Joi Ito Will Put MIT Media Lab Back on World Stage, Says Maes-Watch for Hiring Binge

4/26/11Follow @wroush

The overnight consensus from the twittersphere is that Joichi Ito—a globetrotting Internet entrepreneur, investor, activist, and blogger with few academic credentials—was a daring and unconventional choice to lead the 26-year-old MIT Media Lab. And that, says search committee leader Pattie Maes, is exactly the effect the lab wanted to achieve.

The Media Lab “has always been a place that likes to do things differently,” says Maes, who directs the lab’s Fluid Interfaces group. “So almost everybody I talked to during the selection process found that [Ito's lack of college or graduate degrees] was a feature rather than a bug. The universal answer was ‘Yeah, let’s show them! We are still bold, we can do things differently.’ We are not going to pick somebody based on titles, but instead we will look at what they have accomplished.”

And Ito has accomplished a lot. He helped to start Japan’s first ISP and its first commercial search engine in the 1990s. He’s backed a roster of influential startups such as Twitter (where his handle is simply @Joi). And he’s won fame as one of the technology world’s most-traveled, best-connected people; in fact, he blogged back in 2003 that he was getting invitations every day to parties all over the world, “‘Just in case you’re in the neighborhood.’…The funny thing is, sometimes I am in the neighborhood.”

Those invitations and connections will come in handy as Ito begins to follow through on what Maes called the search committee’s number-one priority: building a more active profile for the Media Lab in the global community.

“We felt that the lab, while doing excellent work right now, has not done a good enough job being present on the world stage, talking about what we do,” Maes says. “Our story has been a little big vague and not front-and-center. So we decided that we needed somebody who would be very much an externally facing director, who is very much a global player with many connections.”

That’s certainly Ito. And he’ll have plenty to talk about: the Media Lab is not the place many outsiders may remember from Stewart Brand’s 1988 book or the dot-com era, Maes asserts. It now employs neuroscientists, artists, economists, and others who are using a variety of tools “to come up with the next generation of technologies that we think will really bring about revolutions,” she says. “The overall vision is still very much the same, in that the lab is about empowering people with technology, but we have evolved away from just looking at digital technologies.”

Fortunately for the lab, “Joi has always been a visionary, somebody who really lives in the future rather than just talking about it,” Maes says. “He really believes strongly that technology can unleash the creativity in people and give them more freedom to take their lives into their own hands.”

High on Ito’s to-do list, judging from what Maes told me, will be orchestrating a hiring binge at the lab. She says Ito turned the tables on the search committee during their interviews, quizzing them about how hiring works at MIT and whether he’d have free reign to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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