And that will come from pursuing distinctly unconventional research goals. “We aim to capture serendipity. You don’t get lucky if you plan everything — and you don’t get serendipity unless you have peripheral vision and creativity. [Conventional] peer review and scholarship play by predetermined rules — that five other people agree that what you’re doing is interesting. Here, even if you’re the only person in the world who thinks something’s interesting, you can do it. Our funding model allows our students to do anything they want without asking permission. It’s like venture capital: we don’t expect every experiment to succeed — in fact, a lot are failures. But that’s great — failure is another word for discovery. We’re very much against incrementalism — we look for unexplored spaces, and our key metrics for defining a good project are uniqueness, impact and magic.”
“Encourage rebellion instead of compliance”; “Practice instead of theory”; ” Constant learning instead of education”; “Compass over map”. “The key principles include disobedience — no one ever won a Nobel prize by doing as they’re told,” he explains later. “And it’s about resilience versus strength — you don’t try to resist failure, you allow failure and bounce back. And compass over map is important — you need to know where you’re going, but the cost of planning often exceeds the cost of actually trying. The maps you have are often wrong. These principles affect and apply to just about any organisation.”
Today a couple of kids using open-source software, a generic PC and the internet can create a Google, a Yahoo! and a Facebook in their dorm room, and plug it in and it’s working even before they’ve raised money. That takes all the innovation from the centre and pushes it to the edges — into the little labs inside the Media Lab; inside dorm rooms; even inside terrorist cells. Suddenly the world is out of control — the people innovating, disrupting, creating these tools, they’re not scholars. They don’t care about disciplines. They’re antidisciplinary.”
“My problem is I’m interested in everything — I have a lack of focus,” says Ito. “But my bug turns into a feature at the lab. Because the Media Lab is interested in everything. My main skill is connecting and trading contacts. When you have 350 random projects and 26 groups and 75 members [at the lab], the director needs to create context, make connections, pull the pieces together. My favourite thing is managing communities and creating energy. That’s really what the Media Lab is — it reminds me of an open-source community like Mozilla.” He knows he will have succeeded when “the Media Lab name is as ubiquitous as the word internet”.