Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

34581570_10156015313486998_718869846225321984_o.jpgIn 2011, when we announced that I would join the Media Lab as the new Director, many people thought it was an unusual choice partially because I had never earned a higher degree - not even an undergraduate degree. I had dropped out of Tufts as well as the University of Chicago and had spent most of my life doing all sorts of weird jobs and building and running companies and nonprofits.

I think it took quite a bit of courage on the part of the Media Lab and MIT to hire a Director with no college degree, but once we got over the hump, some felt it was a kind of "badge of honor." (I'm also sure, not everyone felt this way.)

Jun Murai, father of the Japanese Internet and my mentor in Japan, who is the Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Governance at Keio University in Japan, had been encouraging me to complete a PhD in his program. We had been discussing this in earnest from June 2010,when they confirmed that Keio would be OK with awarding a PhD to someone without a Bachelor's or a Master's degree. When I joined the Media Lab, I asked the co-founder and first Director of the Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, whether it would help me if I completed the PhD. He recommended (at the time) that I not complete the PhD because it was more interesting that I didn't have a degree.

Eight years later, I am often referred to as "the academic" when I'm on panels; I advise and work with many students including PhD students. It felt that it was time to finish the PhD. In other words, one product of my profession is degrees and I felt like I needed to try the product. Even Nicholas agreed when I asked him.

The degree that I earned is a "Thesis PhD" which is a less common type of PhD that you don't see very much in the US. It involves writing about and defending the academic value and contribution of your work, rather than doing new work in residence in an institution. The sequencing and the ordering is different than typical PhDs.

The process involved writing a dissertation and putting together a package that was accepted by the university. After that, a committee was formally constituted with Jun Murai as the lead advisor and Rod Van Meter, Keiko Okawa, Hiroya Tanaka, and Jonathan Zittrain as committee members and thesis readers. They provided feedback and detailed critique on the thesis, which I rewrote based on this feedback. Oh June 6, I defended the thesis publicly at Keio University and, based on the questions and feedback from the defense, I rewrote the dissertation again.

On June 21 I had a final exam, which involved a presentation to the committee of all of the changes and responses to the criticisms and suggestions. The committee had a closed-door discussion and formally accepted the dissertation. I rewrote, formatted, and polished the dissertation some more and submitted the final version in printed form on July 20.

Finally, on behalf of the committee, Jun Murai prepared and presented the case at a faculty meeting on July 30, 2018 where they voted and awarded the PhD.

Although by definition and according to rules the dissertation is entirely my own work, I couldn't have done it without the help of my advisors, collaborators, and all of the people I've worked with over the years.

While I started this project mostly to understand the process and "see what it was like" to work on a degree, I learned a lot during the process of researching, reading, and talking to people about my dissertation. The dissertation, titled "The Practice of Change", is available online both in PDF and in LaTeX as a GitHub repo. It's a summary of a lot of the work that I've done so far, a question about how we understand, design solutions for, and try to address the current challenges to our society, and how the work going on at the Media Lab might be applied to or provide inspiration for people trying to work on addressing these challenges.

In some ways, the dissertation feels like I've gone around and kicked a dozen hornet's nests. I've mostly stayed out of extremely academic discourse in the past, but the process of trying to understand a number of different disciplines to try to understand and describe the context of my work has caused me to wade into many old and new arguments. I'm sure that many of my forays into various disciplines will cause annoyance to those well versed in those disciplines, but those constructive criticisms that I've received about my treatment of various disciplines have surfaced an exciting array of future work for me.

So while I do not believe that I have yet become a "serious academic" or that I will be focused primarily on research and academic output, I feel like I've discovered a new lens through which to look at things -- a new world to explore. It reminds me of entering a new zone in a game like World of Warcraft where there are new quests, new skills, new reps to grind, and lots of new things to learn. So fun.

Credits

To my late godfather Timothy Leary for “Question Authority and Think For Yourself.”

To Jun Murai for pushing me to do this dissertation.

To my thesis advisors: Hiroya Tanaka, Rodney D. Van Meter, Keiko Okawa and Jonathan L. Zittrain for their extensive feedback, guidance and encouragement.

To Nicholas Negroponte for the Media Lab and his mentorship.

To the late Kenichi Fukui for encouraging me to think about complex systems and the limits of reduction.

To the late John Perry Barlow for the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.”

To Hashim Sarkis for sending me in the direction of Foucault.

To Martin Nowak for his guidance on Evolutionary Dynamics.

To my colleagues at MIT and particularly at the Media Lab for continuous inspiration and my raison d’être.

To my research colleagues Karthik Dinakar, Chia Evers, Natalie Saltiel, Pratik Shah, and Andre Uhl for helping me with everything, including this thesis.

To Yuka Sasaki, Stephanie Strom, and Mika Tanaka for their help on helping me pull this dissertation together.

To David Weinberger for “The final edit.”

To Sean Bonner, Danese Cooper, Ariel Ekblaw, Pieter Franken, Mizuko Ito, Mike Linksvayer, Pip Mothersill, Diane Peters, Deb Roy and Jeffrey Shapard for their feedback on various parts of the dissertation.

Finally, thanks to Kio and Mizuka for making room in our family life to work on this and for supporting me through the process.

On May 13, 2018, I innocently asked:

240 replies later, it is clear that blogs don't make it into the academic journalsphere and people cited two main reasons, the lack of longevity of links and the lack of peer review. I would like to point out that my blog URLs have been solid and permanent since I launched this version of my website in 2002 but it's a fairly valid point. There are a number of ideas about how to solve this, and several people pointed out that The Internet Archive does a pretty good job of keeping an archive of many sites.

There was quite a bit of discussion about peer review. Karim Lakhani posted a link about a study he did on peer review:

In the study, he says that, "we find that evaluators systematically give lower scores to research proposals that are closer to their own areas of expertise and to those that are highly novel."

Many people on Twitter mentioned pre-prints which is an emerging trend of publishing drafts before peer review since it can take so long. Many fields are skipping formal peer review and just focusing on pre-prints. In some fields ad hoc and informal peer groups are reviewing pre-prints and some journals are even referring to these informal review groups.

This sounds an awful lot like how we review each other's work on blogs. We cite, discuss and share links -- the best blog posts getting the most links. In the early days of Google, this would guarantee being on the first page of search results. Some great blog posts like Tim O'Reilly's "What Is Web 2.0" have ended up becoming canonical. So when people tell me that their professors don't want them to cite blogs in their academic papers, I'm not feelin' it.

It may be true that peer review is better than the alternatives, but it definitely could be improved. SCIgen, invented in 2005 by MIT researchers creates meaningless papers that have been successfully submitted to conferences. In 2014 Springer and IEEE removed more than 120 papers when a French researcher discovered that they were computer-generated fakes. Even peer review itself has been successfully imitated by machines.

At the Media Lab and MIT Press, we are working on trying to think about new ways to publish with experiments like PubPub. There are discussions about the future of peer review. People like Jess Polka at ASAPbio are working on these issues as well. Very excited about the progress, but a long way to go.

One thing we can do is make blogs more citation friendly. Some people on Twitter mentioned that it's more clear who did what in an academic paper than on a blog post. I started, at the urging of Jeremy Rubin, to put credits at the bottom of blog posts when I received a lot of help -- for example my post on the FinTech Bubble. Also, Boris just added a "cite" button at the bottom of each of my blog posts. Try it! I suppose the next thing is to consider DOI numbers for each post although it seems non-obvious how independent bloggers would get them without paying a bunch of money.

One annoying thing is that the citation format for blogs suck. When you Goggle, "cite blog post," you end up at... a blog post about "How to Cite a Blog Post in MLA, APA, or Chicago." According to that blog post, the APA citation for this post would be, "Ito, J. (2018, May). Citing Blogs. [Blog post]. https://joi.ito.com/weblog/2018/05/28/citing-blogs.html" That's annoying. Isn't the name of my blog relevant? If you look at the Citing Electronic Sources section of the MIT Academic Integrity website, they link to the Purdue OWL page. Purdue gives a slightly more cryptic example using a blog comment in the square brackets, but roughly similar. I don't see why the name of my blog is less important than some random journal so I'm going to put it in italics - APA guidelines be damned. Who do we lobby to change the APA guidelines to lift blog names out of the URL and into the body of the citation?

Credits

Boris Anthony, Travis Rich for the work on citations for this blog and the discussion about the citation format.

Amy Brand for the link to the Peer Review Transparency site and the introduction to Jess Polka.

I received a lot of excited feedback from people who saw the 60 Minutes segment on the Media Lab. I also got a few less congratulatory messages questioning the "gee-whiz-isn't-this-all-great" depiction of the Lab and asking why we seemed so relentlessly upbeat at a time when so many of the negative consequences of technology are coming to light. Juxtaposed with the first segment in the program about Aleksandr Kogan, the academic who created the Cambridge Analytica app that mined Facebook, the Media Lab segment appeared, to some, blithely upbeat. And perhaps it reinforced the sometimes unfair image of the Media Lab as a techno-Utopian hype machine.

Of course, the piece clocked in at about 12 minutes and focused on a small handful of projects; it's to be expected that it didn't represent the full range of research or the full spectrum of ideas and questions that this community brings to its endeavors. In my interview, most of my comments focused on how we need more reflection on where we have come in science and technology over the 30-plus years that the Media Lab has been around. I also stressed how at the Lab we're thinking a lot more about the impact technology is having on society, climate, and other systems. But in such a short piece--and one that was intended to showcase technological achievements, not to question the ethical rigor applied to those achievements--it's no surprise that not much of what I said made it into the final cut.

What was particularly interesting about the 60 Minutes segment was the producers' choice of "Future Factory" for the title. I got a letter from one Randall G. Nichols, of Missouri, pointing out that "No one in the segment seems to be studying the fact that technology is creating harmful conditions for the Earth, worse learning conditions for a substantial number of kids, decreasing judgment and attention in many of us, and so on." If we're manufacturing the future here, shouldn't we be at least a little concerned about the far-reaching and unforeseen impact of what we create here? I think most of us agree that, yes, absolutely, we should be! And what I'd say to Randall is, we are.

In fact, the lack of critical reflection in science and technology has been on my mind-I wrote about it in Resisting Reduction. Much of our work at the Lab helps us better understand and intervene responsibly in societal issues, including Deb Roy's Depolarization by Design class and almost all of the work in the Center for Civic Media. There's Kevin Esvelt's work that involves communities in deployment of the CRISPR gene drive and Danielle Wood's work generally and, more specifically, her interest in science and racial issues. And Pattie Maes is making her students watch Black Mirror to imagine how the work we do in the Lab might unintentionally go wrong. I'm also teaching a class on the ethics and governance of AI with Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard Law School, which aims to ensure that the generation now rising is more thoughtful about the societal impact of AI as it is deployed. I could go on.

It's not that I'm apologetic about the institutional optimism that the 60 Minutes piece captured. Optimism is a necessary part of our work at the Lab. Passion and optimism drive us to push the boundaries of science and technology. It's healthy to have a mix of viewpoints-critical, contemplative, and optimistic-in our ecosystem. Not all aspects of that can necessarily be captured in 12 minutes, though. I'm sure that our balance of caution and optimism isn't satisfactory for quite a few critical social scientists, but I think that a quick look at some of the projects I mention will show a more balanced approach than would appear to be the case from the 60 Minutes segment.

Having said that, I believe that we need to continue to integrate social sciences and reflection even more deeply into our science and technology work. While I have a big voice at the Lab, the Lab operates on a "permissionless innovation" model where I don't tell researchers what to do (and neither do our funders). On the other hand, we have safety and other codes that we have to follow--is there an equivalent ethical or social code that we or other institutions should have? Harrison Eiteljorg, II thinks so. He wrote, "I would like to encourage you to consider adding to your staff at least one scholar whose job is to examine projects for the ethical implications for the work and its potential final outcome." I wonder, what would such a process look like?

More socially integrated work in technology has continued to increase in both the rest of society and at the Lab. One of my questions is whether the Lab is changing fast enough, and whether the somewhat emergent way that the work is infusing itself in the Lab is the appropriate way. Doing my own work in ethical and critical work and having conversations is the easiest way to contribute, but I wonder if there is more that we as a Lab should be doing.

One of the main arcs of the 60 Minutes piece was showing how technology built in the Lab's early days--touch screens, voice command, things that were so far ahead of their time in the 80s and 90s as to seem magical--have gone out into the world and become part of the fabric of our everyday lives. The idea of highlighting the Lab as a "future factory" was to suggest that the loftiest and "craziest" ideas we're working on now might one day be just as commonplace. But I'd like to challenge myself, and everyone at the Media Lab, to demonstrate our evolution in thoughtful critique, as well.










On Friday, I spoke at the Elemental Excelerator Earth Day Energy Summit in Honolulu. The discussion was about the push for Hawaii to become 100% free of fossil fuels.

It reminded me of when my mother and I lived in Hawaii in the 80s and she was working with the late Senator Dick Matsuura and others to explore the idea. My mother and father worked for Energy Conversion Devices (ECD). (I got my first job working with computers as a 13-year-old at ECD. I would later join the board of directors from 1995 - 2000.) ECD was a pioneer in the field of solar power having created the first amorphous photovoltaic cells and the first roll-to-roll process for manufacturing them. ECD was founded by the late Stanford Ovshinsky who was a great mentor to me. I remembered how 30 years ago, solar in Hawaii seemed like an obvious idea, but a somewhat dreamy one.

It was truly exciting to see solar energy become a reality and the goal of a solar powered Hawaii within reach. Huge congrats to everyone who has gotten us so far.

Saturday, I participated in a board meeting of the Excelerator (as an advisor) which is doing an amazing job supporting renewable energy companies.

My mother loved Hawaii and when she died in 1995, we buried half of her ashes in our grave of 17 generations in Iwate at our family home. The other half of her ashes were released into the ocean off of Maui in a traditional Hawaiian ceremony. It was a full circle connection to my mother and her dreams of a solar powered Hawaii and my current role working on climate and energy issues with my friends at the Emerson Elemental.


Yesterday, I participated in a memorial symposium John Perry Barlow's at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. It was amazing to see so many old friends that I realized I had missed so dearly. It really felt like Barlow was in the room - he was the energy that united us. It also reminded me of the roots of the Internet and how different the culture of many of the founders was from the Silicon Valley. It gave me hope that we still have a fire in our belly to continue the fight for freedom and liberty that John Perry Barlow embodied and inspired everyone with.

I was allowed to make a few comments. The video of the whole event is worth watching. This is the speaker lineup in the order they appear:

Welcome
Brewster Kahle, Founder & Digital Librarian, Internet Archive

Co-Hosts
Cindy Cohn, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Cory Doctorow, celebrated scifi author and Editor in Chief of Boing Boing

Speakers
Anna Barlow, daughter of John Perry Barlow
Mitch Kapor, Co-founder of EFF and Co-chair of the Kapor Center for Social Impact
Pam Samuelson, Richard M. Sherman Distinguished Professor of Law and Information at the University of California, Berkeley
Trevor Timm, Executive Director of Freedom of the Press
Edward Snowden, noted whistleblower and President of Freedom of the Press Foundation
Shari Steele, Executive Director of the Tor Foundation and former EFF Executive Director
John Gilmore, EFF Co-founder, Board Member, entrepreneur and technologist
Steven Levy, Wired Senior Writer, and author of Hackers, In the Plex, and other books
Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab
Amelia Barlow, daughter of John Perry Barlow

I've taken a bit of editorial license - below are my rough notes of what I was going to say which are roughly what I said or meant to say. :-)


I met Barlow in the summer of 1990 when my mother had moved to LA and we were installing my sister in college in Palo Alto. Timothy Leary, who I had met in Japan and who would later adopt me as a god son, drove us from LA to San Francisco to introduce us to his community there. (He didn't have a drivers license.) He threw a party for us at the Mondo 2000 House to introduce us to his SF community and Barlow was there.

This was 1990 - before WIRED, before the web. It was all about Cyberpunk - leather jackets, CDROMs, weird drugs, raves, VR. South Park was a needle park, and Toon Town used to have raves around there. I remember raves advertising "Free VR." Silicon Graphics computers were being used to make amazing rave flyers that eventually inspired the design for WIRED Magazine. All that started in South Park and and was the genesis of the gentrification that transformed the neighborhood to what it is now.

Cyberpunk was a sort of new punk rock - meets the hippies, meets computers and the proximity to Haight-Ashbury, Silicon Valley and Berkeley created this weird sub-culture where a lot of this Internet stuff started.

Timothy Leary and Barlow had many differences, but also had a lot of similarities. They were my mentors.

They both had an amazing sense of humor, optimism and hope. This wasn't the optimism of giddy investors during a bubble. Rather, it was the optimism and humor that I sense in the Dalai Lama and others who have become self-aware through meditation, mind-expanding drugs or whatever brings you close to understanding true nature and reality. It's that peculiar zone where you see all of the suffering, the injustice and just how fucked up the world can be - and you face this challenge with a fundamental confidence in human beings and a sense of humor.

Timothy Leary used to say, "Question Authority and Think for Yourself."

Barlow's manifesto, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, was a great example of that. It was a rallying cry for a new generation - for us. I remember when we were starting out, it felt like if we could just connect everyone and give them a voice, we'd have peace, love and fairness.

Today our dream of the world that Barlow wrote about seems like a distant dream. Barlow was obviously aware of the twists and turns that this path has taken.

Barlow said, "My belief in the virtues of giving all humanity a voice did not take into account what would happen if you gave every one of a billion people his own virtual soapbox and street corner. Everybody's talking and nobody's listening."

Barlow also said, "I'm not sorry I wrote it. One day, I still believe, it will seem true."

We're having to climb some mountains and suffer some bad weather. It almost feels like the winter of 1846 for the Donner Party. But he gave us a compass heading.

I also believe, as Barlow did, that one day it will seem true. But to make it true, it will require organizing, action and tenacity.

In addition to a compass heading, Barlow helped us organize, think and act, and he fueled us with hope, humor and optimism even in our darkest moments.

We are in one of the darkest moments in global and American history that I remember.

I was born in 1966. I don't remember 1967 because I was just a 1 year old. But in 1967, we had the Detroit Street Riots which some called a rebellion (I guess if you squash it, you get to name it). It the worst incident of its kind in US history killing 43 people and burning down 1,400 buildings as the National Guard was called in to stop it. It was also the year that The Grateful Dead's debut album came out and Barlow introduced them to Timothy Leary at Millbrook. 1967 was also the year of the Summer of Love that kicked off the Hippie movement.

The Hippies and the Grateful Dead fought against the Vietnam war and the racial tensions with songs, love and humor.

The Parkland kids and the collective movement they've inspired, the #meetoo and TimesUp movements are two of the most powerful movements of the day. The TimesUp movement is headed to overturn centuries of patriarchal power. There is another wave coming. It feels different from the Hippie movement, but it feels like we're once again on the following the compass heading Barlow gave us - to overthrow the established and ossified power structures and more importantly the paradigms that feed them. There is a feeling of rebellion and revolution in the air. I believe that now more than ever, it's important to remember Barlow's elegant balance of humor, love, optimism and kindness that so magically integrated with his activism, power, confidence and resolve.

I want to finish with the last two sentences from his manifesto.

"We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before."

This is our compass heading.


One of the greatest things at MIT are the student run programs. One program is Tea with Teachers. It's a fun thing where they do short interviews with various "teacher" types at MIT and post them on YouTube. I got to do one with them in September last year and they just posted it last week.

They also let me "highjack" their Instagram feed for a week too.

And I'm sorry about the chicken.

I'm in the middle of trying to write a PhD thesis to complete a PhD at Keio University. I was working on this when I got my current job at the Media Lab and Nicholas Negroponte told me that I should dump the idea of finishing a degree because my not having an earned degree was a badge of honor at this point.

7 years later, people call me "the academic" on panels and while some people are still "impressed" that I don't have a degree, just as many students wonder whether I really understand their point of view having never gone through the process. Also, Jun Murai poked me the other day and urged me to think again about finishing the degree so I quietly started working on it awhile ago thinking, "I've got plenty of time..." Now my thesis is due on April 30. Step 1 in "how to feel like a student."

The degree that I am working on is a Thesis PhD which doesn't exist in the US. It's a process designed for people like me who aren't doing research for their degree, but instead, earn their degree by writing a thesis about stuff that they've done or are doing and "pitch" it to the university. Jun Murai, a Professor in the Department of Environment and Information Studies in the Graduate School of Media and Governance at Keio University, is my advisor.

So I have to finish writing the thesis, then I put together a committee, they review it, I defend, there is an exam and then, if I'm successful, I get a PhD and walk on September 18 in Japan. Jun and his team were kind enough to put "Congratulations!" on the commencement line of my proposed schedule.

So while this blog post is a bit of a break/procrastination ("how to feel like a student part 2!") it's also pressure for me to actually finish this or fail publicly. At least to the extent that anyone is reading this blog.

Which brings me to another point.

With my new Wired column and other more formal writing I'm doing these days, my blog has been getting neglected. Also, in doing research for my thesis, my blog has served as a great outboard memory for me to remember all of the things I've thought about or have been involved in with date stamps, photos and links. I realized that the original purpose - of journaling - might be a good reason to keep blogging. Writing to my future self to remind me of what I was thinking and doing today. Also, as a great procrastination method with slightly more long term value than browsing and liking random things on Facebook.

So there you go. I'm going to pivot my blog to be a bit more like personal journal to chronicle my journey than a soap box to pontificate from. Sort of like how it started.

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Image by Nick Philip

In November 2017, I wrote with the help of some colleagues, "Reducing Reduction: A Manifesto". We received a number of interesting responses so the Journal of Design and Science decided to use it to create an issue on the theme of Reducing Reduction. MIT Press announced an essay competition for a publication from MIT Press.

Here are the details of the competition:

The MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab announce a call for essays on the topic of resisting reduction, broadly defined, for the Journal of Design and Science. Essays should be in conversation with Joi Ito's manifesto, "Resisting Reduction," and the articles, also on this theme, published in the third issue of JoDS.

In support of open access scholarship and the free exchange of ideas, JoDS will award up to ten authors $10,000 each for chosen essays. Selections will run in JoDS under a Creative Commons license and will be published in an MIT Press volume. Proceeds from the publication of this volume will support open access publishing at MIT.

This is an open competition and everyone is encouraged to submit a proposal.

The submission deadline for essay proposals of no longer than 300 words is 2 March 2018. Semi-finalists will be notified on 2 April 2018 and invited to submit essays of 3,000 to 5,000 words. All selections will be made by the JoDS editorial board and winners will be announced on 16 July 2018.


To submit a proposal, please complete this Google form.


SUBMISSION CRITERIA

  • Proposals should engage with and expand the conversation started by Joi Ito's manifesto, "Resisting Reduction" and issue 3 of JoDS, which comprises essays on this topic.

  • A proposal of no longer than 300 words that outlines a new perspective relating to resisting reduction.

  • Interdisciplinary essays are encouraged. Proposals can focus on topics in any field of inquiry and are not limited by discipline.

  • Essay proposals must be written in English.

  • Your name, email address, brief bio, and a working title are required.

KEY DATES

2 March 2018: Proposal submission deadline (<300 words)

2 April 2018: Semi-finalists notified and invited to proceed to the next round

1 June 2018: Essay submission deadline for semi-finalists (3,000 to 5,000 words)

16 July 2018: Contest winners announced

August 2018: Essays published in JoDS

2019: MIT Press volume published

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Six years ago, NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster, approached me and asked me if I wanted to work on a TV show airing TED Talks that I would comment on. I'd do the comments with the camera on my laptop and just upload them from wherever I was. A few months later, NHK had cut a deal with TED, and I was sitting in front of five video cameras and a full crew in my office at the Media Lab, shooting a series called "Super-Presentation" for NHK's educational network. The show featured a TED talk (or two) and involved my making comments about the talk, speaker or the topic in general and some B-Roll and background, plus a conversation in the studio in Tokyo. It has aired weekly in Japan on nationwide TV.

A few years ago we added Sputniko!, then a faculty member at the Media Lab, as a co-host.

Several hundred episodes and close to 300 TED Talks later, we shot the last episode last week. It's been a lot of work and a lot of fun. I had to research and think about a lot of topics in the course of the show in order to think of something interesting to say. The show was even voted the best educational show by viewers of NHK.

Thanks to NHK, TED, the wonderful staff who've been involved over the years, my co-host Sputniko! and Kazue Fukiishi, Kylee and Takashi Iba who appeared on the Tokyo side.

PS The show is just a wrap from my perspective. They will continue to air through the spring in Japan. :-)

Designing our Complex Future with Machines

While I had long been planning to write a manifesto against the technological singularity and launch it into the conversational sphere for public reaction and comment, an invitation earlier this year from John Brockman to read and discuss The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener with him and his illustrious group of thinkers as part of an ongoing collaborative book project contributed to the thoughts contained herein.

The essay below is now phase 1 of an experimental, open publishing project in partnership with the MIT Press. In phase 2, a new version of the essay enriched and informed by input from open commentary will be published online, along with essay length contributions by others inspired by the seed essay, as a new issue of the Journal of Design and Science. In phase 3, a revised and edited selection of these contributions will be published as a print book by the MIT Press.

Version 1.0

Cross-posted from version on PubPub where there are interesting comments and feedback. Please link to and comment there.


Nature's ecosystem provides us with an elegant example of a complex adaptive system where myriad "currencies" interact and respond to feedback systems that enable both flourishing and regulation. This collaborative model-rather than a model of exponential financial growth or the Singularity, which promises the transcendence of our current human condition through advances in technology--should provide the paradigm for our approach to artificial intelligence. More than 60 years ago, MIT mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener warned us that "when human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood." We should heed Wiener's warning.

INTRODUCTION: THE CANCER OF CURRENCY

As the sun beats down on Earth, photosynthesis converts water, carbon dioxide and the sun's energy into oxygen and glucose. Photosynthesis is one of the many chemical and biological processes that transforms one form of matter and energy into another. These molecules then get metabolized by other biological and chemical processes into yet other molecules. Scientists often call these molecules "currencies" because they represent a form of power that is transferred between cells or processes to mutual benefit--"traded," in effect. The biggest difference between these and financial currencies is that there is no "master currency" or "currency exchange." Rather, each currency can only be used by certain processes, and the "market" of these currencies drives the dynamics that are "life."

As certain currencies became abundant as an output of a successful process or organism, other organisms evolved to take that output and convert it into something else. Over billions of years, this is how the Earth's ecosystem has evolved, creating vast systems of metabolic pathways and forming highly complex self-regulating systems that, for example, stabilize our body temperatures or the temperature of the Earth, despite continuous fluctuations and changes among the individual elements at every scale--from micro to macro. The output of one process becomes the input of another. Ultimately, everything interconnects.

We live in a civilization in which the primary currencies are money and power--where more often than not, the goal is to accumulate both at the expense of society at large. This is a very simple and fragile system compared to the Earth's ecosystems, where myriads of "currencies" are exchanged among processes to create hugely complex systems of inputs and outputs with feedback systems that adapt and regulate stocks, flows, and connections.

Unfortunately, our current human civilization does not have the built-in resilience of our environment, and the paradigms that set our goals and drive the evolution of society today have set us on a dangerous course which the mathematician Norbert Wiener warned us about decades ago. The paradigm of a single master currency has driven many corporations and institutions to lose sight of their original missions. Values and complexity are focused more and more on prioritizing exponential financial growth, led by for-profit corporate entities that have gained autonomy, rights, power, and nearly unregulated societal influence. The behavior of these entities are akin to cancers. Healthy cells regulate their growth and respond to their surroundings, even eliminating themselves if they wander into an organ where they don't belong. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, optimize for unconstrained growth and spread with disregard to their function or context.

THE WHIP THAT LASHES US

The idea that we exist for the sake of progress, and that progress requires unconstrained and exponential growth, is the whip that lashes us. Modern companies are the natural product of this paradigm in a free-market capitalist system. Norbert Wiener called corporations "machines of flesh and blood" and automation "machines of metal." The new species of Silicon Valley mega companies--the machines of bits--are developed and run in great part by people who believe in a new religion, Singularity. This new religion is not a fundamental change in the paradigm, but rather the natural evolution of the worship of exponential growth applied to modern computation and science. The asymptote of the exponential growth of computational power is artificial intelligence.

The notion of Singularity--that AI will supercede humans with its exponential growth, and that everything we have done until now and are currently doing is insignificant--is a religion created by people who have the experience of using computation to solve problems heretofore considered impossibly complex for machines. They have found a perfect partner in digital computation--a knowable, controllable, system of thinking and creating that is rapidly increasing in its ability to harness and process complexity, bestowing wealth and power on those who have mastered it. In Silicon Valley, the combination of groupthink and the financial success of this cult of technology has created a positive feedback system that has very little capacity for regulating through negative feedback. While they would resist having their beliefs compared to a religion and would argue that their ideas are science- and evidence-based, those who embrace Singularity engage in quite a bit of arm waving and make leaps of faith based more on trajectories than ground-truths to achieve their ultimate vision.

Singularitarians believe that the world is "knowable" and computationally simulatable, and that computers will be able to process the messiness of the real world just like they have every other problem that everyone said couldn't be solved by computers. To them, this wonderful tool, the computer, has worked so well for everything so far that it must continue to work for every challenge we throw at it, until we have transcended known limitations and ultimately achieve some sort of reality escape velocity. Artificial intelligence is already displacing humans in driving cars, diagnosing cancers, and researching court documents. The idea is that AI will continue this progress and eventually merge with human brains and become an all-seeing, all-powerful, super-intelligence. For true believers, computers will augment and extend our thoughts into a kind of "amortality." (Part of Singularity is a fight for "amortality," the idea that while one may still die and not be immortal, the death is not the result of the grim reaper of aging.)

But if corporations are a precursor to our transcendance, the Singularitarian view that with more computing and bio-hacking we will somehow solve all of the world's problems or that the Singularity will solve us seems hopelessly naive. As we dream of the day when we have enhanced brains and amortality and can think big, long thoughts, corporations already have a kind of "amortality." They persist as long as they are solvent and they are more than a sum of their parts--arguably an amortal super-intelligence.

More computation does not makes us more "intelligent," only more computationally powerful.

For Singularity to have a positive outcome requires a belief that, given enough power, the system will somehow figure out how to regulate itself. The final outcome would be so complex that while we humans couldn't understand it now, "it" would understand and "solve" itself. Some believe in something that looks a bit like the former Soviet Union's master planning but with full information and unlimited power. Others have a more sophisticated view of a distributed system, but at some level, all Singularitarians believe that with enough power and control, the world is "tamable." Not all who believe in Singularity worship it as a positive transcendence bringing immortality and abundance, but they do believe that a judgment day is coming when all curves go vertical.

Whether you are on an S-curve or a bell curve, the beginning of the slope looks a lot like an exponential curve. An exponential curve to systems dynamics people shows self-reinforcement, i.e., a positive feedback curve without limits. Maybe this is what excites Singularitarians and scares systems people. Most people outside the singularity bubble believe in S-curves, namely that nature adapts and self-regulates and that even pandemics will run their course. Pandemics may cause an extinction event, but growth will slow and things will adapt. They may not be in the same state, and a phase change could occur, but the notion of Singularity--especially as some sort of savior or judgment day that will allow us to transcend the messy, mortal suffering of our human existence--is fundamentally a flawed one.

This sort of reductionist thinking isn't new. When BF Skinner discovered the principle of reinforcement and was able to describe it, we designed education around his theories. Learning scientists know now that behaviorist approaches only work for a narrow range of learning, but many schools continue to rely on drill and practice. Take, as another example, the eugenics movement, which greatly and incorrectly over-simplified the role of genetics in society. This movement helped fuel the Nazi genocide by providing a reductionist scientific view that we could "fix humanity" by manually pushing natural selection. The echoes of the horrors of eugenics exist today, making almost any research trying to link genetics with things like intelligence taboo.

We should learn from our history of applying over-reductionist science to society and try to, as Wiener says, "cease to kiss the whip that lashes us." While it is one of the key drivers of science--to elegantly explain the complex and reduce confusion to understanding--we must also remember what Albert Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."1 We need to embrace the unknowability--the irreducibility--of the real world that artists, biologists and those who work in the messy world of liberal arts and humanities are familiar with.

WE ARE ALL PARTICIPANTS

The Cold War era, when Wiener was writing The Human Use of Human Beings, was a time defined by the rapid expansion of capitalism and consumerism, the beginning of the space race, and the coming of age of computation. It was a time when it was easier to believe that systems could be controlled from the outside, and that many of the world's problems would be solved through science and engineering.

The cybernetics that Wiener primarily described during that period were concerned with feedback systems that can be controlled or regulated from an objective perspective. This so-called first-order cybernetics assumed that the scientist as the observer can understand what is going on, therefore enabling the engineer to design systems based on observation or insight from the scientist.

Today, it is much more obvious that most of our problems--climate change, poverty, obesity and chronic disease, or modern terrorism--cannot be solved simply with more resources and greater control. That is because they are the result of complex adaptive systems that are often the result of the tools used to solve problems in the past, such as endlessly increasing productivity and attempts to control things. This is where second-order cybernetics comes into play--the cybernetics of self-adaptive complex systems, where the observer is also part of the system itself. As Kevin Slavin says in Design as Participation, "You're Not Stuck In Traffic--You Are Traffic."3

In order to effectively respond to the significant scientific challenges of our times, I believe we must view the world as many interconnected, complex, self-adaptive systems across scales and dimensions that are unknowable and largely inseparable from the observer and the designer. In other words, we are participants in multiple evolutionary systems with different fitness landscapes4 at different scales, from our microbes to our individual identities to society and our species. Individuals themselves are systems composed of systems of systems, such as the cells in our bodies that behave more like system-level designers than we do.

While Wiener does discuss biological evolution and the evolution of language, he doesn't explore the idea of harnessing evolutionary dynamics for science. Biological evolution of individual species (genetic evolution) has been driven by reproduction and survival, instilling in us goals and yearnings to procreate and grow. That system continually evolves to regulate growth, increase diversity and complexity, and enhance its own resilience, adaptability, and sustainability.5 As designers with growing awareness of these broader systems, we have goals and methodologies defined by the evolutionary and environmental inputs from our biological and societal contexts. But machines with emergent intelligence have discernibly different goals and methodologies. As we introduce machines into the system, they will not only augment individual humans, but they will also--and more importantly--augment complex systems as a whole.

Here is where the problematic formulation of "artificial intelligence" becomes evident, as it suggests forms, goals and methods that stand outside of interaction with other complex adaptive systems. Instead of thinking about machine intelligence in terms of humans vs. machines, we should consider the system that integrates humans and machines--not artificial intelligence, but extended intelligence. Instead of trying to control or design or even understand systems, it is more important to design systems that participate as responsible, aware and robust elements of even more complex systems. And we must question and adapt our own purpose and sensibilities as designers and components of the system for a much more humble approach: Humility over Control.

We could call it "participant design"--design of systems as and by participants--that is more akin to the increase of a flourishing function, where flourishing is a measure of vigor and health rather than scale or power. We can measure the ability for systems to adapt creatively, as well as their resilience and their ability to use resources in an interesting way.

Better interventions are less about solving or optimizing and more about developing a sensibility appropriate to the environment and the time. In this way they are more like music than an algorithm. Music is about a sensibility or "taste" with many elements coming together into a kind of emergent order. Instrumentation can nudge or cause the system to adapt or move in an unpredictable and unprogrammed manner, while still making sense and holding together. Using music itself as an intervention is not a new idea; in 1707, Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician, said, "Let me make the songs of a nation, I care not who makes its laws."

If writing songs instead of laws feels frivolous, remember that songs typically last longer than laws, have played key roles in various hard and soft revolutions and end up being transmitted person-to-person along with the values they carry. It's not about music or code. It's about trying to affect change by operating at the level songs do. This is articulated by Donella Meadows, among others, in her book Thinking in Systems.

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Meadows, in her essay Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, describes how we can intervene in a complex, self-adaptive system. For her, interventions that involve changing parameters or even changing the rules are not nearly as powerful or as fundamental as changes in a system's goals and paradigms.

When Wiener discussed our worship of progress, he said:

Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.6

Instead of discussing "sustainability" as something to be "solved" in the context of a world where bigger is still better and more than enough is NOT too much, perhaps we should examine the values and the currencies of the fitness functions7 and consider whether they are suitable and appropriate for the systems in which we participate.

CONCLUSION: A CULTURE OF FLOURISHING

Developing a sensibility and a culture of flourishing, and embracing a diverse array of measures of "success" depend less on the accumulation of power and resources and more on diversity and the richness of experience. This is the paradigm shift that we need. This will provide us with a wealth of technological and cultural patterns to draw from to create a highly adaptable society. This diversity also allows the elements of the system to feed each other without the exploitation and extraction ethos created by a monoculture with a single currency. It is likely that this new culture will spread as music, fashion, spirituality or other forms of art.

As a native Japanese, I am heartened by a group of junior high school students I spoke to there recently who, when I challenged them about what they thought we should do about the environment, asked questions about the meaning of happiness and the role of humans in nature. I am likewise heartened to see many of my students at the MIT Media Lab and in the Principles of Awareness class that I co-teach with the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi using a variety of metrics (currencies) to measure their success and meaning and grappling directly with the complexity of finding one's place in our complex world.

This is brilliant, sophisticated, timely. Question, what do you want to do with this manifesto? Socio-economic political cultural movement? To begin with, who do you want to read this? In what spaces?I know people who are working on this on the political side. I am interested in the arts and sciences ie buildable memory cultural side.

Don't know if people would agree with my conclusions here, but I've been working on developing my music in relation to housing issues around the Bay Area recently.I believe that it's important for us to develop a sensibility for diversity not just as an abstract exercise, but in ways that reflect our day to day lives. We're in need of new visions of how we plan to co-exist with one another, and I do think that artists have the ability to pave the way here in very real ways.

I'm also heartened by organizations such as the IEEE, which is initiating design guidelines for the development of artificial intelligence around human wellbeing instead of around economic impact. The work by Peter Seligman, Christopher Filardi, and Margarita Mora from Conservation International is creative and exciting because it approaches conservation by supporting the flourishing of indigenous people--not undermining it. Another heartening example is that of the Shinto priests at Ise Shrine, who have been planting and rebuilding the shrine every twenty years for the last 1300 years in celebration of the renewal and the cyclical quality of nature.

In the 1960s and 70s, the hippie movement tried to pull together a "whole earth" movement, but then the world swung back toward the consumer and consumption culture of today. I hope and believe that a new awakening will happen and that a new sensibility will cause a nonlinear change in our behavior through a cultural transformation. While we can and should continue to work at every layer of the system to create a more resilient world, I believe the cultural layer is the layer with the most potential for a fundamental correction away from the self-destructive path that we are currently on. I think that it will yet again be about the music and the arts of the young people reflecting and amplifying a new sensibility: a turn away from greed to a world where "more than enough is too much," and we can flourish in harmony with Nature rather than through the control of it.



1. An asymptote is a line that continually approaches a given curve but does not meet it at any finite distance. In singularity, this is the vertical line that occurs when the exponential growth curve a vertical line. There are more arguments about where this asymptote is among believers than about whether it is actually coming.

2. This is a common paraphrase. What Einstein actually said was, "It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience."

3. Western philosophy and science is "dualistic" as opposed to the more "Eastern" non-dualistic approach. A whole essay could be written about this but the idea of a subject/object or a designer/designee is partially linked to the notion of self in Western philosophy and religion.

4. Fitness landscapes arise when you assign a fitness value for every genotype. The genotypes are arranged in a high dimensional sequence space. The fitness landscape is a function on that sequence space. In evolutionary dynamics, a biological population moves over a fitness landscape driven by mutation, selection and random drift. (Nowak, M. A. Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Harvard University Press, 2006.)

5. Nowak, M. A. Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Harvard University Press, 2006.

6. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1954 edition), p.42.

7. A fitness function is a function that is used to summarize, as a measure of merit, how close a solution is to a particular aim. It is used to describe and design evolutionary systems.

Credits

Review, research and editing team: Catherine Ahearn, Chia Evers, Natalie Saltiel, Andre Uhl