Joi Ito
An Interview with Joi Ito
This interview was conducted by Christopher Adams and Chiang Huei-Hsien in Tokyo on 5 February 2008.
Photo CC-by Mizuka
Joichi "Joi" Ito (伊藤穰一), is a Japanese activist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, Director of the MIT Media Lab and Professor of the Practice of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT. Ito was the Chairman of Creative Commons from December 2006 until 2012. His photographs have been used in The New York Times Online, BusinessWeek, American Heritage, Wired News, Forbes, and BBC News. He has authored and co-authored a number of books including Dialog – Ryu Murakami × Joichi Ito. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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In his foreword to the book, Lessig writes that you understand your subjects “by learning to see them in a certain way.” What is that certain way?

I think I’m trying to get a mental image of a person, certain expressions, or what I think that person is about. I’m trying to capture what I think they look like, which is many times a minority of their typical expressions, or their typical stance. So, if I’m taking pictures of Larry [Lessig], I want to have his signature hand gestures, and not just random ones.

I think I’m trying to capture pictures of people that help others see what they’re about. Some photographers will make someone look the way the photographer wants them to look, and not the way they appear, so they’ll pick the one picture out of 100 where the guy looks more egotistical than he really is. Some photographers are almost medical, and are going after a perfect portrait. I’m somewhere in between.

It’s amazing how many people will upload snapshots of people where the pictures don’t look like them at all. To me, uploading a picture that is not an easily recognizable picture of that person defeats the point, which I’m working toward, to try to express who they are. On the other hand, professional photographers usually have a subject whom they don’t know personally, so they end up having to try to capture an image that they’ve created based on who they think the person is or how they want that person to appear. You know how sculptors often say that they’re just freeing an image from a block? What I’m trying to do is free someone’s soul from his or her image. There are a lot of things that make this hard. A lot of people are uncomfortable in front of a camera, or might make expressions that aren’t very natural for them. And if the person is nervous, it’s very difficult to try to see what it is that you’re trying to capture.

A lot of what I’m doing is, I just start shooting photos. After half an hour of having their picture taken, people start to ignore you. Or I’ll take pictures when I’m talking to people about what they’re doing, so after a while they get distracted by the conversation and forget about the camera. That’s something that I’m not perfect at, but I’m getting better.

I think good photographers are also able to disarm people through conversation, but still, it’s difficult to have a disarming conversation with somebody you don’t know, or to make them laugh. Many times people make a face for me that they wouldn’t make for a professional photographer.

For instance, a board meeting picture, like the one with Eric Saltzman: that was during a very tense discussion. I’ve found that people are at their most animated at these kinds of meetings, and look the most alive when they are under a lot of pressure, and super- focused. But usually if an outsider is in the room, they won’t get into that. I mean, it would be difficult for a cameraman to be in a room where a board is having a heated debate.

But those are the things that I’m trying to capture, because most people don’t get to see that. At the Creative Commons board meeting, Larry asked me to put the camera away after awhile [laughs] because it was distracting. We were having a very heated discussion and I was taking all of these pictures. But he credited me later because afterward those pictures turned out the best.

In your mind, what is a ‘Freesoul’ ?

A freesoul is somewhat of a pun. On the one hand it means you are free, liberated. You, as a human spirit, are open. And then, it also has the meaning that you are unencumbered legally, that you are free, as in ‘free software.’

There’s a paradox: with many people’s Wikipedia articles to which I’ve contributed, when it comes to the picture, many of these people don’t have any free photos of themselves on the web, so while they are “notable” on Wikipedia, their images aren’t free of the copyright of the photographer, or the institution who hired the photographer to take the picture. Often, even the subject of the article can’t make an image available to the Wikimedia/Wikipedia community.

This means that a lot of people who have a Net presence have a legally encumbered Net presence. People who are invited to conferences get asked all the time, “By the way, do you have a photo that we can use?” But they don’t. By making these pictures available under a Creative Commons license, now they do. This is solving the issue of legal freedom.

The third part of the pun is that, since I’m asking for a model release from the subjects, I’m asking everyone to be much more open and giving about their image than most people typically are. I’m giving, you’re giving, we’re all giving to participate and to try to create this wonderful work, and allow others to create derivative works.

Of course people can abuse that, just like they can abuse anything. But I want people to see the value in sharing over the fear in sharing. The fact is, it’s much more likely that somebody is going to use these pictures for something positive, rather than for something negative. The benefits greatly outweigh the risks. I think we spend way too much of our lives worrying about the risks, at the cost of a lot of the benefits.

This is a celebration of all of the people who are willing to give. In a way, giving up your image and allowing anyone to use it: it’s the ultimate gift. In one way it’s kind of vain. [laughs] But in another way it’s wonderful. A Wikipedia article on some person but with no picture is sad.

Besides Wikipedia, how do you imagine these photos being used?

They can be used in textbooks and in mainstream media articles about the person. Now they can get a picture that represents the person, at least from my perspective. That said, I shouldn’t be the only person doing this. More people should do the same, and make the photographs available freely. For one, I feel that “free” CC licensed photos have a much higher chance of not disappearing. But I don’t know exactly how these photos are going to be used, so in a sense I’m curious. For example, recently I received the Harvard Berkman Center pamphlet. It was a report of what they’re doing, and they also had a bunch of my pictures in there. They all had attribution, and it made me feel really good. There were pictures of different Berkman Center members that I had taken in various places all over the world. I think that the subject is probably happy with this, and I’m happy, and the Berkman Center’s happy because they’re not all pictures of people sitting at desks in the Berkman Center. There’s one more important thing: Creative Commons is great for original creative works or derivative creative works, but when it involves human images, it gets very complicated. We all know the Virgin Mobile case, where Virgin used CC licensed images in an advertisement without getting permission from the models, and got in trouble. [1][2] What we’re trying to do here is to expand beyond just copyright, to make it more thorough from a legal perspective. It’s also an important educational point, so people understand that, in addition to the Creative Commons licenses, we need people to provide other rights in cases where the law requires such rights to be cleared before reuse.

What have you learned about the people in these networks, just in the past year?

That’s a good question. I think that at least Creative Commons has become much more mainstream. Creative Commons has moved from a fringy academic discussion to a boardroom discussion. Yahoo announced that it will be using Creative Commons for all of their basic infrastructure, and integrating it all. Google has CC search in their advanced search.

Microsoft is working with CC as well and have a plug-in. Nine Inch Nails released their album, Ghost, under a Creative Commons license. The list goes on. Many people are asking: can you make money and share? The answer is, yes. CC is becoming an important part of the business discussion.

But one thing that happens when a movement like CC becomes a business thing, is that a lot of the pioneers fade into the background, and it becomes a part of industry. This happened to the Internet. And so while you still have the core people who still remember and hold the torch for the philosophical side, the Internet has become much more of a business. Now, when you go to many Internet conferences, it’s mostly salesmen in attendance.

I believe that the success of the Internet has two parts. The first part is the market- driven business side, which has made the Internet affordable and ubiquitous. The second part is the strong movement of participants who fight to keep the Internet open and try to prevent the business side from corrupting the fundamental elements that make the Internet great. The Net Neutrality or Open Network discussion going on right now is a good example of the importance of continuing to balance these principles with business interests.

Similarly, I think that business interests can help make Creative Commons ubiquitous and more easily accessible to everyone. However, I think it’s important to remember to keep pushing to make content more “free” and not allow businesses to use Creative Commons in exploitive or destructive ways.

In addition to the business side, Creative Commons is being used by educators to create open courseware around the world and in the area of science and technology to promote sharing in research. And as of now, we have the license ported to at least 44 jurisdictions, and the number of countries with projects continues to grow. In many ways, the movement outside of the United States has become much bigger than the movement in the United States. Although the United States is still slightly farther ahead in terms of commercialization, the size of the whole free culture movement outside of the United States is huge now. The CC China Photo exhibit [3] was just amazing. There were some great images, and a lot of the photographers were professionals. This is beyond what anybody has done in the US. A lot of the progress that we’re making is international.

What are your personal realizations or experiences?

Well, we’re all getting old, if you look at these pictures. But there’s another thing, though, about this book: the number of professional-quality amateurs has increased significantly due to the importance of digital in both professional and high-end amateur photography I hate to say it, a lot of people love the darkroom, but it really feels like the death of the darkroom with this year.

With new 22 megapixel cameras coming in under $10,000, and Lightroom and some of this software at a couple hundred dollars, it doesn’t really make sense, except for particularly fussy artists, to do wet-work anymore. If you’re a commercial photographer or a high-end amateur, you can do anything you used to do in the darkroom. I think it has really lowered the bar. I don’t know how that affects the industry directly, but for me, it bridged a huge gap.

I used to be darkroom geek. I loved my darkroom, and even when I didn’t have my darkroom anymore, I still was shooting 6x6 Hasselblad 120 film and processing it in a special lab, and then digitizing it. For me, that film was it. You could never get as good as medium-format film or large-format film

At the time, the digital Hasselblad backs were too expensive, and were still not as good as 8x10 film. So there was this whole period where the darkroom was not all that exciting, but the digital wasn’t perfect. I went through a limbo period. I had invested so much in my Hasselblad system, and my Leica M6 set. I had bought the Leica R8, but I was kicking myself because it was terrible. But then the Leica M8 came out, and I bought one at the beginning of 2007. The M8 really got me to where I could use my old gear, and it had enough megapixels to be as good as some film.

Another way of saying it was that there was a gear breakthrough at the beginning of last year. Okay, that’s pretty materialistic! So there was a technology breakthrough, let’s call it that, that allowed me to switch completely away from film, and I think this happened to a lot of photographers. It caused an explosion of content and an increase in the quality of content on sites like Flickr. It has allowed amateurs to create a business model with professionals. Interestingly, I think these new high-end amateurs are buying more photography books and photographs and are probably providing an increasing revenue stream for professional photographers. I think most amateurs, including myself, are paying homage to the professionals and not trying to “compete” with them.

Despite the existence of social software, what is still important about meeting people face-to-face?

For me, the right way to use a lot of the new social software is by making it easier to spend more physical time with the people you like best. Dopplr is a great example. [4] When I visit a city, I will see all of the people who are in the city at the same time. When I went to London awhile ago, there were 47 people I knew in London, and a huge percentage of those people don’t live there. I would bet that more than half of the photos in this book are pictures of friends, and they’re not in their hometown.

That’s the really interesting thing that is happening right now: it’s really increasing your ability to spend quality time with, actually, a smaller number of people. It allows you to actively filter. Your meetings don’t have to be random. If I look at the list of people in this book, although there are some obvious people missing whom I didn’t see last year, probably met more of my friends last year, my real friends, than I’ve met in any other year. I know my travels were crazy, but I think that the online world has allowed me to do that.

What’s great about photography is that it captures the moment that I was sharing with that person. It’s not just a connection on a social network online, which is really pretty binary. I can look at all these photos and remember exactly what we were doing, what we were eating, what we were drinking, what we were talking about, and to me that’s a much more rich experience.

It’s the combination of social software and photography. For me, reality is “the present” plus what you remember from the past. I think this project is really sharing memories with people. Blog posts contribute as well, but to me photography is a really good way of doing that. When I look at the expressions, I remember the moment and get a sense of presence.

I think the main problem for me is the environmental impact of flying around. Just as I never believed that we would have a paperless office, being able to connect with people through social software mostly increases your travel, it doesn’t decrease it. It is great because you get to meet all these people. But it is bad for the environment, and bad for our jet lag.

How would you characterize your contributions to free culture?

I think it’s mostly incremental. I think there is very little we actually do all by ourselves, and I hate saying, “I did this” or “I did that.” I think that in most cases, focusing on individual contributions or achievements undervalues the importance of everyone else involved.

Having said that, I think my main contribution is probably in supporting Creative Commons as a fan, board member, chairman of the board and now CEO. I think CC has a significant role, and helping to keep it on track and growing is probably the single most important role that I have in Free Culture.

Specifically, I think that trying to keep an international focus and a balance between business and the non-business elements of the movement is essential. My job is to keep that focus and maintain that balance. Also, CC needs to run smoothly as an organization and there is a lot of operational work that we all need to do. My photography is a way for me to participate in a small measure on the creative side of the Free Culture movement, and helps me see things from that perspective as well.

However, I believe in emergent democracy and the importance of trying to celebrate the community more than the heroes. Of course, I’m a huge fan of Larry’s and I have great respect for the leaders of our movement. But more than anything, I’m thankful for and respectful of all of the participants who aren’t so well known and who are essential to moving everything forward.

Personally, I don’t think it’s ultimately meaningful to talk about one individual’s personal contribution to any movement. The real meaning is in the whole movement. I’m just one participant. Just another free soul.

  1. Linksvayer, Mike. “Lawsuit Against Virgin Mobile and Creative Commons - FAQ.” Creative Commons. 27 September 2007.
  2. Smith, Andrew D. “Bedford Mom sues Virgin Mobile over teen’s photo in ad.” The Dallas Morning News. 21 September 2007.
  3. “首屆知識共享攝影大賽” Nphoto. Creative Commons China. 5 December 2007.
  4. (Full disclosure: Joi Ito is an investor in Dopplr.)
This article is available in Chinese by Yeeyan.

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