From Dropout to Director: MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito on Interest-Driven Learning

Joi Ito often hears the same question: How did a two-time college dropout become the director of MIT’s Media Lab, one of the coolest jobs in media?

By jumping from one interest to the next.

Sure, to his teachers and to his family, he looked like a case study for ADD. But by adopting a dilettante mindset, he said his special ability is “being interested in everything.” He added, “in the beginning it’s hard, but as you get older you get pattern recognition.”

You might expect Ito to speak at a cultural institution like the Museum of Contemporary Art or a hall at a renowned university, like the University of Chicago. Instead, Ito returned his old stomping grounds. He sat on stage at the Metro with IDEO Chicago Executive Portfolio Director Neil Stevenson to connect the dots between deejaying and directing the Media Lab as one event of Chicago Ideas’ “Curiosity Series.”

When Ito walked on stage, he wore his 1980s Smart Bar varsity jacket proudly, and the Chicago Ideas team cued up the songs he used to sample in his set. He spoke quickly, stitching several different thoughts cleanly in his discussion with Stevenson. The theme of the discussion soon surfaced.

Throughout his years deejaying, he learned about computers, media, culture, and entertainment, and all the things you’d associate with MIT’s Media Lab. He also learned that “you could double sales or empty a room based on the music,” which bar managers really liked. Curating a social atmosphere creeps into his current work: “metaphorically, I can guide them in the background.”

Above all, he learned about community — “the first one that brought me in” — and embracing people who aren’t like you, at least on the surface, amid the AIDS crisis. As an international student who commuted from Hyde Park to Lake View, the Chicago music community taught him the importance of “embracing of diversity and embracing of the Other.”

This helped him transition smoothly to the Media Lab, which is “a collection of misfits.” Throughout the discussion, Ito repeated the phrase “robust disobedience.” He noticed an idea at MIT “that you want someone who isn’t you” to both challenge and push your ideas forward, citing examples from civil rights to scientific theory.

“Every healthy democracy needs dissent,” he later said in response to an audience member's question. And during politically divisive times, he said we, as citizens and artists, should ask the question “what can we build?” He brought up his peers who died during the AIDs crisis and said he wouldn’t trade good art for their lives. But he did say that during tough times, people can use this moment as a wakeup call. Partisan? Not so fast: “it’s not about left or right; it’s open or closed.”

Of course, the audience at Chicago Ideas cheered (in classic Midwestern form, ever so cautiously and humbly!) when Ito talked about his love for our town. “Chicago is not so big that it’s touristy,” in contrast to Manhattan, “it is a very large local town where the primary customers are the locals.” There are enough locals, he added, “to have weirdness but it’s not so weird like San Francisco,” citing what he said is a contrived counter-culture. On the other hand, “there’s enough stuffiness here for punks to rebel.”

For this self-described “interest-driven learner, Ito said, “I realized everybody has something to teach me. And it became a matter of finding it.” And a little curiosity made all the difference.

Chicago Ideas uploaded a video of the discussion (added below). The photo above is courtesy of Chicago Ideas.

Picture of the author
Colin Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.