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Media Lab director Joi Ito talks about the Valley's weaknesses, open technologies, global opportunities, and whether the lab is 'selling itself too cheap'

Posted by Scott Kirsner  January 10, 2012 10:32 AM

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Joi Ito started last fall as the new director of the MIT Media Lab, the famed research group that explores how technology is changing communication and culture, often by building dazzling hardware and software prototypes. Among the lab's best-known spin-offs: early Internet personalization start-up Firefly Networks, e-book display maker E Ink, and Cambridge game developer Harmonix Music Systems.

This morning, Ito gave one of his first talks to the Boston tech community at the British Consulate in Kendall Square. (Ito is at left in the picture, with interviewer Larry Weber of Digital Influence Group.) Ito mentioned that he maintains three residences, in Dubai, Tokyo, and Boston, and travels around the world about twice a month. Only occasionally, he quipped, does he feel properly adjusted to the time zone he's in.

Video of the talk is below.

Some highlights (these are rough notes on Ito's comments, and not a complete transcript of the talk):

- On Silicon Valley's weaknesses

Silicon Valley is so good at what it does. But certain categories of venture don't get a lot of attention in Silicon Valley. It doesn't make sense for Reid Hoffman [founder of LinkedIn and an investor at Greylock Partners] to start spending time with hardware start-ups. Silicon Valley tends to hunt in packs. So there are big blind spots, areas that they're not interested in. Reid has these basic golden rules: don't work with start-ups that have to deal with big companies, or start-ups that work in heavily-regulated areas. The flip side of that is, those aren't the kind of companies that get funded there.

[On the east coast,] we're closer to regulators and big companies. With things like big data, you need to talk to government, work with big telcos, and understand privacy. The west coast guys don't care about policy, and they don't want to talk to Washington, D.C.

Hardware is another area [of opportunity.]

Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley may be international, but they're not good at thinking globally. Silicon Valley has no culture. Have you ever tried to get food in Palo Alto? I don't think Silicon Valley spends a lot of energy on art, culture, and the humanities. When you're building 3Com and [data] switches, all you need is people who sit and focus on bits. But as we get to the World-Wide Web and think about how does social media impact politics, how does it affect fashion, how do we bring museums online that is much more New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. There are hopefully some regional advantages.

- On the future of the Media Lab

We may be selling ourselves too cheap. For $200,000, the price of hiring one engineer, you get access to 350 crazy ideas that may completely change your company, and access to all the intellectual property we generate. For the price of one person, you get a super-advanced research group.

I'm trying to change the Media Lab to be much more of a platform. Membership should be about companies working together, an ecosystem. When the Media Lab started, you had products like the Sony Walkman a single product from a single company. The iPhone is an ecosystem. Ten companies will create the ecosystem. Can we convene the meetings, nurture a platform, and get those companies to hang out with each other. Not just a hub-and-spoke model where people come to the Media Lab with their clipboards and then bring ideas back to their companies.

I want it to be that we only bring companies in that contribute knowledge and wisdom and ideas and interesting things. I don't want to use the word "club," but it will be somewhat exclusive. You won't just get in because you have money. I want it to be a team of people.

[Ito told me afterward that the way he can have the biggest near-term impact on the lab's research focus is by bringing in new faculty. He mentioned that there's currently a search going on to fill two tenure-track faculty positions. When I asked about research gaps at the lab that he'd like to fill, the first two things Ito mentioned were "games and government," followed by "food."

- Advice for college students after graduation

I would spend time in Brazil, Russia, China, and India, and if you have an inclination, the Middle East. I would spend a year or two roaming around.

- On international expansion

Many companies end up doing international later. But in a lot of these really big markets, you can't go late. We don't have eBay in Japan because they were late.

- Quick thoughts on some of tech's big names

Apple: One of the few remaining companies surviving as a closed ecosystem.

Amazon: One of the few companies doing what they originally set out to do.

HP: I'm not sure, but lots of smart people.

LinkedIn: Interesting monopoly, with one of the few ethical people I know [executive chairman Reid Hoffman] in control.

Twitter: Tons of potential, but interested where it's going.

Oracle: Do people still use Oracle?

Stanford: We need to learn a lot from Stanford.

MIT: Tons of potential. Needs a kick in the butt.

(Photo above courtesy of MITX director Debi Kleiman.)

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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