A perpetually inquisitive leader; Creative Commons’ Joi Ito looks beyond consensus reality for business; communications and cultural and technological innovations.
Venture capitalist and CEO of nonprofit Creative Commons, Joichi Ito (alias Jonkichi) has just offered me a ride on his magical motorcycle. It’s a colorful and curvy Terry Prachettesque chopper, equal parts baroque fantasy and Hell’s Angels. It rumbles like a Harley, but higher-pitched, shallower and algorithmically repetitive. He tells me to click the little arrow button on the bike, and when I do, an equally bizarre and fun sidecar appears—I jump in. Ito and I are physically thousands of miles apart. We’re meeting in World of Warcraft, a massive multiplayer Internet game set in a fantasy world. Here, where Ito spends much of his time, he is a magic-wielding gnome, short, colorfully dressed and glowing with unearthly light. His eyes are hidden by a wide-brimmed blue hat, leaving just an enigmatic avatar smile.
Ito came to fame as a venture activist and Internet visionary, with titles such as “CEO” and “chairman,” but he likes to talk about his guild in this virtual world of elves and dragons more than most other topics.
“I have started lots of different communities. This guild is great because it’s really diverse,” Ito says. “We’ve got soldiers, we’ve got a real-life priest, we’ve got moms, we’ve got kids...the game dynamics make it so you really can’t do anything on your own, and we have a policy against buying gold so you can’t bring in any of your real-life privilege. In fact, the MBAs that have tried to lead in my guild have almost consistently all failed at leading, whereas [the raid leaders] are always the people who have working-class listening jobs. Our best leaders, I’ve found, are bartenders, nurses.”
What the game has in common with Ito’s day job is the creation of mutual interest communities on the Internet.
In “real” life, Ito meets me at the headquarters of Creative Commons (CC), is a nonprofit that creates licenses that allow people to forgo some of their rights as content creators. It’s also part of a greater copyright reform movement. In 2001, Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig started CC to provide a legal, technical and social framework for the sharing of copyrighted material. In the midst of debates about peer-to-peer file sharing and music industry lawsuits, CC looked to create a middle ground—a body of work that creators could explicitly share and anyone could openly take.
Being able to express this desire to share technically and legally has, perhaps counter-intuitively, impacted much of technology and the Internet itself. Computers are by their nature copying machines—everything you look at on a computer has to be copied repeatedly to be seen. To look at something on your screen from a Web site is to make a copy of it, to download it is to make another copy after that. The law has no way to acknowledge this strange way of dealing with copyrighted material—which accounts for most content. Our copyright laws are designed to deal with the kind of copying that was possible from 1790 to the 1980s, which was slow and expensive by comparison.
Controversial services such as file sharing are an outgrowth of this technological architecture. Computers created a structural conflict between law and physics.
Lessig wanted CC to be a way to let people out of this conflict without waiting for a legislative remedy. CC allows you to communicate, through a legal license, permitting others to use a work freely with some conditions. As a consumer of copyrighted material, CC allows reuse with at a minimum attribution, and works carry their authorship and these rights as they move from computer to computer.
On April 1, 2008, Ito took over the leadership of the nonprofit after two years on its board. He represented a new and needed direction for the organization. Lessig had birthed an idea, and created passion for it, but that was a long way from running a successful organization, and CC was feeling it.
“The whole history of CC is a big learning curve,” says Mike Linksvayer, vice president of CC, referring to the conflicts and confusions that arose in those first few years.
Employee turnover was high, and most of the board members were academics—brilliant people, but not used to running corporations.
“CC was moving from a legal idea to something that was slightly more entrepreneurial, more technical, and the board was mostly law school professors. I fit the role of the person we were looking for,” Ito says. “It was the organization that needed me the most.”
Ito spends most of his time managing the board or acting as staff liaison to the board, according to Linksvayer. He leaves daily operations to management in San Francisco. The other part of Ito’s job is getting the message of CC out without interfering with those operations.
“Joi’s really good at telling the CC story rather than telling the Joi Ito story,” Linksvayer says. “It’s a cliche to say he has a finger on the pulse...but he knows enough about the relevant technical and social dimensions that you can have an informed conversation.”
The New Breed
Ito was born in Japan, but by the time he went to school he and his sister, Mimi, were growing up as the only Japanese kids in a Detroit neighborhood.
“I always had this kind of insecurity, chip on my shoulder thing,” Ito says. “Part of it was that I was really looking for a group to identify with. I didn’t have a community in elementary school.”
The Ito children dealt with being unlike their peers in different ways. Mimi became a bookworm; Joi sought out constant company to defeat the isolation. He learned by talking to others, and his own alienation meant everyone was equally fair game—strangers, grownups, whoever had anything interesting to talk about. And he tried to draw his sister out her shell.
“He was always the one who wanted to play games ‘let’s play, stop reading!’” she says.
They returned to Japan as teenagers, and Ito found kids like himself, ending the isolation. But his character had formed. Outgoing, lonely and curious, he learned from conversation, not books, and never excelled in school. Traveling between Japan and the U.S., he became an accidental cultural bridge between nations, understanding both, but not being entirely of either. He found the Internet, and fell in love with the placeless place that was nothing but people with whom to communicate.
At age 23, Ito found himself in Chicago, a physics student dropout, turning to the thing that had been more interesting than school—nightclub life. He became a DJ and occasional bartender. For the young and hyper-social Ito, the nightclub was a rich and real community, his college life barren by comparison.
“I was genuinely always surprised by how interesting just random people were,” he says.
Here, he realized there was a kind of smart beyond just the academic and business worlds in which he’d been raised.
“These kids weren’t smart, but they were so much more socially smart than the kids I was going to school with,” he says.
People responded to him with warmth as well.
“During his nightclub phase there was a ‘touch Joi’ club,” says Mimi, laughing. “He has tended to have fans.”
Eventually, Ito’s mother told him it was time to get a real job, and Ito returned to Tokyo and complied, but the lessons stayed with him and have formed him ever since. Ito pauses and looks into the middle distance.
“I would be just as happy being a DJ, or being a bartender, and that’s a totally respectable thing,” he says.
The first thing Ito did when he got back to Japan was start a nightclub called XY Relax. At the same time, Ito was helping introducing the Internet to Japan, he also brought rave culture and the clubbing scene that he had loved so much in Chicago to Tokyo.
One night he met counterculture icon and former Harvard lecturer Dr. Timothy Leary over dinner in Tokyo, and the two hit it off. Ito took Leary on a whirlwind tour of Japanese nightlife. There’s no record of their conversation, but it was transformative. They talked late into the night, moving from club to club, about Japanese youth, ravers and cyberpunks, having a kind of neoteny (the retention of child-like attributes in adulthood). Japanese youth culture excited Leary, and he deemed its members “the new breed.” The conversation continued for years and left its mark on both men. Leary started a book and TV show called The New Breed, and Ito’s venture capital firm is called Neoteny. The special connection between the two men remained until Leary’s death in 1996, with Ito at his bedside the day before he died.
As the Internet gained popularity in Japan, Ito became the man that said what other people were thinking.
“Most Japanese can’t say what’s on their minds because they’re in companies, so even though I wasn’t the world’s expert or even the expert in Japan, I would talk about cybercash, or security, anything I wanted. I was a really easy interview, because I would say what was on my mind,” he says.
His strength as a communicator made him useful to journalists, who called him more and more, his prominence feeding on itself.
“I became, in Japan at least, relatively visible in the media,” he says.
The fame led inevitably to attacks, and even stalking, which shocked Ito into retreat for a while.
“They called me the prince of the Internet, said all these nice things about me when I was young, like 18 or 19 years old,” Ito says. “Then you get big headed, then you get all these people writing terrible things about you, and it’s a roller coaster.”
He developed a kind of social Aikido in response—no one would expose the life of Joi Ito more than Joi Ito.
“I realized the best way to manage your privacy was to control your identity by disclosing everything to a certain extent. I had done a lot of embarrassing things. I had enough to make a good story but not so much that I was really that worried about it, so I thought it would be easier just to say everything,” he says. “I’m pretty comfortable being open to most people about just about everything.”
Being able to speak clearly to two cultures paid off in a series of successful companies he founded in the 1990s in Japan and the U.S., leading to political and social work around the idea of the Internet and new media. Neoteny invested in well-known Internet companies such as Flickr and Twitter.
Ito began to divert more of his attention away from businesses and into giving back to the Internet community that had made him. He started joining boards and advising various nonprofits that addressed problems around the Internet, or that used the Internet to address the world’s problems.
In addition to devoting time to CC, he served as part of the Internet governing board ICANN (Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers) and joined boards for the Mozilla Foundation, WITNESS.org and recently Global Voices, which promotes journalistic blogging by writers in the developing world. CC is the only place outside of founding his own companies where he’s taken a “real job.”
“CC is one of the core issues for people that take the Internet seriously,” says Global Voices Founder Ethan Zuckerman.
When Ito joined the board of Global Voices he knew few of the other people involved with it beyond Zuckerman. In 2008, Ito arrived at his first Global Voices meeting in Budapest, late. He could only catch the last two days of the event.
“A lot of people in that circumstance would sit back quietly or try to assert their importance,” Zuckerman says. “He did something different. He took photographs.”
Ito took dozens of high-quality photos of the editors, bloggers and staff. He recruited Zuckerman to help him caption them for upload on Flickr. In the course of going over the photos, Zuckerman found himself naming everyone and explaining who they were, telling stories that Ito eventually used to strike up conversations in the new group.
“It was a lovely solution to the problem,” Zuckerman says. “How do you get people to care about something they don’t care about? Joi calls this ‘The caring problem.’ You solve it by making personal relationships.”
Unexplored Landscape as Comfort Zone
At the beginning of this year, Ito uprooted himself from his Tokyo life and moved to Dubai, in part because the Middle East is the next big outreach for CC. The CC message had little traction in much of the Middle East, but Ito also based his decision to move on the fact that he had no traction there either. At the same time that the famous and respected man was beginning to feel like every day was the same as the last in his usual haunts, his trips to the Middle East were jarring. He found himself an outsider there.
“When I visited the Middle East a couple of times I realized how stupid I was, how much of an idiot I was about all this stuff, how much was unknown, unpredictable,” he says. “I forgot what it was like for people to just come up and say ‘What do you do? What’s Creative Commons?’ When it’s the Middle East it’s even more like that: ‘What’s the Internet?’ and to have to answer is to be bumped into being irrelevant.”
The harder it was, the more he wanted to be there.
“You become lazy and complacent if you sit in the same situation all the time... It’s really important to go somewhere where they don’t respect you at all,” he says. “Then being able to become happy there.”
Zuckerman says that Joi commits himself more fully to things than anyone he knows.
“Most people would say, ‘I should travel there more.’ Joi buys a house,” Zuckerman says. “He’s the anthropologist that moves in with the tribe.”
Ito’s cultural omnipresence follows me on the plane home. I find him on the in-flight entertainment system on BoingBoing TV getting a tour of Akihabara in Tokyo (the otaku anime home base) from a man with a British accent dressed as a Star Wars stormtrooper. They tour electronics shops and see people dressed in outfits from anime and Web sites. It is Internet culture spilling back into the physical world, put back on the Internet and downloaded by Virgin to amuse passengers. The video is, of course, CC licensed. One+
QUINN NORTON is a journalist best known for her work covering intellectual property, science and technology. She is currently a columnist for Maximum PC.
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