Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Waitress and Daniel Suarez

Photo I took of Daniel in 2009 when we met for drink in a maid cafe in LA.

I just finished reading Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez. Daniel became one of my favorite science fiction writers when I read Daemon. Steward Brand turned me on to Daemon. If you haven't read Deamon, you should. I wrote about it back in 2008. After Daemon, Daniel wrote a sequel, Freedom™, which was also awesome.

In addition to being gripping thrillers that you can't put down, the books are all based on existing or near future technologies that make the stories amazingly scary and plausible. When Daniel wrote Daemon he was "an independent systems consultant to Fortune 100 companies. He has designed enterprise software for the defense, finance and entertainment industries," and can actually hack most of the technology that he talks about in his books.

In Daemon and Freedom™ the theme was a kind of MMORPG world gone wild where the online takes over the real world.

In Kill Decision, Daniel pivots and takes us to a world where autonomous mass-produced swarming drones establish a new era of warfare. There is an interesting discussion in the book where one of the characters argues the following:

In the middle ages, trained, mounted, armored knights could do an asymmetrical amount of damage taking out huge numbers of peasants making them an important unit of power. (Think Game of Thrones :-) ) This influenced the architecture of government - feudalism. Later, with the invention of gunpowder, a large number of mostly unskilled peasants properly armed with rifles could take on a relatively large number opponents, leveling the play field and paving the way for democracy.

WIth the autonomous drones empowered with the kill decision, brute force manufacturing and big data analysis - in other words money - could become the primary force of power.

Whether you're talking to Lessig about the corruption of modern lawmaking by special interests or the #occupy movement, it's clear that money and the aggregation of financial power is out of control and taking over the world. In Kill Decision, Daniel takes this trend and connects it very directly to the technology that we're all so excited about and adds a deadly and exciting twist.

There are a number of important elements of the story that take place in research labs at universities and it was a lot of fun comparing some of the characters to people in my new life at the Media Lab. (Looking forward to Daniel visiting the Media Lab.)

Overall, really great book. I totally recommend it and props to Daniel for totally nailing the timing. In case you missed it, see the Ted talk on autonomous quadrcopters from this year's TED which play a big role in in Kill Decision. I also loved the little details like the dig on Comic Sans. ;-)

The book comes out July 19 and you can pre-order it on his website.

A week of student electrodermal activity

Obviously, this is just one student and doesn't necessarily generalize, but I love that the electrodermal activity is nearly flatlined during classes. ;-) (Note that the activity is higher during sleep than during class...)

"Changes in skin conductance at the surface, referred to as electrodermal activity (EDA), reflect activity within the sympathetic axis of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and provide a sensitive and convenient measure of assessing alterations in sympathetic arousal associated with emotion, cognition, and attention."


Poh, M.Z., Swenson, N.C., Picard, R.W., "A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity," IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, vol.57, no.5, pp.1243-1252, May 2010. doi: 10.1109/TBME.2009.2038487 PDF

Old school knowledge

I have some amazing friends who tell me that when they were young, they read the dictionary from cover to cover. Other friends of mine have read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

My sister calls me an "interest driven learner." I think that's code for "short attention span" or "not a good long term planner" or something like that. I can't imagine being able to read the dictionary from cover to cover. In fact, I don't think most people could sit down and read the dictionary from cover to cover.

Although reading the dictionary and the encyclopedia from cover to cover may seem a bit extreme, it often feels like that's what we're asking kids to do who go through formal education.

Courses are organized, sequenced in a very structured way as student scurry from class to class sitting through lectures and expected to pay attention as instructors go on and on about calculus, history and grammar.

Students with the ability to focus and motivate themselves either through the need to achieve good grades or through understanding the long term benefits of a good education are able to succeed.

Personally, I find the dictionary, the encyclopedia and videos online as excellent resources when I need to learn something. I find the need to learn things every day in the course of pursuing interests, preparing for meetings and interacting with exciting people. I'm extremely motivated to learn and I learn a lot.

I love the videos of professors, amateurs and instructors putting their courseware online. They are a great resource for interest driven learners like me. However, I wonder whether we should be structuring the future of learning as online universities where you are asked to do the equivalent of reading the encyclopedia from cover to cover online. Shouldn't we be looking at the Internet as an amazing network enabling "The Power of Pull" and be empowering kids to learn through building things together rather than assessing their ability to complete courses and produce the right "answers"?

Over the weekend, I participated in the Festival of Learning at the Media Lab. It was a student organized event in the spirit of the MIT Independant Activities Period, but even scrappier and more agile. It was a blast and reminded me why the Media Lab is so cool.

The Festival of Learning was a two-day festival on 27-28 Jan 2012, where anyone from MIT's E14 and E15 could teach, learn, and collaborate!

Check out our EPIC LIST OF FESTIVAL SESSIONS, with photos, slides, source code, blog posts, and descriptions for everything that happened!

Also check out the videos below and our Flickr group to see what happened. We made mochi, painted faces, learned CAD, sang two notes at once, played MMOs, built fighter kites, filled a balloon room, discussed research methods, and much much more :-)

I organized a session on MMOs with Misha and we talked about the history of and the theory behind MMOs and did a demo. We used Star Wars the Old Republic instead of the World of Warcraft because it's the shiny new MMO. We tried to show what a group activity looked like by running a Flash Point, but it turns out that it wasn't that interesting and we lost some of our participants while we tried to quickly go through the instance. One of the problems is that it's hard to focus on playing a game while explaining what's going on. I think that there is a more fundamental difficulty in demoing online worlds, especially immersive ones.

Later we let people roll characters of their own and try playing. I think that part was a bit more successful.

This is the first MMO workshop that I've ever tried to organize and we learned a lot. I'm not positive what the perfect format is, but I'm hoping we get a chance to do it again and that we can iterate on it.

I just posted a blog post on the MIT Media Lab blog officially taking a position against SOPA and PIPA. This is a longer blog post co-authored with Ethan Zuckerman describing the issue in more detail.

SOPA - the Stop Online Piracy Act - and a sister bill, PIPA - the Protect IP Act - seek to minimize the dissemination of copyrighted material online by targeting sites that promote and enable the sharing of copyright-protected material, like The Pirate Bay. While this goal may be laudable, entrepreneurs, legal scholars and free speech activists are worried about the consequences of these bills for the architecture of the Internet. At the MIT Media Lab, we share those concerns, and we oppose SOPA and PIPA as threats to innovation on the Internet.

To limit access to rogue sites, SOPA and PIPA would:

  • supersede the "notice and takedown" method of policing for copyrighted material on Internet services and require service providers to police content uploaded by users or prevent users from uploading copyrighted content
  • require Internet Service Providers to change their DNS servers and block resolution of the domain names of websites in other countries that host illegal copies of content
  • require search engines to modify their search results to exclude foreign websites that illegally host copyrighted material
  • order payment processors like PayPal and ad services like Google AdSense to cease doing business with foreign websites that illegally host copyrighted content

Major internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, oppose SOPA and PIPA because it changes the liability rules around copyright infringement. Under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, companies are protected from charges of "contributory infringement" on content uploaded by users, so long as the company follows a procedure and remove infringing content when an alert process is followed. SOPA substantially alters this system, and internet companies worry that without protection from contributory infringement, user-generated content sites like YouTube and Twitter would not have come into existence. The burden of reviewing user-submitted content - every blog post, every video, every image - would be impossible for a company to manage, and companies would have likely stuck with the Web 1.0 model of publishing edited, vetted content instead of moving to a Web 2.0 model where users create the content. Several internet companies took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to express their concerns about SOPA and PIPA.

Free speech advocates, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, worry that SOPA may provide powerful new tools to silence online speech. Confronted with uncomfortable political speech, repressive governments often seek to silence dissent by reporting content as defamatory, slanderous or copyright infringing, hoping the companies hosting the speech will remove the content. SOPA accelerates the process of copyright removal, with a mechanism that permits copyright holders to obtain court orders against sites hosting copyrighted materials and have those sites rapidly blocked. Scholars of online censorship, like Rebecca MacKinnon at the New America Foundation, worry that SOPA may be popular with the Chinese government as with the copyright holders who are lobbying for the bill.

US law already permits the seizure of domestic domain names that are used for piracy, and the US seized 150 domains in November. SOPA is an attempt to enforce copyright provisions across international borders by prohibiting American internet users from accessing certain foreign websites, like The Pirate Bay. In effect, it would create a firewall to prevent users from accessing prohibited intellectual property, much as China's "great firewall" limits access to politically sensitive information.

Harvard legal scholar Lawrence Tribe believes that SOPA is likely unconstitutional, as it can remove constitutionally protected speech without a hearing, a form of "prior restraint". In a memo sent to members of Congress, he points out that SOPA proposes a system where a single instance of prohibited material could lead to the blocking of thousands of unrelated pieces of content.

Internet experts have observed that, beyond being dangerous to innovation, harmful to speech and potentially unconstitutional, SOPA and PIPA are unlikely to work. Countries that block access to prohibited websites by altering the domain name system - as Vietnam does in blocking access to Facebook - find that millions of users are able to circumvent this form of censorship. Millions of Vietnamese users have become Facebook users by entering that site's IP address into their browsers, or configuring their computers to use an uncensored DNS server. It's likely that dedicated US users of The Pirate Bay and other sites will do likewise. Effectively blocking access to sites like The Pirate Bay might require US ISPs to install powerful and expensive "deep packet inspection" software, a cost that would inevitably be passed onto their users.

The progress of the bills was slowed in late 2011 by widespread online activism opposing SOPA and PIPA. Hearings are likely to resume early in 2012, and opponents of the bills are facing off against organized lobbying campaigns by the music and film industries who support the legislation. On November 16, 2011, participatory media company Tumblr took strong online action against SOPA, redirecting requests for content on the site to a page that urged users to call US representatives and oppose the bill - their daylong campaign generated more than 87,000 calls to Congress. Internet community site Reddit plans a site-wide "blackout" on January 18th to inform users of the potential harms of SOPA and PIPA. Wikipedia is considering doing the same.

In the spirit of these protests, the MIT Media Lab has linked this blogpost to all our site pages, encouraging anyone interested in the work we do to learn more about SOPA and PIPA. More information and resources follow below. We believe that SOPA and PIPA would make it harder for Media Lab students, researchers and faculty to do what we do best: create innovative technologies that anticipate the future by creating it. We hope you'll join with us in opposing these bills and, if you are a US citizen, in letting your representatives know your concerns about this legislation.

- Joi Ito, director, MIT Media Lab

Selected resources on SOPA and PIPA