The head of the world's top tech lab says songs, mindfulness and eco-biology will help us "resist reduction"


Joi Ito is the head of MIT Media Lab, generally regarded as the most innovative tech laboratory in the world at the moment.

Yet in his new manifesto, Resisting Reduction: Designing our Complex Future with Machines, Ito makes an analytical but strong stand against the Silicon Valley orthodoxy - that computing power (and growth-based capitalism) are the only real drivers of progress.

"We need to embrace the unknowability—the irreducibility—of the real world that artists, biologists and those who work in the messy world of liberal arts and humanities are familiar with", says Ito.

In a wonderfully multidisciplinary way, Ito begins by showing how the natural world's variety of "currencies" far surpasses our commitment to one capitalist model:

As the sun beats down on Earth, photosynthesis converts water, carbon dioxide and the sun’s energy into oxygen and glucose. Photosynthesis is one of the many chemical and biological processes that transforms one form of matter and energy into another. These molecules then get metabolized by other biological and chemical processes into yet other molecules.

Scientists often call these molecules “currencies” because they represent a form of power that is transferred between cells or processes to mutual benefit—“traded,” in effect. The biggest difference between these and financial currencies is that there is no “master currency” or “currency exchange.” Rather, each currency can only be used by certain processes, and the “market” of these currencies drives the dynamics that are “life.” 

As certain currencies became abundant as an output of a successful process or organism, other organisms evolved to take that output and convert it into something else. Over billions of years, this is how the Earth’s ecosystem has evolved, creating vast systems of metabolic pathways and forming highly complex self-regulating systems that, for example, stabilize our body temperatures or the temperature of the Earth, despite continuous fluctuations and changes among the individual elements at every scale—from micro to macro.

The output of one process becomes the input of another. Ultimately, everything interconnects.

We live in a civilization in which the primary currencies are money and power—where more often than not, the goal is to accumulate both at the expense of society at large. This is a very simple and fragile system compared to the Earth’s ecosystems, where myriads of “currencies” are exchanged among processes to create hugely complex systems of inputs and outputs with feedback systems that adapt and regulate stocks, flows, and connections.

Unfortunately, our current human civilization does not have the built-in resilience of our environment, and the paradigms that set our goals and drive the evolution of society today have set us on a dangerous course which the mathematician Norbert Wiener warned us about decades ago. 

The paradigm of a single master currency has driven many corporations and institutions to lose sight of their original missions. 

Values and complexity are focused more and more on prioritizing exponential financial growth, led by for-profit corporate entities that have gained autonomy, rights, power, and nearly unregulated societal influence. 

The behavior of these entities are akin to cancers. Healthy cells regulate their growth and respond to their surroundings, even eliminating themselves if they wander into an organ where they don’t belong. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, optimize for unconstrained growth and spread with disregard to their function or context.

Ito takes on the orthdoxy (articulated well recently by Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus) that the exponential march of AI will lead to the replacement or superseding of many human functions: 

Instead of thinking about machine intelligence in terms of humans vs. machines, we should consider the system that integrates humans and machines—not artificial intelligence, but extended intelligence. Instead of trying to control or design or even understand systems, it is more important to design systems that participate as responsible, aware and robust elements of even more complex systems. And we must question and adapt our own purpose and sensibilities as designers and components of the system for a much more humble approach: Humility over Control.

We could call it “participant design”—design of systems as and by participants—that is more akin to the increase of a flourishing function, where flourishing is a measure of vigor and health rather than scale or power. We can measure the ability for systems to adapt creatively, as well as their resilience and their ability to use resources in an interesting way.

Better interventions are less about solving or optimizing and more about developing a sensibility appropriate to the environment and the time. In this way they are more like music than an algorithm. Music is about a sensibility or “taste” with many elements coming together into a kind of emergent order. Instrumentation can nudge or cause the system to adapt or move in an unpredictable and unprogrammed manner, while still making sense and holding together. 

Using music itself as an intervention is not a new idea; in 1707, Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician, said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, I care not who makes its laws.”

If writing songs instead of laws feels frivolous, remember that songs typically last longer than laws, have played key roles in various hard and soft revolutions and end up being transmitted person-to-person along with the values they carry. It's not about music or code. It's about trying to affect change by operating at the level songs do.

Ito's manifesto finishes with a full-throated plea for the biologists, the artists and the spiritual seekers - led by younger generations - to establish a new language of human priorities, for our relationship with machines, but also with our planet:

Developing a sensibility and a culture of flourishing, and embracing a diverse array of measures of “success” depend less on the accumulation of power and resources and more on diversity and the richness of experience.

This is the paradigm shift that we need. This will provide us with a wealth of technological and cultural patterns to draw from to create a highly adaptable society.

This diversity also allows the elements of the system to feed each other without the exploitation and extraction ethos created by a monoculture with a single currency. It is likely that this new culture will spread as music, fashion, spirituality or other forms of art.

As a native Japanese, I am heartened by a group of junior high school students I spoke to there recently who, when I challenged them about what they thought we should do about the environment, asked questions about the meaning of happiness and the role of humans in nature.

I am likewise heartened to see many of my students at the MIT Media Lab and in the Principles of Awareness class that I co-teach with the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi using a variety of metrics (currencies) to measure their success and meaning and grappling directly with the complexity of finding one’s place in our complex world.

I’m also heartened by organizations such as the IEEE, which is initiating design guidelines for the development of artificial intelligence around human wellbeing instead of around economic impact.

The work by Peter Seligman, Christopher Filardi, and Margarita Mora from Conservation International is creative and exciting because it approaches conservation by supporting the flourishing of indigenous people—not undermining it.

Another heartening example is that of the Shinto priests at Ise Shrine, who have been planting and rebuilding the shrine every twenty years for the last 1300 years in celebration of the renewal and the cyclical quality of nature.

In the 1960s and 70s, the hippie movement tried to pull together a “whole earth” movement, but then the world swung back toward the consumer and consumption culture of today. I hope and believe that a new awakening will happen and that a new sensibility will cause a nonlinear change in our behavior through a cultural transformation.

While we can and should continue to work at every layer of the system to create a more resilient world, I believe the cultural layer is the layer with the most potential for a fundamental correction away from the self-destructive path that we are currently on.

I think that it will yet again be about the music and the arts of the young people reflecting and amplifying a new sensibility: a turn away from greed to a world where “more than enough is too much,” and we can flourish in harmony with Nature rather than through the control of it.

The full essay of Resisting Reduction is here - and comment on it is strongly encouraged by the author.