Hubbub with Joi Ito

A self-described Internet investor, entrepreneur, and activist, Joi Ito was an early backer of Twitter, Kickstarter, and Flickr; sits on the board of the Mozilla Foundation; and was even CEO of Creative Commons. (He dives with sharks in his free time.) The only thing he hasn’t done is earn a college degree. But the 45-year-old Japan native goes back to school this month, taking over as the new director of MIT’s famed Media Lab

Photograph by Andy Ryan

Photograph by Andy Ryan

You’ve got homes in Japan, Dubai, and now Boston. How often are you on the move?
Occasionally I spend more than a week in one place. A couple times a year. But otherwise, every couple days I’m moving. I always have a suitcase on the floor. Jet lag is probably one of the biggest problems in my life.

I hear you first interviewed for this job under unusual circumstances.
Yeah, about a year and a half ago I started scuba-diving every week. I was training on the island of Catalina, so I ended up standing in a dry suit talking on the phone.

There’s a picture of you on your blog feeding a shark. Seriously?

Unless you have food, sharks don’t come up to you. Sharks don’t see very well, so you skewer a fish and once they get close, you hold it in front of their face and jerk it along. Occasionally they’ll grab your hand by accident. I had chain mail on, so when he bit me, he knew right away it wasn’t food and spit my hand out. It was somewhat embarrassing for both of us.

I was trying to explain to my mother last night what the Media Lab does. It didn’t go very well. How would you describe it?
We work on enabling technology for expression, understanding, and participation—fundamentally, technologies that empower people. And media is very broad, so that includes everything from molecular biology to robotic prosthetics—just about anything that helps you express, learn, understand, participate.

Is there anything at the Lab that you’re particularly excited about?
I don’t like to pick out one project, but, for instance, Ed Boyden is doing things like trying to solve blindness through molecular biology and allowing people to control machines with their brains. And Hugh Herr is working with robotic prosthetics so amputees can run faster than normal people. There are 300 projects, and just about all of them are pretty amazing.

Is it strange doing this even though you dropped out of both Tufts and the University of Chicago?
It’s not nearly as big a problem as I thought it would be. The trickiest part is probably convincing the students that they need to stay and finish their degree. That’s my job. If I were at the Media Lab I probably would have completed my degree, because you can do nearly everything you want to do here.

Like all future academics, after quitting school, you DJ’d at clubs.
I came from a relatively privileged background, so the DJ thing gave me a deeper appreciation for working-class ethics. It also got me interested in understanding how communities develop and the influence that media has on them. Really, the nightclub DJ manages the room. You can increase the amount of exercise people are doing and get them thirsty; you can slow it down and send them to the bar; you can even change the character of the people in the club. The DJ is sort of the community organizer.

I understand you’re an accomplished World of Warcraft player, too.

Again, the majority of people who play World of Warcraft are working-class people—a lot of them are illiterate. It brings an enormous amount of diversity from all around the world together. In my World of Warcraft guild, I have bartenders and nurses and soldiers in Afghanistan, and we all play together.

You have any other hobbies? Big-game safari hunting? Cliff diving?
My other hobby is photography. I love taking portraits.

How will you have time to do all this stuff now that you’re at MIT?
The good thing is, every single hobby that I have has some connection to the Media Lab. Everything I’m interested in already exists there in some form. I may need to take a little less time actively playing World of Warcraft, but I think the number of things I’m interested in will actually increase.

Follow Jason Schwartz on Twitter @SchwartzHub.