Principles for 21st century living

A list of principles for the 21st century, from Joi Ito, presently running the MIT Media Lab:

Ito: There are nine or so principles to work in a world like this:

1. Resilience instead of strength, which means you want to yield and allow failure and you bounce back instead of trying to resist failure.

2. You pull instead of push. That means you pull the resources from the network as you need them, as opposed to centrally stocking them and controlling them.

3. You want to take risk instead of focusing on safety.

4. You want to focus on the system instead of objects.

5. You want to have good compasses not maps.

6. You want to work on practice instead of theory. Because sometimes you don’t why it works, but what is important is that it is working, not that you have some theory around it.

7. It disobedience instead of compliance. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing what you are told. Too much of school is about obedience, we should really be celebrating disobedience.

8. It’s the crowd instead of experts.

9. It’s a focus on learning instead of education.

We’re still working on it, but that is where our thinking is headed.

Joi Ito of MIT Media Lab



      1. The logical conclusion to any of these list is that the last rule is don’t follow these rules.

  1. About #8:

    That seems awfully dangerous at times.

    Sure the crowd is great for free advice right this second. But the cultural consensus is not to be trusted in narrow fields.

    For instance, a huge percentage of the American population mistakenly believes in the absurdity of creationism (or ID which is the same thing). If you’re doing a project on evolutionary dynamics, you’re much better off using the expertise of people trained and active in the field than you are polling a shitton of laypeople.

    Crowdwisdom is quite useful in certain classes of problems. But it’s equally if not more important to know when to rely on those who actually know what they’re talking about.

    1. I guess you’re supposed to look at the crowd and then disobey them?  But you want to take risk, so I guess you should obey them after all.  Focus on the system! Moreover, resilience.

      1. IknowRite?! I was working on a formula that I know works but didn’t know why, so I polled a bunch of people. They said it was magic, but I wanted to rebel from the mainstream so I said it was The Flying Spaghetti Monster instead. The statisticians took a guess instead, said the objects the formula described were unimportant and decided that whenever the system did something unexpected they’d make a wrong supposition that the bell curve was being pulled out of shape by magnets.

        It’s okay though. They’re resilient, amd will make another rebellious prediction tommorow. But we’ll still crowdsource the risky answer anyway

    2.  Using the crowd does not mean that the majority rules. You still have to use judgement and reason.

      1. Judgement and reason don’t arrive fully-formed out of a vacuum. They have to be informed by a solid background of knowledge in any particular area. Knowledge built from, yes, experience, but also, more often than not, the teachings and instructions of those that have gone before. Experts.

      1.  Jim, you need practice. Try “Engaged apathy over proactive interest”. You have to give your reader a chance applaud single handedly your Sisyphus effort as a deaf but not mute lonely lumberjack.

  2. Treat the over as the mathematical term and you might actually have reality (as in systems divided by objects, practice divided by theory, emergence divided by authority). Insert keanu meme here.

    1. Reminds me of: loneliness + alienation + fear + despair + self-worth ÷ mockery ÷ condemnation ÷ misunderstanding × guilt × shame × failure × judgment n=y where y=hope and n=folly, love=lies, life=death, self=dark side

  3. This is a nice list of things that worked for Joi Ito. YMMV. Maybe this is just a teaser for an upcoming book, but I don’t see much in the way of deep principles here. I’m sure the creative readers of this blog will come up with plenty of counter examples to these sayings, maybe something like this list:

    The point is that proverbs or pithy sayings may be useful in specific contexts, but it’s more important to understand the context that you operate in, and base your actions on that. You would need to learn or develop effective mental models (or maps) which can be continually updated based on your experience.

  4. #3 is extraordinarily bad advice. #3 is the kind of advice the leads to ordering drilling rig workers not to wait for the cement to set, that leads to nuclear power plant construction workers ordering their inspectors to falsify seismic records, that leads to White House counsels just asserting that things are legal because they want them to be.

    Almost every major disaster of the last twenty years has in common one recurring theme: someone who wants something to be true, knows there’s a risk that it might not be true, but chooses to risk going ahead in hope that what they want to be true is — and not only that, but to make no fallback plans, no recovery plans in case what they wanted to be true turned out not to be true, in case what they hoped would work didn’t work. From the dot-com bubble to 9/11 to the Iraq War to the housing bubble to Deepwater Horizon to Fukushima, people in charge chose risk over safety — and they kept being wrong.

    Know the risks: know what’s at risk, what the odds are, what you would lose if you’re wrong, and whether or not you could survive being wrong and how you would recover; if you don’t know those things, choose safety over risk every time. Because if you’re a plunger, if you’re someone who chooses risk over safety, you will eventually be wrong — and you’re likely to take someone else, someone who didn’t know the risk and didn’t choose the risk, down with you. Maybe lots of people. And, frankly, some of us are really fed up with that.

    1. Somebody that I know said something to the effect that trust without due diligence is accurately termed ‘martyrdom’.

          1. So, if I’m to take what you say as gospel, at some unspecified time in the future, you could eventually be right. But, regardless, I still might get hurt? No thanks.

      1. We do a lot of trusting others because otherwise we would be sitting at home, scared of stepping out. But wait… I haven’t inspected my home, that it is properly built, I just trusted that it was! Oh, nooooooo!

        1.  At last an explanation to most cats fear of water… and to why dolphins never ran over a tiger.

  5. Here’s a link which fairly accurately captures the source of the sentiment and the origin of most of this set of recommendations –

  6. Now, nobody likes taking the piss out of terrible corpspeak powerpoint bullshit slides more than me, but, if you read the interview from which this is taken, it is fairly specific to tech business innovation, and does make sense in that context. I mean, I can see what he’s saying, but I’m not sure I would have tried to summarise it in a pithy slide.

  7. Some of this makes sense.  Seems like working notes really.  Couldn t help thinking :  Congratulations!  You have re-invented Situationism!

  8. As someone who’s nearly done with a doctorate, becoming an expert on something is freaking hard. And time consuming. And requires constant upkeep. There’s no way in heck any human being could have intimate, intricate, broad-spanning knowledge of more than a few things before they grew old and died. I don’t mean being well-versed – I mean full-on mastery.

    The cloud is great for surface-level stuff, and the cloud is great for things *experts have already figured out.* A simple Google search will tell you that the Piraha language of Brazil doesn’t use pronouns. How do we know this? Because a dude named Daniel Everett went and lived with the Piraha and studied their language, and happened to have a clue on how to do that.

    On its own, this looks like a little tiny fact snatched up from the cloud, but it took a *lot* of skilled work and knowledge to discover and prove. Pardon my French, but the ‘crowd’ didn’t know *merde* about this until an expert went and looked.

    And that’s OK! The whole point of living in a civilized society is that we don’t all have to know everything. I don’t know buggerall about how to pump oil out of the ground, but there’s some folks who know a lot about it. Is my knowledge ‘better’ than theirs? Of course not. But if I needed to pump oil out of the ground for some reason, I wouldn’t consult the ‘crowd.’ I’d consult someone who knew what the heck they were doing.

    1.  Personally, I like to do complex Google searches.  More fun that way.  Plus, dolphins over piranhas.

    2. There are things one in which one can become an expert by study and practice.  Such as how to pump oil out of the ground, how to brew a superb cup of coffee, and how to surgically correct a hernia.

      There are other things for which no proven method of “expertise” has ever been demonstrated over the long term.  Most of these are the things in which our political systems falsely claim expertise.

    3. Look at it a different way: when starting off, ask the crowd first because the expert could have already put the info into the crowd. If that answer is incomplete or unsatisfactory, then you can go look for the expert (and even there, the crowd has a good chance of helping to find the expert)

  9. Facinating to see the slew of alpha geek chest pounding this has provoked, rather than any real engagement with the ideas presented. We’re all pattern-spotters, and turn those patterns into tools. Personally, I find it interesting to see the useful tools someone else has discovered during the course of their work.

      1. They’re not necessarily vapid, but that have become rather cliche’ed in recent years.  In actuality, the West has been becoming more bought-out and oppressive, so they’re like all those songs about love because there isn’t any.

  10. Obama got a Nobel for doing what he was told, which involved bombing a shit-ton of people for peace. 

    Also, one generally doesn’t get a prestigious MIT position for disobedience.

    1. True, but there’s no way to BUY being Frank Zappa, or Helena Bonham Carter, or Pre-North Korea Trip Dennis Rodman.  The only way to do it is to say fuck all to the insane normal world and make your own brand.

    2. Not really, Obama got his Nobel basically for not being George Bush, as did Carter and Gore.  He really didn’t step up the killing until he had the prize safely on his mantel, and the cash banked.

      Hey, that reminds me, I’m not Bush either.  Better get my application in while the going is good.

  11. Just a compass, but no map. You don’t know where you are but you are headed somewhere. You learn from experience as you go rather than preparing and benefitting from knowledge that others have strenuously obtained. 

    For one in a million, this strategy results in pop success. Those with no Bayes knowledge will see the success and not the 999,999 failures and think it is a good idea. The wise pop success will buy a mansion and retire, knowing it was dumb luck. But where would that wisdom come from?

  12. Celebrating disobedience is just as blindly stupid as celebrating obedience. Making a list of rules about how to be a creative rebel is ironic enough that I wish this were a joke. Ignore the experts in favor of the crowd? Wow. What is important is that it is working, not why it is working? Double-wow. Who needs education and understanding when you’ve got rebellion and a scorn for safety? I fail to see the advantage in relearning the things those experts already know, especially since some of those lessons are pretty hard. This is the nine-step guide to making human progress grind to a halt.

  13. Viewed as a set of principles for leading one’s individual life, these come across as bright-adolescent-rebellious (especially, say, 3 and 7). Viewed in the context of the Wired interview in which they’re embedded, they sound more like a set of corrective suggestions for organizations that need to cope with changing environments. (And even so, there’s a big dose of just-rhetoric in them, starting with the fact that it’s a list of binaries.)

  14. Entirely aside from the “simple rules for simple minds” sloganeering of the list as a whole (ably dissected in the comments above), I’d note that #5, “You want to have good compasses not maps” doesn’t sound like anything someone who’s spent a lot of time using both would say.

    I think what he’s trying to convey, perhaps, is that good wayfinding skills can often be more useful than maps (especially bad or outdated maps).

    Wayfinding skills are a wide-ranging set of techniques that involve ‘reading’ and interpreting a landscape, understanding the nature and form of topography, paths, trails, roadways, and human settlement, and keeping your bearings – even in deep forest on a cloudy day.  Even without a compass.

    But a compass isn’t a wayfinding tool.  It can’t show you “which way to go”, only which way is north or south.  That’s not usually much help unless you have at least a rough map.  

    But wayfinding skills can get get you into and out of places where there aren’t any maps you could orient with a compass – even if you had one.

    Compasses aren’t much use for navigating unfamiliar territory without a map, searching for something of uncertain location, or scouting new trails through previously unexplored territory.

    Which I suspect is the sort of thing he’s aiming at, metaphorically speaking.

    “Where we’re going, there aren’t any maps.”

    But compasses won’t be much help, either. :-)

  15. Er, disobedience instead of compliance?  Someone needed to explain that to whoever at MIT decided not to just drop the charges against Aaron Swartz, yes? 

  16. Most of these seem to apply to the 20th century (and possibly earlier as well).

    Also, #7 has a pretty serious typo making it hard to understand exactly what is being advocated.

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