The Internet, innovation, and learning

Joi Ito

The Internet isn’t really a technology, it’s a belief system — a philosophy.

I remember very clearly the day I installed a tiny piece of software, MacPPP on my computer, which connected the programs running on it to the global Internet. It immediately transformed my computer from a fancy telex machine to a very early version of the multimedia Internet that we take for granted today.

I was working in television, motion pictures and music at the time. I remember thinking that the Internet was going to change everything and that I should immediately quit the media business and stop climbing those career ladders and start building the Internet.

My first step in this transition to help build the Internet was to work on the first commercial Internet Service Provider in Japan, PSINet Japan. I became its first CEO. I remember the battle against X.25, a competing standard to the Internet being stewarded by the large standards body affiliated with the UN called CCITT. Large inter-governmental agencies have experts from government and the largest companies in the world gather to work on the standards that govern a variety of the telecommunications infrastructure’s DNA — the technical standards that companies build their networks and products against.

The battle between X.25 and the Internet was the battle between heavily funded, government backed experts and a loosely organized group of researchers and entrepreneurs. The X.25 people were trying to plan and anticipate every possible problem and application. They developed complex and extremely well-thought-out standards that the largest and most established research labs and companies would render into software and hardware.

The Internet, on the other hand, was being designed and deployed by small groups of researchers following the credo “rough consensus and running code,” coined by one of its chief architects, David Clark. Instead of a large inter-governmental agency, the standards of the Internet were stewarded by small organizations, which didn’t require permission or authority. It functioned by issuing the humbly named “Request for Comment” or RFCs as the way to propose simple and light-weight standards against which small groups of developers could work on the elements that together became the Internet.

As we all know, the Internet won. It was the triumph of distributed innovation over centralized innovation.

The belief system of the Internet is that everyone should have the freedom to connect, the freedom to innovate and the freedom to hack without asking permission. No one can know the whole of it; it cannot be centrally controlled and the innovation happens in small groups on the “edges” of the network.

This belief system has created a massive network of distributed innovators. Internet innovators develop standards with each other and share the products of their work in the form of free and open source software. Lately they are even sharing electronics and physical designs.

The architecture of the Internet and the abundance of free software and components has driven the cost of manufacture, distribution and collaboration — the cost of innovation — down massively. Software companies used to cost millions of dollars in venture capital to start — today for little or no money, entrepreneurs are able develop and release a “minimum viable product” and test it with real users on the Internet before they have to raise money from investors.

In fact, it is now usually cheaper to just try something than to sit around and try to figure out whether to try something. The map is now often more complex and often more expensive to create than trying to figure it out as you go. The compass has replaced the map and the idea of “rough consensus running code” has spread from the ideology behind network architecture to a fundamental philosophy for startup companies and the “lean startup” movement.

3D printers, laser cutters, online distribution, supply chain services and even sophisticated manufacturers have become cheaper, standardized and connected via the Internet. We are seeing the emergence of a community of hardware hackers and open hardware designs very reminiscent of the communities of developers who write the open standards and free and open source software of the Internet and I anticipate an explosion of grass-roots innovation around hardware as we saw in software. The Media Lab is very involved in all of the elements of this movement.

At the Media Lab, we have a multi-disciplinary group of faculty, students and member companies working together to invent the future by applying the philosophy of “rough consensus running code” to a wide variety of fields in addition to the future of hardware design.

At the Media Lab we focus on learning through creation instead of instruction. We are empowering individuals to experiment, create, and iterate. We produce demos and prototypes and share and collaborate with the rest of the world through the Internet and a distributed network of connections and relationships. We are not about centralized instruction but rather a node in a broad network of distributed creativity.

What has been a wildly successful model for consumer Internet startups in Silicon Valley turns out to be an extremely good model for learning and for a wide variety of fields and disciplines, and we are trying to empower more and more communities to also have access to technology and the ability to participate and create.

For example, in the High-Low Tech group we are designing new materials and technology to allow an extremely diverse non-technical group of online and real-world communities to learn how to build their own electronics and learn about technology.

In the Lifelong Kindergarten group, we are managing a massive community of young people around the Scratch programming language, which allows very young children to write their own software and share their projects online and build upon one another’s code and ideas.

Neoteny, one of my favorite words, means the retention of childlike attributions in adulthood. Childlike attributes include learning, idealism, experimentation, wonder, and creativity. In our rapidly changing world, not only do we need to continue to behave more like children — we can teach our children to retain those attributes that will allow them to be the world — changing, innovative adults who will help us reinvent the future.

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