In 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.
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.