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[Table] IAmA: I am Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab – Ask Me Anything!

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Date: 2015-05-29
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Questions Answers
You've talked about your new motto "Deploy or die" in a few talks. Does that mean you don't see any value in pure research? How do students at MIT deploy things, is there funding? When the Media Lab was founded 30 years ago, Nicholas Negroponte said that the Media Lab was about "demo or die" as opposed to "publish or perish" which represented a departure from the paper writing of academic to a more prototype and demo model. This fit well with the roots in architecture which also focuses on the atelier model of building things. This actually allows rigor at an interdisciplinary level that couldn't occur if participants across disciplines had to write an academic paper together. This worked very well for 30 years especially when a large percentage of the impact of the Media Lab was through influencing other organizations such as the sponsors of the Media Lab to create products such as guitar hero, the Kindle or LEGO Mindstorms.
However, with the diminishing cost of deploying things like websites or even hardware, researchers at the Media Lab are increasingly able to deploy directly. Last year, we change "demo or die" to deploy or die to signal a shift from just building prototypes (Nicholas actually said, "the demo only has to work once") to thinking about and actually deploying our work directly into the world.
What are the strategies of the Media Lab in order to have Global impact? I´m working in a similar lab but I guess we do not have all the impact that we should have. We do a number of things. One thing is my Director's Fellows Program: Link to
We also do a lot of workshops overseas... we've done many in India and recently in Brazil, Nairobi, Abu Dhabi and soon in Mexico City, etc. These involve students, faculty and fellows.
We also collaborate with a lot of organizations internationally.
Each of our groups also do quite a bit of work in the field. Ethan Zuckerman and the Center for Civic Media is one group that does a variety of projects internationally: Link to
Ramesh Raskar and his group Camera Culture do a great deal in India: Link to
And Joost Bonsen and Sandy Pentland teach a course called Development Ventures which is focused on creating venture businesses in developing countries and has been very successful: Link to
And there is a lot of stuff going on that I don't know.
So the strategy is to encourage global interaction and get out of the way and let people do it as well as support and nudge where it helps.
You said you never completed college. Do you think your career choices would have been different if you did? I think that there are probably a few people - mostly white men - for whom dropping out of college turned out to be exactly the right thing. I think that for the most part, a college degree will increase options for just about anyone, so I always try to convince my students - not just because it's now my job to - to complete their degrees. The people who should drop out, will drop out anyway and so anyone who can be convinced to not drop out, probably shouldn't.
In my case, it's hard to say. There is a total survivorship bias since it could just be luck that I turned out OK and you're not talking to the 99% of the people for whom it sucked because they couldn't get the job because they didn't have the degree.
My career choices would probably have been different, but I really don't think that you take my choices as any guide for how to live your own life since we're all pretty different... sorry about the non-answer here.
What would you say to the individuals who has tought of similar, same ideas that are happening in the media lab but never come to the realization phase ? This is one big thing that that I have been pushing since I got to the Media Lab - to post more stuff to the Internet and share as much as possible. We're posting all of our videos and other things.
The reason is that the Internet allows people to see what we're doing and allows us to see what they're doing. This enables us to collaborate with people thinking about similar things or to avoid doing things that others are already doing or have done. One of the key things that we focus on is to NOT do things that others are already doing. This doesn't always work, but I think that as more and more work from across the world is available and searchable online, the less likely we see redundancy.
So for individuals who have similar ideas, I would suggest contacting the research group at the Media Lab that is working on the idea to see if there is a way to collaborate.
See for example: Link to
What do you mean by "anti disciplinary"? Is that just a cool way of saying interdisciplinary? No. Interdisciplinary is when the chemist and the biologist talk to each other. Antidisciplinary is when you are between or beyond the disciplines.
When I think about the "space" that we've created, I like to think about a huge piece of paper that represents "all science." The disciplines are little black dots on this paper. The massive amounts of white space between the dots represent antidisciplinary space. Many people would like to play in this white space, but there is very little funding for this, and it's even harder to get a tenured positions without some sort of disciplinary anchor in one of the black dots.
And this is important because the lines between hardware, software, biology - they're blurring and almost everything interesting is actually antidisciplinary.
See my blog post: Link to
With respect to standard English definitions, you are describing the word interdisciplinary. Yes, you're right. I would still say that we are more "antidisciplinary" than "interdisciplinary" in that although we do connect branches of knowledge, I think my premise is that there is knowledge that is missing from the traditional "branches" of the disciplines and we are actually trying to find the "gaps" or the areas not traditionally covered by disciplines well. Also, while we have many teams that involve more than one person, we try to have at least 2 orthogonal domains in each single person. The "inter" in "interdisciplinary" seems to focus too much on connecting between things rather than being the between itself.
Typically, this involves more than one person (eg. chemist and biologist) but as long as the work pertains to more than one branch of knowledge - we call it interdisciplinary. I realize these are maybe minor differences, but it sets a tone that is fairly different.
What are your thoughts on the bitcoin max blocksize limit? How can consensus be reached when many of the core devs strongly disagree? Do you see this as a major hurdle for bitcoin? If Bitcoin should use an increase in block size to increase the number of transactions per second is an important debate. More importantly, how this decision is made will be a good example of how the community of developers, entrepreneurs, miners, and users will continue to collaborate on major changes to bitcoin core. Over the last few months there has been a rich discussion through blog posts and open email chains. The MIT Media Lab Digital Currency Initiative is happy to host an open forum where a discussion can take place in person and online with the goal of coming to a satisfactory conclusion by the participants. While it might take some trial and error to figure out exactly how this could work, we're happy to support the community in this way if they think it would be helpful to come to a conclusion on this topic and use this model as an example for future discussions.
Thoughts on the Lightning network? Thoughts on privacy in bitcoin? 1) On privacy: Bitcoin isn’t private. Financial privacy is really important. In the US, many think of privacy as a means for terrorists to hide, but in countries with governments that do not have an open society it is a powerful tool for the citizens to be able to protect their ability to dissent and have freedoms that we take for granted. I’m excited about the potential for technology like ZeroCash to revolutionize this space. The tricky part of any global protocol or network is that anything we do in one country ripples across the world and has unintended consequences. The key is balancing the needs of people in a huge variety of environments.
2) On Lightning: It’s a great idea. I’ve been thinking of Bitcoin as a layer on the internet stack, like TCP/IP. Protocols like lightning are like HTTP, making it easier and more accessible for the world.
Sounds political ;) It sort of is. :-)
In the course of your career, what has been your greatest setback or stumbling block? I think that every major setback that I've had has made me stronger so in many ways - like a healthy immune system - without the challenges, I wouldn't have growth would be who I am. So first off, I don't see setbacks or stumbling blocks (as long ask they don't kill you) as negative things.
Probably the thing that set me back the most was when my mother died of cancer and it turned out that we had spent all of our money + a couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars on medical bills. I ended up spending the next few years living in a pretty shitty place working for a pretty shitty guy digging myself out of the hole. At some level that built character, but I think it also provided me with the energy to get off my ass and do real work and start a real business so I didn't have to work for people I didn't like.
Hi there! Thanks once again for this AMA. In relation to the question above, what would you consider your biggest failure and how did you learn from this? Much thanks. My biggest failure was probably the incubator that I built in 2000 in Japan called Neoteny. We were backed by some VCs who thought that a big full service incubator would be more successful than a fund so we built a big facility, hired a bunch of people (40+), raised a bunch of money and started investing in and incubating companies. A lot of this was driven by the VC and the market at the time where many incubators were going public at valuations that were many times the value of their portfolios. Soon this model fell out of favor of the market, the model didn't actually work that well, the VCs pushed us to shut down and I had to fire everyone and wind the company down, pay the remaining cash back to our investors and set up a skeleton team to manage the portfolio of investments.
We did some good things like invest in Six Apart that developed Movable Type which didn't end up being a great investment financially, but did help bring blogging to the world.
Although I view it as a massive failure on my part, almost all of my investors are still friends and many of them have continued to invest in my companies and my funds, in part because I think we were always honest and tried to make the right decisions for the employees as well as the shareholders.
Last updated: 2015-06-03 01:52 UTC
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