Commencement 2015: Biographies - Joichi "Joi" Ito

JOICHI "JOI" ITO


Joichi “Joi” Ito, a director of the MIT Media Lab, activist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and advocate of emergent democracy, privacy and Internet freedom is awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 159th Commencement on Sunday, May 17, 2015.
Photo by Kelvin Ma/Tufts University

CITATION

An early pioneer of the Internet, you have a singular vision for the promise of our digital world. As director of the MIT Media Lab, you have demonstrated that when you bring together smart, imaginative people with different areas of expertise, marvelous innovation takes place. You were the CEO of Japan’s first Internet service provider and among the earliest investors in Kickstarter, Twitter, and Flickr.

While you are regarded as one of the most influential advocates for new forms of digital interaction, you have also taught us that the unprecedented ability to communicate and share information carries the potential for peril as well. And so you are a passionate and vocal activist for Internet freedom, privacy, and democratic participation. You have remained resolute in your conviction that everyone should have the “freedom to connect, to innovate, to program, without asking permission.” Those principles are at the core of all of higher education. Seeking to learn by doing, you left Tufts without taking your undergraduate degree.

Today, for demonstrating what we can achieve as a society through unfettered access to technology, and your unremitting curiosity about the world we inhabit, Tufts is proud to award you an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

BIOGRAPHY

When JOICHI “JOI” ITO was named director of the MIT Media Lab in 2011, some considered him an odd choice. The Media Lab, known for its innovative, collaborative research projects, also includes MIT’s graduate program in media arts and sciences. Ito, who, in addition to being an Internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist, has been a DJ, a nightclub owner, and a Hollywood producer, never completed his undergraduate degree.

But for Ito and MIT, the match made perfect sense. As one of the early pioneers of the Internet, Ito eagerly embraced the Media Lab’s famous “antidisciplinary” style of research, which defies traditional academic hierarchies and focuses instead on “uniqueness, impact, and magic,” as Ito puts it.

Born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1966, Ito moved with his family to North America when he was three years old. Both of his parents - his father as a research scientist, his mother as a secretary - worked for Ovonics, a Detroit-based battery company where Ito himself would later work. When he was fourteen, the family moved to Tokyo, where he attended the American School in Japan.

Ito believes his split cultural identity gives him a unique perspective. “I grew up going back and forth between the U.S. and Japan. In Japan, they called me an American; in America, they called me Japanese. As a result, I felt out of place in both places - but I realized that I was learning more than the people who were comfortable. So I say: Get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable,” he observed in a 2014 TED talk.

After high school, Ito enrolled at Tufts University to study computer science. There he met future fellow Internet pioneer Pierre Omidyar, A88, who remains a friend, but left the Hill after only a short while. Tufts is in good company, though. Famously preferring learning to education, Ito would go on to enroll in and drop out of the University of Chicago as well.

Ito was CEO of Japan’s first Internet service provider, and was among the earliest investors in Kickstarter, Twitter, Flickr, and many other successful startups. He is also a passionate and vocal activist for Internet freedom, privacy, and democratic participation. He has contributed his time and talent to a number of nonprofit organizations dedicated to promoting these values. For example, he has served on the board of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the group that ensures the network’s stable and secure operation. In addition, Ito has served as chairman of Creative Commons, which encourages the legal sharing of intellectual property, and he has been on the boards of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Global Voices, a network of bloggers that advocates free speech. He also sits on the boards of Sony Corporation, the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New York Times Company, and the Mozilla Foundation.

“The ethos of the Internet is that everyone should have the freedom to connect, to innovate, to program, without asking permission. No one can know the whole of the network, and by design it cannot be centrally controlled. This network was intended to be decentralized, its assets widely distributed. Today most innovation springs from small groups at its ‘edges,’” he wrote in The New York Times.

In 1997, Time magazine named Ito among the “cyber elite,” and he was called one of the 25 Most Influential People on the Web by BusinessWeek in 2008. The University of Oxford Internet Institute gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 in recognition of his role as one of the world’s leading advocates of Internet freedom. He was inducted into the South by Southwest Interactive Festival Hall of Fame last year, and he manned the MIT booth and DJ’ed a late-night party at the festival itself, a music, film, and interactive conference held in Austin, Texas.

“Neoteny, one of my favorite words, means the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. Childlike attributes include learning, idealism, experimentation, wonder, and creativity,” Ito wrote after he was named to head the MIT Media Lab. “In our rapidly changing world, not only do we need to continue to behave more like children - we can teach our children to retain those attributes that will allow them to be the world-changing, innovative adults who will help us reinvent the future.”

Ito will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.