Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

September 2011 Archives

Here are some thoughts about leadership as I prepare to participate in IBM's THINK Forum.

The Internet has enabled the cost of the production and distribution of ideas and information to plummet nearly to zero-resulting in an explosion of ideas and a low cost of collaboration. This has prompted a great deal of innovation, but also a complexity, speed and capacity for amplification that makes the world a difficult and dangerous place for many organizations and human-made systems designed for a slower and simpler era.

The cost of planning, predicting and managing rapidly changing, complex systems often exceeds the cost of actually doing whatever is being planned and managed. In fact, it can be often easier to try something and iterate than to try to predict the outcome and manage the risks. Most great ideas as well as dramatic failures have been unpredictable and are only obvious in hindsight. (Don't get me wrong: foreknowledge and planning are useful and, often, necessary; they're just not sufficient.)

In such a world, leadership hinges on the ability to master a broad set of skills and character traits necessary for fostering a robust system, including courage, flexibility, speed, values and a strong vision and trajectory. It's more important to have a strong compass than a detailed street map since the map is probably outdated and wrong.

These kinds of decentralized models of leadership have been evolving and emerging in a variety of situations ranging from battle (virtual and real) to religions. The Internet has just super-charged the importance of this type of leadership in almost every organization.

Managers in large corporations no longer have the promise of promotions and long-term employment to keep employees obedient and hard working. Central corporate R&D and planning organizations can no longer provide detailed maps of the world to their staff and partners. Innovation is happening in the most unlikely parts of the organization-often outside of the organization.

Leadership today is about empowering those around you share your vision, embrace serendipity, have the courage to take risks and learn from failure rather than be crushed by it. Diversity must be embraced and organizational borders made porous. Assets such as intellectual property and lines of software code must not prevent aggressive agility. Organizations must be willing and able to pivot away from attachment to such assets lest these assets become liabilities holding back innovation and progress.

In this new world, leaders must be courageous, visionary and comfortable in an environment where control and complete knowledge are impossible and their pursuit futile and counterproductive.

I've had some interesting conversations about the role of transparency and privacy and I have an opinion about this. I think that we have a world where those in power have secrecy and citizen are forced to be transparent. I think that modern technology has made this increasingly so. I think that fundamentally, it should be the opposite. Public figures and institutions in power should be forced to be transparent and private citizen should have privacy and the right to speak without fear of retribution or persecution. I think this is essential for democracy and open society and we need to push for and enable this to happen.

As we work on this process of making the powerful transparent, we run into some difficulties because most institutions, even those that are for the most part well-meaning and good, are not robust against transparency because they haven't been designed to be transparent.

It reminds me of software projects that try to "go open source" after they've been written. It's often nearly impossible because the code is a mess. When people write software to be open, they typically write it in a way that is understandable to the outside and isn't embarrassing. For instance, I know some developers who use obscene words for their variables or vent their frustration about their love life in the comments in their code. They'd lose their jobs or their spouses if their code was suddenly "open".

In most powerful institutions, corners are cut and methods are used in a somewhat "ends justify the means" sort of way. There are a lot of things that are done and said behind closed doors that wouldn't survive public scrutiny, but have become common practice. In many cases, these practices aren't necessarily critically wrong, but just embarrassing or politically incorrect in some way.

I believe that Wikileaks is just the beginning of a bigger trend where it will become harder and harder to hide information and citizen counter-surveillance will become a norm rather than an exception.

I think that this will cause a lot of pain to powerful institutions - some will be overthrown or crushed. However, I think that we can build institutions that are robust against transparency if we design them that way from the beginning. It will be harder than learning to write open source software, but I believe that in the end we'll have a society that is better, stronger, more effective and fair.

At, I pushed our team to use the CC0 public domain dedication for the data that we are collecting through our radiation measurements instead of a Creative Commons Attribution license, which would require by law that people give us attribution. The reason is that we must give people the flexibility to use the data as part of an analysis or service that would be encumbered or impossible with the attribution requirement.

Many large data aggregation projects would fail with the attribution requirement. For instance, if each person with each sensor had to be attributed and our data got rolled up into a massive analysis of all historical sensor data to find megatrends, it would be impossible to provide attribution to every single provider of data. Open data is essential to allow people to write software that uses the data freely and combines it with other data.

Providing the Safecast data under a CC0 public domain dedication does not, however, make it ethical for people to take all of the data from Safecast, re-skin it and present it as their own. To understand why this is true, one must understand the difference between what is ethical or normatively true and what is legally true.

Plagiarism is when someone takes someone else's work and represents it as their own. In many cases, this is not illegal, just unethical. For instance, if I take someone's idea and use it in my academic paper, or take Safecast data and make it look like I did it all myself, that would be plagiarism, not a copyright violation. It is unethical, but not necessarily illegal.

On the other hand, using a picture of Mickey Mouse in a presentation could be argued as an illegal copyright violation, but most would probably argue that it is ethical.

It's very important to distinguish the difference between legality and ethics. Most of our society and our behavior is driven and guided by social norms and ethics. Just because something is legal, doesn't mean it's ethical.

In other words, just because you dedicate your data to the public domain, it doesn't mean that you don't have the ethical right to ask someone using your data to cite the source of the data on their website, just like you'd ask someone using your idea in their academic paper to give you credit for if they'd gotten it from you.

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