Joi Ito is an odd choice to lead Japan's new Digital Agency
Aug 17, 2021
Joi Ito is an odd choice to lead Japan's new Digital Agency
2018 doctoral dissertation raises questions about his suitability for the role
Stephen Givens is a corporate lawyer based in Tokyo. How Japan addresses digital policy in the coming years presents a vexingly complex and critical set of problems. National security, economic competitiveness and political values involving free speech and privacy are all vitally at stake. Who heads Japan's newly established Digital Agency, with responsibility for "basic policies on measures for the formation of a digital society [and] basic policies for establishing and managing the information systems of national, local public organizations and quasi-public sector private businesses" is therefore of more than passing interest. The Suga Administration's reported candidate to fill the position, Joichi "Joi" Ito, is an unconventional out-of-the-box choice to say the least. Ito, 55, is a Japanese citizen but has spent most of his life in the U.S. A college dropout, he worked as a nightclub DJ in Chicago and then Roppongi in the 1990s, before getting involved in various internet-related ventures in the late 1990s and 2000s. His lengthy resume includes stints as a venture capitalist, blogger-writer and a long list of directorships, most recently at prestigious institutions like The New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation. In 2011, Ito was appointed director of the MIT Media Lab, a multidisciplinary -- or as Ito likes to put it "anti-disciplinary" -- program within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reports that Ito is being considered to head the Digital Agency have set off a quiet tempest in the Japanese media and blogosphere over his association with notorious sex predator Jeffrey Epstein, and Ito's subsequent resignations last year from his roles at MIT Media Lab, The New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation. Ito's relationship to Epstein is of course relevant, but it distracts attention from a more basic issue: What are Ito's views and credentials on digital policy? Those vetting Ito's qualifications should take a careful look at his 2018 Ph.D. dissertation, written under the supervision of professor Jun Murai, dean of Keio University's faculty of environment and information studies and the self-described "father of the Japanese internet." Ito's dissertation, titled "The Practice of Change: How I survived being interested in everything," is, like its author, unconventional. It is neither a work of original scholarly research nor a policy paper but seeks to address a much grander subject: "How can we understand and effectively intervene in interconnected complex adaptive systems?" Ito's "systems" cover a lot of ground, from economic systems to the internet, but he mainly focuses on free-market capitalism, a system he asserts "causes income inequality, exploitation of the environment and the deployment of technologies of convenience at the cost of health." How the prospective head of Japan's Digital Agency proposes to "intervene" -- an ominous word that appears 80 times in his dissertation -- in the "system" known as free-market capitalism should be a matter of intense interest. Intervention in the form of laws, regulations, policies, prohibitions and penalties, backed by the force of law, is what governments do. What "interventions" does Ito prescribe to make capitalism, or the internet, better? Further reading reveals that Ito's "interventions" have nothing to do with actual policy. Perhaps it is comforting that he is not, after all, proposing mass expropriation and state ownership of the means of production to address the evils of capitalism. It is less than reassuring, though, that as a prospective policymaker in the Japanese government, Ito believes that capitalism can be tamed through a transformation of human nature away from greed and competition in the direction of "natural, anti-establishment, psychedelic, loving and peaceful" values inspired by the hippie movement of the 1960s and his mentor, Timothy Leary, the former icon of the 1960s psychedelic movement that then U.S. President Richard Nixon declared "the most dangerous man in America." Timothy Leary, pictured in his Beverly Hills home in July 1992: the former icon of the 1960s psychedelic movement. © AP
As concrete examples of how "interventions" can change "systems" Ito offers his own life experience, initially as a DJ and later as director of the MIT Media Lab: "I often think of being a DJ as a metaphor for what I do at the Media Lab and in other communities that I am part of: I watch the behavior and dynamics of the community and intervene culturally through music or equivalent higher level sensibilities to try to tune the flourishing and the direction of the community." According to Ito's dissertation, what the world needs to become a better place is not good policy, but more good people like himself "intervening culturally" to raise consciousness and "deprogram the conditioning of decades of institutional education, institutionalized social inequity," and "greed is good justifications for exploitative capitalism." At the conclusion of which he humbly admits: "How 'better' is defined will be covered in future work." Ito's dissertation is a flamboyant rejection of market capitalism, "linear thinking," old fashioned policy analysis, and conventional academic categories and standards. What will replace them in Ito's utopia is not entirely clear. The Suga administration has presumably reviewed Ito's connections to Jeffrey Epstein and his money, and will determine whether they are disqualifying. No vetting of Ito, however, will be complete without a close reading of his dissertation and the mind it reveals. To confront the complex real-world risks and opportunities posed by the internet, Japan needs serious analysis and policy -- not the Age of Aquarius. Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia
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