresh start: “I think doing fresh things is in the DNA of the Media Lab,” says Joi Ito. “I don’t have to work very hard to have that happen.”

He might seem an odd choice as director of most academic institutions. At the Media Lab, however―home to many projects that combine art, design, and cutting-edge technology in creative and occasionally bizarre ways―he seems a perfect fit. The Media Lab’s unusually broad focus―it offers degrees in Media Arts and Sciences―has produced technologies including E-Ink, Guitar Hero, and One Laptop per Child’s $100 laptop.

Ito made early stage investments in Twitter, Flickr, Last.fm, Six Apart, and Technorati, and many other Internet companies. He is the chairman of Creative Commons and serves on the board of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Open Source Initiative and the Mozilla Foundation, as well as his own consultancy Digital Garage, and he is the CEO of venture firm Neoteny Labs. He has consistently helped explain, and influence, the development of Internet technology and culture.

Ito talked to Technology Review about his vision for the Lab during the EmTech conference, hosted at the Media Lab this week.

TR: The Media Lab has a reputation for coming up with cool ideas in lots of different areas. How do you plan to keep things fresh?

Ito: That’s a good question. Some of the stuff like LuminAR [a lamp that projects a computer interface onto any surface], was actually an idea from decades ago, they just couldn’t make it back then because computers weren’t small enough. So some of these ideas are also remembering old ideas and saying, “Oh, we can do that now.”

But, really, I think doing fresh things is in the DNA of the Media Lab. I don’t have to work very hard to have that happen. It happens very naturally in the group. Some of the ideas are crazy. But they’re unique.

What are the most exciting, and interesting, areas of research at the Media Lab right now?

All of them are exciting. We have lost a few arts faculty, and so we probably need to hire more faculty members in the arts area. But art is very broad―for us it could be food or dance or music or whatever. Or video games. We like to do things before everyone else is doing them, and if everyone else starts doing them, then we like to move on.

So how will the Media Lab change under your directorship?

We’re trying to get the companies [that provide most of the Media Lab’s funding] to create a community around us. It’s becoming more like a Media Lab “network” than a Media Lab “place.” And we’re thinking about different things we can do to increase the diversity of the companies that are involved with the Media Lab, including nonprofits, foundations, individuals, and startups. I think entrepreneurship is a key thing that we need to work on as another pathway to get an idea or a student out into the world.

Right. You’ve said that you want to bring “startup types” to the Media Lab. What’s the benefit of that?

[Napster creator] Shawn Fanning was here last week. I know him really well, and he’s one of the best product guys I know, but he hasn’t spent a lot of time with scientists, or chemists, or guys who do hard data science or math. To take all the different technologies that we have and to connect it with someone like a Kevin Rose, or an Ev Williams, or a Shawn Fanning, that’s a really interesting two-way thing because the students here get how a real Internet startup guy thinks about a product, and how they think about design, and, you know, Shawn can meet people who do real math. To me, that’s a huge synergy that we don’t currently get from, say, relationships with some of the big companies we have.

And you feel that will help students, in terms of their progression, and after they graduate?

Entrepreneurship has to become an official thing. We need to create more structure around that. The students want to talk to VCs, they want to talk to entrepreneurs, and so, again, I’m working on trying to figure out programs to make it even more interesting, and make the interactions higher bandwidth. Maybe when someone exits a company, they come here for a little time.

Are you bringing an Internet focus to the Media Lab?

Yeah, for me it’s Internet startups, openness, and human rights. I definitely have that bias. But it’s just additive, you know. I’m not trying to make anything go away; I’m just trying to augment what they have here.

You’re a strong supporter of making data “open” so that it can be reused and remixed. Is that something you want to push at the Media Lab?

I think open data is very important. An advantage of being here on the East Coast is that we’re close to government, we’re close to the big telcos, we’re close to a lot of companies that have big data. And we’re trying to show them why open data matters. What we can do at the Media Lab is take these open data repositories and try doing stuff with the data.

You have a very busy traveling schedule. Why is that?

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Granovetter’s paper The Strength of Weak Ties. He does this study of people, and how they get their jobs. Strong ties are your family, your friends, and people you talk to every day. Weak ties are people who are outside of your network. And it turns out that finding a job comes from your weak ties.

My main value to the Media Lab, and to the world, is that I have my finger in a lot of networks. And connecting networks that aren’t traditionally connected is generally how I add value.

You’ve said that when the students graduate you want them to feel they could get a job even if they didn’t have their degree. Why is that so important?

In normal education, you don’t actually use what you learned in university or college so much in your job. Your degree is kind of a key to open the lock to a particular job category. I think universities should be where you do the learning, and you should be getting a job based on what you are and what you know.

Steve Jobs often spoke about bridging the gap between the liberal arts and engineering. It’s interesting that there isn’t more focus on that in academia.

Exactly, a synthesis of design and technology. In every company, even Internet startups, you have the designer and technology person. They’re the founding team. There are very few places where you have that happening at the student level. I’d like us to become a place where the future of higher education is being prototyped. It’s not that all higher education should turn into the Media Lab, but I think we’re doing a lot of things here that can, and should, influence the way higher education is generally thought of.

What sort of stuff?

A real focus on learning, on collaboration, and on expressing demoing things, rather than just depending on academic papers. Different labs can have their own version of that, but so many fields have gotten so narrow that they’re almost unable to communicate with anyone outside of their field. I think the way we think about expression can help with that.

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