Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Bioluminescence 2

Photo by Jed Sundwall

Creative Commons BY-SA

I was invited to speak at the Danish Media Festival (with the unfortunate name in Danish of "fagfestival '10") - a conference organized by the Danish journalists union in a small town north of Copenhagen called Odense. Bjarke, the CEO of Storyplanet, one of my early stage investments and a good friend was involved in coordinating and my old friend Henrik Føhns was going to manage the session.

Back in 2008, I visited Copenhagen for the first time to participate in New Media Days and enjoyed it very much so I decided to take the speaking engagement although I'm generally trying to cut down conferences.

Ever since July, I've been trying to scuba dive every week so I asked some friends to introduce me to a good dive shop in Copenhagen to challenge the chilly Baltic Sea. I was able to track down Kingfish Dive & Travel, which agreed to arrange a night dive in the Baltic for me.

For some reason, many of my best friends are journalists and I really enjoy the company of journalists - they have a important role in society to be inquisitive, always questioning, bold, brave and expressive. In recent years, I've been saddened by the somewhat somber mood of my journalist friends as the industry that supports the elite corps of scrappy intellectuals melts from under them. I feel somewhat responsible for this as a proponent of and a participant in the advancement of the Internet and the amateur revolution.

Also, I find it interesting that while journalists are some of the most risk taking, thoughtful and irreverent people I know in their professional work, they're also some of the most risk adverse and conservative thinkers when it comes to business models and distribution.

I realize there are always exceptions to the rule and I probably have the benefit of a self-selected network of journalists who tend to think the way that I do, but I found the journalists that I met at the conference and in the "masters class" small workshop that I did with Bjarke to be thoughtful and very open minded about thinking about the future.

On the other hand, while being open-minded is an essential first step to moving forward, it's really just the first step and getting an intuitive feel for how the Internet works and how to "look under the hood" is an important part of thinking about the future of the medium.

At some point, as media scaled and people specialized, journalists, as well as many other professionals, became more and more separated from understanding the tools of their trade. The tools became black boxes. Black boxes help things scale, but in order to cause fundamental change, black boxes have to be opened.

One of the problems with the media industry is that the people with the keys to the black boxes don't understand journalism deeply and journalists don't have the key to the black boxes.

The key to success of open source software and Silicon Valley in general is that the developers both understood the market as well as the tools.

However, the trend is that the tools are becoming easier to understand and as open innovation has moved "up the stack" starting with the hardware, the network, the content management systems and now the design and the content, I think there is a huge opportunity for journalists to start participating in the innovation process.

The other important point is that the most important success stories of the Internet were only obvious in retrospect and the innovations were created, in many cases, by non-obvious innovators in locations increasingly in non-US countries, Linux in Finland, Skype in Estonia, ICQ in Israel, in the UK, Ruby on Rails in Japan and Denmark, to name a few.

I think that the lack of Hollywood's massive incumbent inertial and the huge domestic markets of the big countries gives smaller countries like Denmark an advantage to innovate without some of the barriers and assumptions that might hinder innovation in larger markets. Also, the smaller community allows a more collegial and collaborative atmosphere that I notice was pervasive at all of the layers that I interacted in Denmark.

Last night, protecting my crotch with one hand and holding my gear in place with the other, I jumped off of a pier 4 meters above the water into the pitch-dark 5ºC water in Lynetten. As the water soaked into my hood, I felt a brain freeze headache and saw darkness engulf me as I descended into the depths of the Baltic Sea and watched the windmills and harbor lights fade away. As we sat at the bottom of the sea in complete darkness, my dive buddy Zach and I extinguished our lights and allowed our eyes to settle.

After our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw thousands of tiny points of lights appear as the bioluminescent plankton lit the sea floor and enveloped us with a swirling cover of sparkling light. I put away my light and breathed deeply as my body adjusted to the water, my heart rate and breathing slowed down and was able to see and enjoy the immense, vibrant and beautiful Baltic Sea in its natural and completely new form.

I thought about the cold darkness that the media industry and journalism is being plunged into. Maybe turning off the battery powered lights that had lead the way in the past to allow the thousands of tiny, bright, natural and disorganized lights lead the way through the new landscape might be a metaphor for how the successful journalists would navigate the future.


This year's Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria was really fun, but in particular, I enjoyed meeting the great speakers on my panel. One of the speakers whose talk I missed because of a media interview was Ginger Krieg Dosier. She is an assistant architecture professor at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE, just a few minutes from my home in Dubai so we exchanged business cards in Linz and promised to connect back home.

Last week, I met Ginger at the appropriately ecologically and biologically cool MORE Café where she explained what she was doing to me.

Metropolis Magazine has a good article about her and her innovation, having awarded their 2010 Next Generation prize to her.

Ginger has developed a way to use a combination of bacteria, sand, calcium chloride (in sea water) and urea (the stuff in your pee) to make bricks. The bacteria are pretty common and safe. The process involves soaking the sand in the bacteria solution, feeding the bacteria a urea solution and drying. In one pass, you'll end up with something like sandstone, and with more work, you can get the brick to be as hard as marble.

What happens is that the bacteria create an amazingly strong crystallized bonding material that holds everything together and is functionally very similar to cement.

Making a clay brick in a coal-powered kiln emits about 1.3 pounds of carbon dioxide and according to Metropolis magazine, there are 1.23 trillion bricks manufactured each year.

The UAE seems like a perfect place where there is easy access to sand, urine and seawater. I can imagine some places in Africa also having an abundance of these elements. Another thing that Ginger noted was that most bricks are made by women. I can imagine that this might lower the cost of brick-making as well.

I think the key will be to figure out a way for Ginger to get this "to market" and figure out a way to provide very cheaply or free for developing countries where it might have the most impact. On the other hand, I can imagine substantial commercial value for countries like the UAE as well.

Today Creative Commons launched its Superhero Campaign! Please join me and CC in the fight for openness and innovation. Become a superhero by donating, spreading the word, or fundraising on our behalf.

This week's featured superhero is Neeru Khosla, co-founder of the CK-12 Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides CC licensed textbooks for K-12 education.

Photo by Grant W. Graves

As some of you may have noticed from my Twitter stream, Facebook and Flickr/Aproxymator, I've been pretty obsessed with diving these days.

It all started when Lisa Katayama and I got stuck in Europe when Eyjafjallajökull erupted during the Skoll World Forum in April. Lisa's mom told me to "take care of Lisa" for her and it turned out that it was cheaper for Lisa to escape via Dubai so Lisa joined me on a trip to Dubai from London via Paris to meet up with Lisa's brother Yushi who was meeting me in Dubai for business.

When we were in Dubai, Lisa wanted to try to find something to write about for Boing Boing. I introduced her to Rama who is the connector of many wonderful things and Rama told us an amazing story about Khalil, a 16 year old Palestinian who had lost both legs when his house was bombed in Gaza. They were teaching him to scuba dive. It sounded like a great story so Lisa asked for an interview and I tagged along as the photographer. (Lisa did a nice feature about this for Boing Boing.)

Watching the lesson made me think a lot about learning, empowerment and also reminded me of all of the "discover scuba" resort lessons that I'd taken without actually getting certified. I also found out that two of my best friends in Dubai, Rama and Mahmoud were dive instructors. On my next trip to Dubai, I asked Mahmoud whether he'd be my instructor for my PADI Open Water certification.

We did a crash course and I was able to get certified in July. What struck me about the PADI system was how well it was designed. Although the student clearly has an incentive to learn everything, the lessons were fun, effective and flexible. I was able to do a lot of the work online through a well designed e-learning system. The course was a great combination of video, text, audio, face-to-face learning and practical experience in the pool and the open water. The learning was really fun and the reward system was well designed.

I was hooked.

After I got my PADI Open Water certification I took all of the e-learning that was available online and scheduled diving sessions whenever I was in Dubai. I got my Advanced Open Water certification in August and have been diving whenever I had an extra day anywhere. It was a combination of the fun of learning, the fun of diving, the excuse to be outside and also the ability of the focus to let me switch out of work mode briefly that seemed to be so rewarding. Also, the World of Warcraft-like achievement system added a familiar pattern for me too. ;-)

I quickly learned that, although it was a bit tricky, you could have multiple instructors and could split up the course work.

On my way to LA, I asked my friends on Twitter if anyone knew of a good dive instructor in LA. I got a bunch of responses. @desparoz replied and referred me to Grant W. Grave (@bigblueplanet / LinkedIn) who is sort of like my Yoda now.

Grant helped me get my Enriched Air Diver (nitrox) certification that allows me to dive with higher oxygen ratios to make my dives longer (less nitrogen absorption) and slightly less risk of decompression illness from flying the day after diving. Half of my dives these days are nitrox. I also got my Diving Emergency Management, AED, EFR/CPR/First Aid/Care for Children, Marine Life Injuries, O2 Administration & First Aid, Diving Emergency Specialist, Dry Suit Diver (great for cold weather diving) and Rescue Diver certifications with Grant.

I expanded my instructor network to include Ernst who works with Mahmoud and Stephen in Singapore with whom I just got my National Geographic Diver certification.

I've just started my Divemaster training which is the first step in the path down the "pro" branch of learning to become an instructor and a leader. What I really find interesting in the teaching about teaching is the focus on being flexible, helping divers learn, continuous and supportive assessments, taking care of safety and being supportive of the learner's self-esteem and safety. If only more schools were so well designed... So far I'm very impressed by PADI as well as the whole diving community and so much of what I'm learning has applications in my venture investing, venture mentoring, open education and other work while at the same time being a great hobby and a new chapter in my exploration of photography.

I'm sorry I haven't blogged about this yet, but I was thinking about what and where to write about this. I've decided that since the diving stuff may end up becoming a bit too detailed for my main blog and is sort of a "fork", I'm setting up a new diving blog and will be posting my diving stuff over there.

If you're you're a diver or interested in becoming or learning more about being a diver, join me there.

Bamboo thicket
Bamboo thicket on Aproxymator

I've been talking a lot about agile development and how the speed and cost to a minimum viable product (MVP) has been reduced so much that it is changing the startup scene completely. I've been working with Pivotal Labs on my fund and my portfolio companies, having them help get many of my companies up and running with their best practices to take advantage of the latest methods.

Recently, the CTO of Pivotal Labs, Ian McFarland, sent me an excited email about a shop in Ireland called HyperTiny. If Pivotal Labs is the High Council of Jedi Masters, HyperTiny are two young Jedi at some outpost. Ian had recently done a project with Paul (developer) and Brian (designer) at HyperTiny and they knocked out an MVP for him in 2 weeks.

I was fascinated with the idea that one designer and one developer writing fully test driven development (TDD) and Pivotal Tracker based code could super-code a Rails 3 product in weeks. It made total sense, but I wanted to see it myself. I engaged HyperTiny to scratch an itch that has been bugging me ever since I moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In the UAE, Flickr is unfortunately blocked. People trying to access Flickr get a silly screen from the ISP telling you that it's not safe. I'm working to try to get this unblocked, but in the mean time, none of my friends in the UAE can see my Flickr photos. I've been dreaming of a site that mirrors my Flickr photos and provides a way for me to have most of the functionality of Flickr from an unblocked site.

I talked to Paul and Brian and my friend Christopher who has been banging on the Flickr API for years and came up with a basic feature set. We talked on Skype and put all of the features (stories) into Pivotal Tracker. While we were on Skype, I set up a GitHub repository, a Engine Yard account, set up my Amazon Web Services (AWS) account and got the domain name (Aproxymator) and off we went.

After that, every two or three days, we'd do a conference call on Skype, going through the delivered features, giving feedback, iterating and coming up with new ideas. Paul would walk us through the code and explain how the tests worked, how he was refactoring everything and helping us keep our heads around everything. Along the way, I pulled in Sean, Ado, Jim, James and Kuri and it turned into a Rails 3 tutorial as well.

One month (three actual work weeks of Paul and Brian's time) later, we have a working site. It's still half way between a vanity service to fit my own needs and something useful to others. I'm going to have to noodle on it and figure out whether we should continue iterating on the multiuser stuff or to focus on making it more useful for me.

Right now, it allows you to enter your own AWS account and use the service to backup and mirror your own Flickr feed. It's got some basic API stuff that we're working on. Christopher is now taking over the code, which was super-easy with all of the stories in Pivotal Tracker, all of the tests properly written and everything beautifully documents.

One thing that I do know for sure now. You can get to an MVP with one designer and one engineer and HyperTiny (and other shops like them) can help teams bootstrap in a way that allows a smooth transfer of the code to another development team. I saw it with my own eyes. True story.