Patrice Riemens on Thu, 8 Dec 2016 14:58:55 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Steven Levy: Joi Ito Explains Why Donald Trump Is Like the Sex

original to:

(bwo barbara Strebel, 'our Hippie from Basel')

Joi Ito Explains Why Donald Trump Is Like the Sex Pistols

The leader of MIT’s Media Lab on technological whiplash, nonviolent 
resistance, and the risk of Silicon Valley “floating away.”

In 2011, the MIT Media Lab — the smarty-pants citadel of digital 
creativity — picked a college dropout named Joi Ito as its director. It 
was a puzzling choice only to those who didn’t know him. Born in Japan 
and raised in Canada and the US, Ito had long been a vital strand of 
connective tissue between geeks and suits, an enthusiastic early adopter 
and canny interpreter who understood how networks, makers, and hackers 
would make their mark on the world. He had been equally at home in a 
crypto-anarchist crash pad and the Sony boardroom. And he immediately 
began rebuilding the storied lab’s mojo.

In Whiplash, a book published today, Ito and co-author Jeff Howe explore 
the strategies required to navigate Ito’s world, where digital 
technologies demand fast and radical responses. Organized into nine 
principles —such as compass over maps, pull over push, risk over safety, 
emergence over authority, and systems over objects — the book tackles a 
range of subjects from AI to crypto-currencies. But it came too late to 
include the recent election results. So when I interviewed the 
peripatetic Ito by Skype recently (he was in Dubai, by way of Marrakesh 
and Kuwait), that’s where we started our conversation.

Steven Levy: Reading Whiplash soon after the election, I wondered 
whether the book is an artifact of the culture the voters rejected — a 
sophisticated treatment of how science changes. It’s something that 
Secretary Clinton might read and discuss, but not Donald Trump.

Joi Ito: I don’t think so. To be honest, Donald is probably more tuned 
in to what we’re saying in the book than Hillary is.


Yeah. Hillary was about establishment, about structure, was about not 
being compass over maps, not being pull over push. She was running as 
part of a fairly traditional machine with some of the trim of 
technology. Donald was riding the wave of the network society. The stuff 
we talk about in the book involves the democratization of technology. 
It’s about working class empowerment. This election was more like the 
Arab Spring than it was like some well-orchestrated, well-designed 
political maneuver.

I wonder if you’re less excited about network waves now.

We write about what’s going on in the world today in a upbeat way 
because we want people to lean into it, but it’s not like only the good 
guys can use it. It just is. It’s the way everything is changing. Unless 
you figure it out, you’re not going to be able to keep up. Having said 
that, I don’t think that a lot of the people who voted for Trump are 
necessarily going to be up to speed on synthetic biology and AI.

You don’t think?

No. But I think AI can be just as destructive for investment bankers and 
lawyers as it is for doctors. It could be that it will be empowering 
pharmacists who go to one year of community college and become a 
doctor — screw the whole medical school. Disruption doesn’t necessarily 
advantage those with power.

One theme of your book is disobedience over compliance. That seems to 
define the transition so far.

Absolutely. People want a culture change, and this moment reminds me of 
the beginning of punk rock, or the beginning of the hippie movement. But 
I’d hate for Trump to be our millennial Sex Pistols or Timothy Leary or 
the Beatles. We need something like the Beatles that captures the hearts 
and minds of people. We’re ripe for a new cultural movement. Culture 
movements and art and punk rock thrive under bad presidents. The music 
was better under Reagan and Nixon than it was under Obama. I think that 
the doomsday scenarios tend to promote the arts. A lot of my energy now 
is in trying to provide tools to the young people to try to organize.

What kind of tools are you talking about?

I’m working right now with people like those in Gene Sharp’s 
organization, the Albert Einstein Institution, who are thinking about 
nonviolent action. Right now, when you see the protests even with Black 
Lives Matter, you see violence and you see hate feeding on each other. 
We recently invited John Lewis to one of our retreats and he told the 
story of when he and his friend were beat up by the Klan and left for 
dead in a pool. He explained to us that he trained for non-violence. In 
the dark basin of the church, they’d spit at each other, kick each 
other, and that strengthened them. Without that non-violent action, the 
humanity on the other side wouldn’t have been able to come out. Then he 
described how years later, a guy comes with his son to see him. He says, 
“I’m one of the Klansmen that tried to kill you. Will you forgive me?” 
The boy starts to cry, and the dad starts to cry. He cries and they hug.

I’ve been working closely with a monk named Tenzin Priyadarshi. We teach 
a class together called Principles of Awareness. He used to work with 
the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. He talks about discipline and 
compassion. Compassion is just being able to be nice to compassionate 
people you like. Discipline and compassion is to be able to be 
compassionate and loving to people you hate or are otherwise harming 
you. It’s something you’ve got to train. What I want to do is take kids 
along a journey where they have a path to nonviolence.

I’ve talked to the Occupy kids, to the people who participate in 
Anonymous — they believe the bad guys are more sophisticated than back 
in the days of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and that those tricks 
don’t work anymore. I don’t believe that’s true, and I also think that 
we can learn from people who’ve been developing these techniques from 
the past. I’m trying to see if we can create a whole set of tools for 
people who organize and direct this energy.

You discuss Universal Basic Income in the book. Are you a supporter of 

I’m going to take a tangent. We’re thinking about a space initiative at 
the Media Lab, partially because when we tried the real moon shots, it 
led to kids in Iowa launching rockets — and it was a nationwide optimism 
that came from a dream. Right now, the moon shots we see are moon shots 
of the wealthy, and the kids in Texas and Iowa aren’t particularly 
impressed by those.

What’s that have to do to with Universal Basic Income?

There’s a whole swath of America that I think feels that they don’t have 
a sense of purpose. They don’t have pride. They don’t feel respect. If a 
basic income works financially, fine — anything to try to deal with the 
income disparity is a useful thing up to a certain amount. Some people 
are literally starving in America right now, which is crazy. But work is 
not just about money. It’s about purpose. The money is there after that 
to give you a sense of pride, of purpose, of structure. Work is much 
more of a social thing and a psychological thing than it is about a 
financial thing. If we don’t have to work and we all have free money, 
what’s going to give us purpose?

You also talk about encryption issues in the book. Where do you stand on 
this divide?

I fundamentally support end-to-end encryption. I’m worried that the 
government may intervene in a way that is even more unfriendly than they 
are now. This is going to be very much part of the bitcoin 
conversation — what minimum level surveillance capability is the 
government going to want in order to allow this thing to exist? Can we 
build it into the technology in a way that allows the government to look 
at certain things while still protecting privacy? Otherwise, they can 
either ban it or, in a clandestine way, go in and try to mess it up. Can 
we build in some kind of limited identification, something that’s 
cryptographically secure, so the government can track certain things but 
allow everything else to be private? Those are the hard conversations 
that the technologists are going to have with regulators. Most people 
are quite religious on this.

You’re not suggesting some sort of Clipper Chip, are you?

I don’t want to propose a solution, and I also am very cognizant of 
saying anything that’s going to start a flame war, but—

Oh please.

For instance, the Zcash people are suggesting cryptographically secure 
identifying information that’s stored inside of the transaction so that 
when necessary, the customer can enable an unlocking of that. No, I 
don’t think we should be providing a master key or a back door or 
anything that undermines the security. But I do think that if we make 
everything look completely anonymous and completely locked down, we’ll 
either get rejected or get busted up in some way. Starting about next 
year, I’m going to try to engage [intelligence and law enforcement] 
people in public fora.

As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always had these relationships with a 
very wide range of people, from street geeks to corporate executives. Do 
you see yourself as an ambassador of the digital age to those 
establishment types?

Yeah, that’s been my role. I remember getting death threats on the 
cyberpunk mailing list when I was on the Japanese national police agency 
committee because they thought I was a spy. I’ve always had this problem 
being stuck in between, so that’s why I’m careful about it. For 
instance, the military artificial intelligence strategy known as the 
third offset.

What’s that?

The first offset was nuclear deterrents. Second offset was battlefield 
control and communication. Now, we’ve lost that advantage, so we need to 
use AI as the advantage for the military, who are calling it the third 
offset. They’ve asked for $18 billion. I really think that we need to be 
doing the AI work in the open. We can’t go into an AI arms race with 
China. I’ve been pushing both the president as well as the military 
directly about this. I’m hopefully making convincing arguments to them 
about why it should be done in academia and out in the open.

I do feel like I’m somewhere between an activist and an ambassador, 
because of the position at MIT and the fact that we have 90 major 
corporations involved and Lockheed-Martin and the Air Force and others 
who interact with us quite closely. They listen to us, so I think that’s 
an important role. Weirdly, the geeks are the ones that are harder to 
talk to. Over the years, many of them become even more convinced about 
these conspiracies. Compared to back in the day, I’m closer to the 
establishment than I have been. I need to be careful about not appearing 
to be a spokesperson for the military industrial complex.

I started out being between the US and Japan. Just being bicultural has 
always been a thing. Now, also, there’s this weird third thing, which is 
Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has its own weird culture. I feel like 
it’s also at risk of floating away, into this strange space. Maybe it 
already has; I feel like a part of my job is to connect the east coast 
with the west coast and make sure we keep Silicon Valley somehow 
grounded and tethered and not flying off into singularity land.

You were very early to understand how important the digital revolution 
would be — but did you ever think it would be this big?

I definitely felt the scale, like when you read a science fiction book 
by someone like Arthur C. Clarke. I didn’t realize how negative the 
negatives were going to be. I always knew intellectually that technology 
was neutral and would engender bad things and good things, but I was 
optimistic — more than I should have been. I see now that a lot of the 
values we try to build into the technology, to keep the web open, can 
get swept away and used for awful things. That’s when I become much more 
sober about the intent and the values of the system.

We haven’t talked much about the media lab itself there. You mentioned 
that when you took over in 2011 some critics felt that the digital 
revolution, particularly the internet, had passed it by, and it needed 
revitalization. What did you do?

When I got there, I had just been up running Creative Commons, so the 
first thing I did was I convened an IP commission. I felt like the Media 
Lab was an amazing computer, but it wasn’t connected to the internet. I 
wanted to turn it from what felt a little bit like a container to a 
platform, or to a network. The IP stuff was hard, because we were doing 
medical, clinical stuff, and it was much more complicated than I 
expected. I’m slowly nudging it open. This year, I made the default 
copyright license open rather than closed. That took five years. But 
generally on the openness, I think we’re making progress.

My main thing is communities, culture. Whether it’s online communities 
or being a disc jockey in a night club, that’s the area where I felt I 
had the most impact — trying to build networks. To me, my focus at the 
media lab, whether we’re talking about diversity or the research or 
anything, is how do I make the culture not just comfortable, but vibrant 
for creativity and stuff like that. I think that’s where I’m trying to 
make an impact.

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