Just stumbled across these thoughts from Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, on Boing-Boing.

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.

I like the way Ito thinks. Do you? Why or why not?

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Comment by John McCreery on March 14, 2013 at 2:20am

Francine, thanks again. May I ask, where in Ito's list is that sense of entitlement that bothers you coming from? Is it something about the source, the tone, the audience? There is no denying that since Ito is writing as head of the MIT Media Lab to people like himself, successful venture capitalists, or off-the-chart smart kids who've gotten into MIT, he is writing to the privileged. The language does, indeed, sound like something in one of those self-help books that keeps itself at a safe abstract distance from whatever is the actual problem confronting the reader. But what I don't see anywhere is the assertion that the nine principles are a guaranteed recipe for success. I read them, instead, as baseline conditions: If you do this, you will have a chance.  If you don't and

1. Give up when you fail

2. Keep beating your head against brick walls

3. Worry more about safety than opportunity

4. Are so obsessed with the tree in front of you that you fail to see the forest

5. So dependent on a map you can't leave the road you are on

6. Insist on getting the theory right before you do anything

7.Always do only what others tell you to do

8.Depend on experts instead of watching what's going on and working things out for yourself

9. Have to be taught because you never learned how to learn by yourself

in today's world, you are well and truly screwed.

I can see how acting on the principles will be easier for those who start out with ample resources and family and professional networks to support them when they fail. What I can't see is what I can say to people, the majority of humanity, who are stuck in much worse circumstances. Do we just tell them to suck it up? Pray? Or learn to be content with where they are?  How could we take what is good in Ito's principles and revise and reframe it to speak to them and their situation?

Comment by Francine Barone on March 13, 2013 at 10:50pm

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I agree that how we approach the Ito's list has a lot to do with personal experience and things like being able to do the "unpredictable" knowing that you have the family support or cultural capital or professional networks to get by without a map.

The truth is that I didn't instinctively hate the list. I was brought up on these kinds of ideas, in a fairly safe suburban school system where all the kids came from big houses, most with professional parents, and had fancy clothes and cars and would almost all go to college to study whatever they wanted, if they felt like it. In school at least, we were raised on "think outside the box" and "compasses not maps". I now pass this kind of stuff on to my own students in the context of coursework to hone their critical thinking skills.

In fact, I initially felt like I had to like a list like this and at least at some level strive to meet its expectations. That bothered me. And that's why I took a step back to read beyond the face value based on life experiences I've had that are contrary to the brainwashing that, some years down the line, has come back to haunt quite a few of my peers whose lives didn't turn out roses when they realized that survival skills and general life skills weren't part of their blue sky thinking. Those who had a safety net were always going to fall on their feet.

I have also had similar experiences to you and your cousin despite very different personal circumstances. I am certainly the odd one out in my family, following a different path. I left the US when I was 17 to study abroad, something no one in my family understood or even really understands today. I managed to wangle my parents' approval, but not without considerable effort (I still don't know how I managed it), and I received no help in planning or organizing any of it. There was no model to follow, so I learned as I went along. That meant, using Ito’s terms, being resilient, taking risks (calculated ones), learning the system, and pulling on whatever resources I could find. But all of this was within considerable constraints out of my control. I can acknowledge now that I only managed it because I had a family safety net.

It's different drawing on the wisdom in Ito’s list when you have to in order to survive and without the sense of entitlement that he gives it. In my opinion, you really can't plan ahead or engineer your life to do all of these things. They are brought about by circumstances and tapped into in times of need. Only the truly privileged can purport to live their entire lives following Ito's path to success because they have no real worries. The glaring omission that is left out of his 9-point plan is that there are a lot of things that will never go your way no matter how out-of-the-box your thinking. Those same things will continue to easily fall into place for those with more inherent power and access to resources. And I do think that, at least out of context as they are presented, the points appear too egotistical. The difference between a list like this and the optimism I was fed in school is that we weren't taught to think/behave like this (just) to ensure better personal success for ourselves, but because observant, compassionate and experimental thinking like that could change the world for the better. Maybe a weak brew of koolaid to drink, but a better sell.

Comment by John McCreery on March 13, 2013 at 3:54am

Francine, thank you. I find myself in an interesting predicament. Two women whom I respect highly, yourself and my cousin Vivian Campbell, have responded to Ito's list in diametrically opposite ways. I suspect that this has something to do with life stage and the situations in which you now find yourselves. But since you are hear to speak for yourself, it would be presumptuous of me to speak about you. I will talk about Vivian, instead.

On Facebook, Vivian not only "liked" Ito's list; she added a comment, "Like this very much, John." What do we know about Vivian? She is one of my Campbell cousins, the second of seven children of a successful Georgia dairy farmer turned politician, who wound up as Undersecretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration. Privileged? Yes. But she was the second daughter, and grew up in the shadow of my cousin Ann, a tall, slender, beautiful blonde who looked stunning in the white evening dress and red roses she wore for her graduation from the finishing school where Georgia politicians sent their daughters. Like me, Vivian is stocky, nobody's idea of a southern belle. That may help to explain why Vivian and I share a certain trait that I seem to have passed on to my daughter. We both do unexpected things. Vivian wound up in charge of the law library at George Washington University. On retirement, she accepted an offer to move to Cairo to set up a law library at the American University there. When that gig was over, she decided that she liked living in Cairo and has lived there ever since. I could be just making this up, but I suspect that like me, she has faced setbacks and had the resilience to overcome them. I suspect that when she reads "system instead of objects," "compasses not maps," and "practice instead of theory," they ring true to her experience, as they do to mine. Not having a map on which there is path from which we must not deviate, but retaining a big-picture view and sense for the direction in which we wanted to go, we now find ourselves in our sixties in remarkably interesting places, in good health, and well enough off to enjoy considerable freedom to do whatever we like. It may be for that reason, too, that we when we read "pull instead of push," we don't see take instead of give, in a selfish, all-for-me manner. We note that Ito says, "as opposed to centrally stocking them," and envision a congenial reciprocity instead of bullying attempts to impose our own views. You see a recipe for social isolation and isolated individuals fighting like junkyard dogs. We know that gets you nowhere. Our lives are testimonies to the importance of family and professional networks that have created opportunities and sustained us in times of need. 

As I write, I realize that what I have written here could be read as ideology, as a justification for comfort while others suffer. There may be more than a grain of truth in that reading, and I worry about that.

Comment by Francine Barone on March 12, 2013 at 9:36pm

These 9 points read like very vanilla advice you would get from a coffee table life-coaching manual (or for a more modern example, the twitter account of a cocky 20-something CEO of a tech startup): catchy, thought-provoking, but ultimately superficial. These inspirational soundbites are in fact the product of a certain type of lifestyle/standard of living and career in a particular industry. This makes them not nearly as universally transferable Ito would like to believe. Each point grossly ignores the practical reality of making mundane snippets of wisdom like this work “in real life”. Forgive the pessimism, but I feel like we are constantly being spoon-fed this hyper-positive, self-aggrandizing silicon valley crap that is equal parts embarrassingly juvenile and responsible for heaping insane and irrelevant pressures onto individuals to make systemic changes in things far beyond their control unless they are directors of multi-million dollar media labs. The bulk of the list is just rehashed parental advice, while some statements are just plain misguided. “Pull instead of push” sounds unseemly like "take instead of give". So the solution is to promote selfish behavior to find success in an environment that promotes selfish behavior. There’s a tautology that will go far towards helping people. Practice instead of theory: So one should keep doing and doing, but never pause to absorb or evaluate what has been learned before, after, during? It's the 21st century version of the assembly line, only with the added bonus of “every man person for themselves”. In what imaginary world does that end well? Same with learning without education: that is taking without giving back to others, without furthering learning as a conversation and an activity that extends beyond the self. And anyone who thinks "crowds" are not guided by some manner of "expert" is not looking closely enough. Apart from promoting egotism, which admittedly works to one's benefit in certain high-power careers, none of this is sustainable in any real-life situation where you have to coexist with other people and have actual responsibilities. It would be better for someone with Ito's influence to suggest using human creativity in more productive ways that aren't all about non-conformity or individual success (the "me, me, me" syndrome infecting much of society) and that instead force us to ask "why" and "how" periodically along the way. They may sound inspirational, but these tips for living in the world today are merely a guide to reproducing the socially isolating, individualizing, neoliberal failures of the late 20th century, not innovating the 21st. 

 

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