date Feb 15, 2017
authors Joi Ito, Jeff Howe
reading time 29 mins

9 Rules fur survival:

  1. Emergence over Authority
    • Pull over push
    • Compass over Maps
    • Risk over Safety
    • Disobedience over compliance
    • Practice over Theory
    • Diversity over Ability
    • Resilience over Strength
    • Systems over Objects

Closest to technology are least able to predict it

Some of our most celebrated inventors, engineers, and technologists have failed to understand the potential of their own work. In fact, if history is any guide, it’s those closest to a given technology who are least likely to predict its ultimate use.

Morse vs Bell

Morse died in the secure belief that the next great step in telecommunications would not be the telephone—dismissed as “an electric toy” when Alexander Graham Bell first exhibited his invention—but instead telegraph wires capable of carrying multiple messages simultaneously.

Networked age

But the “big shift,” as an influential 2009 Harvard Business Review article termed it, 25 occurred around 10: 00 p.m. with the twin revolutions already mentioned: the Internet and the integrated circuit chip. Together the two heralded the beginning of the network age, a more distinct break from the industrial era than anything that has occurred before it.

Constant change is more important than rapid change

What seems increasingly evident is that the primary condition of the network era is not just rapid change, but constant change.

Exponential times

Are you ready for brain implants? Wait, don’t answer. Change doesn’t care if you’re ready. Change outpaced humans sometime late in the last century. These are exponential times. And they have given rise to three conditions that define our era.

Level playing field

It would be simplistic to say that small is the new big, but what’s indisputable is that the Internet and rapidly improving digital technologies have leveled the field in ways that can be used for good as well as nefarious purposes.

Biggest threats

The point is that you can no longer assume that costs and benefits will be proportional to size. If anything, the opposite of that assumption is probably true: Today, the biggest threats to the status quo come from the smallest of places, from start-ups and rogues, breakaways and indie labs.

The quantity, or level, of complexity is influenced by four inputs:

  • heterogeneity
  • network
  • interdependency
  • adaptation

Forecasting events are futile

Not knowing is okay. In fact, we’ve entered an age where the admission of ignorance offers strategic advantages over expending resources—subcommittees and think tanks and sales forecasts—toward the increasingly futile goal of forecasting future events.


It turns out that the fiercely pragmatic, “antidisciplinary” ethos of the Media Lab—in which computer scientists might borrow freely from architecture, and architecture from electrical engineering, so long as the threads all come together—works surprisingly well when applied to science, and may in fact be uniquely suited to that increasingly complex, interdisciplinary, and fast-paced world.

Schooling vs learning

It’s the notion of putting learning over education. Learning, we argue, is something you do for yourself. Education is something done to you.

Resnick runs the Lifelong Kindergarten research group, and his dedication to what he calls the “four Ps” of creative learning:

  1. Projects
    • Peers
    • Passion
    • Play

Emergence over Authority

Linear notion of knowledge from God to populace

We once had a very linear notion of how knowledge was produced and disseminated: It originated with God and was divulged to a variety of clerics, prophets, priests, and theocratic leaders, at which point it took the form of dogma (or in a more secular vein, policy) that would be disseminated through antiquity’s version of middle management until it reached a largely unquestioning populace.

Internet enables…

The Internet has played a key role in this, providing a way for the masses to not only make their voices heard, but to engage in the kind of discussion, deliberation, and coordination that just recently were the province of professional politics.

Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia

Comparing the shifting of authority from the Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia—an authoritative collection of experts vs a self-organizing community of bookworms for the common good—is a great indicator of this phase change.

Protocols are written in nature

They discovered that ant colonies had effectively invented TCP/ IP—the core method by which information is distributed over the Internet—untold millions of years before humans. That humans unknowingly replicated a pattern already present in nature is not unusual.

Science doesn’t work with locking up scientists

“There was a time when science advanced by locking small teams of researchers up in their labs until they produced some minor breakthrough,” says Randy Rettberg, the former MIT scientist who helped start iGEM. “Science won’t work that way in the future, and synthetic biology doesn’t operate that way now.

Declining cost and Moore’s law

Asked whether some of the more outlandish ideas around synthetic biology were far-fetched, he shrugged and pointed out that no one could have predicted the emergence of an easy, high-speed technology that would allow us to map the human genome. “Gene sequencing is declining in price and increasing in speed at a rate six times that of Moore’s law,”

How is knowledge produced

The triumph of emergence—expertise and knowledge emerging out of distributed networks like the Internet—over authority amounts to a tectonic shift in the way knowledge is produced and distributed. The age of emergence has replaced the age of authority.

Authoritarian vs Emergent systems

Unlike authoritarian systems, which enable only incremental change, emergent systems foster the kind of nonlinear innovation that can react quickly to the kind of rapid changes that characterize the network age.

Physically to chemically

In other words, a transistor can only be so many atoms wide. As it happens, Knight’s prediction has occurred; in recent years Moore’s law has begun to plateau. “It was clear we would have to switch from assembling things physically, which is how we had been making semiconductors, to assembling them chemically.”

Understanding is different from building

“If your goal is to study complicated biology, that’s fine. But if your goal is to take these very simple biological systems and understand everything there is to know about them with the intention of going in and being able to modify them, and to build on that and to do something different, that’s an entirely different perspective and it requires a different degree of understanding,” says Knight. “And that’s very much more profound than what they have.” To an engineer, understanding means taking it apart and putting it back together again.

Biology vs engineering

One could say that Knight and his collaborators were approaching the study of biology like any engineer might: Take the object apart; discover its constituent parts; then see how it might be improved by reconfiguring it.

Tools for overthrow !== tools for responsible governance

When “The Arab Spring” erupted in 2010, we thought we were proven right. What soon became clear, however, was that we had helped created the tools for the emergent overthrow of governments, but not necessarily the emergence of responsible self-governance. Our hopes turned to dismay as we watched the region turn from the optimism of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia to the emergence of ISIS.

Expectation !== Actual

We are now in a phase of emergent democracy that is quite distressing. But witnessing this has given those of us who held such optimism a decade ago even greater resolve to develop both the tools and momentum to fulfill our original dream of the technology advancing democracy in a positive way.

Pull over Push

Hierarchical management

Like most institutions that evolved in a pre-Internet era, the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission was built for a command-and-control management style. Information from the front lines, like from the Fukushima plant, had to work its way up through many tiers of management. Decisions would then follow the same route back down.

Contribution vs Selling

As Daniel Pink noted in his TEDGlobal talk “The Puzzle of Motivation,” this is a key difference between Microsoft’s failed Encarta encyclopedia, an expensive, professionally designed, push-based product, and Wikipedia’s amateur-led, pull-based platform, which was infinitely more successful.

Who controls the network?

In this environment, no one person or organization controls the network. Instead, it is built on a platform of “rough consensus and running code,” the motto of the Internet Engineering Task Force, itself a loosely organized that addresses engineering problems with the Web as they arise.

Some processes

One of the reasons the Safecast team was able to mobilize so quickly was its access to social media and other online tools, which help like-minded innovators build communities that can provide knowledge, encouragement, and other intangible resources. These extended networks can also help locate tools, workspaces, and manufacturing facilities, further lowering the cost of innovation and allowing new ideas and projects to emerge without direction from a central authority.


So the second and far more important reason to pay attention is that the blockchain—the technology that makes Bitcoin possible—has implications far beyond the future of currencies and financial services. The blockchain is, in our estimation, likely to change the very relationship between individuals and institutions, a revolution in the nature of authority.

Complete transparency with decentralisation

The importance of Bitcoin and the blockchain—in simple terms, the public ledger in which every Bitcoin transaction that has ever taken place is recorded—lies in its architecture, a structure based on the understanding that the network will pull the resources necessary to its formation and maintenance, without the need for a central director orchestrating, pushing the organization of those resources.

Peer to Peer

By making trust and authority the province of the network—a literal peer-to-peer solution—instead of a bank or a government, Satoshi created a milestone in our development as a society. And by fashioning a system that is at once so complex yet also so elegantly simple, he created something close to a work of art.

Strength of weak ties

“The Strength of Weak Ties,” Dr. Mark Granovetter argued that weak ties—those that connect casual acquaintances and friends of friends—have the potential to bridge communities and create a sense of trust and connection between people who know each other only slightly or not at all. People with a wide range of weak ties therefore have more opportunities to pull resources from their networks. As Malcolm Gladwell has noted, “Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information.”

Member ties

for teams engaged in complex problem solving in a competitive environment, the strength of the members’ ties is the most important predictor of their success.

Weak ties vs strong ties

Researchers have noted similar patterns in other social movements, including the Arab Spring. Participants may be drawn into political action by their weak ties, but their strong ties help keep them in the movement.


This is the power of pull over push—it leverages modern communications technologies and the decreased cost of innovation to move power from the core to the edges, enabling serendipitous discoveries and providing opportunities for innovators to mine their own passions. At its best, it allows people to find not only the things they need, but also the things they didn’t know they needed.

Network rich with weak ties

But serendipity is not luck. It is a combination of creating a network and an environment rich with weak ties, a peripheral vision that is “switched on,” and an enthusiasm for engagement that attracts and encourages interaction.


In our lives, the ability to switch between peripheral-vision mode and focus-and-execution mode is probably one of the most essential skills for empowering serendipity, but then the trick is to turn those “lucky” events into real opportunities.

Focus vs discovering the unknown

One of the problems is that our traditional educational system—and most of our business training—reward focus and execution, limiting the opportunity to become a “visionary.” Too much of our training is focused on solving known problems rather than imagining and exploring.

Compasses over Maps

Compass with flexibility

Of all the nine principles in the book, compasses over maps has the greatest potential for misunderstanding. It’s actually very straightforward: a map implies a detailed knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a far more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity and autonomy in discovering his or her own path.

value of compass than map

while the path to your goal may not be straight, you’ll finish faster and more efficiently than you would have if you had trudged along a preplanned route. Favoring the compass over the map also allows you to explore alternate paths, make fruitful use of detours, and discover unexpected treasures.

Learning without knowing

Aimed at eight-to fourteen-year-olds, Scratch looks nothing like Logo, but shares its DNA. The commands are written in simple English—“ Move 10 steps”—and categorized into brightly colored blocks that snap together like LEGO bricks. It is friendly, colorful, fun, and engineered to infatuate instead of intimidate.

Simplicity driving innovation

He proposed that all screws should have a flattened tip and a thread profile of precisely 60 degrees. The U.S. government adopted the “Sellers Thread,” and the railroads followed suit. This simple proposal—the standardization of that most modest of industrial components—inspired the development of interchangeable parts.

Reminds me of what Arduino and RPi did to the world of hardware

“You can’t overstate the importance of standardization to the creative process. An inventor wants to invent, not worry about the threading of his screws.”

No rules to map

In 2012 a group of students from MIT’s Sloan business school were doing a paper, trying to understand how the Media Lab was organized. They interviewed many people, faculty as well as students. After a while, Joi received word that the project had been abandoned because after the interviews everyone had such a different view of what the Media Lab did and how it did it that the researchers couldn’t actually map it.

Vibrant ecosystem

Trying to understand the Lab in some sort of structure is sort of futile. Like a random walk in a vibrant natural ecosystem with a random group of people, some people will see how the geology is working, others will note the way the plants are working together, others will focus on the microbial flora, and still others will focus on the rich culture of the people who live there.

Working for impact

Impact: Many who work in the pure sciences are trying to discover knowledge “for science.” While this is important, the Media Lab works in the service of impact, a concept that has evolved over the years.

Motto: Demo or die

Joe Jacobson, head of the Molecular Machines group, proposed “Deploy or Die,” which the Lab adopted as its new motto.

Compass headings

These compass headings create a framework for thinking about our own work and leave open enough flexibility and interpretation to allow each group and individual to have an identity and a direction without reducing the wonderfully rich diversity of the place. “We want to be less a solid mass and more like a liquid or a gas.”

Job done vs seeing a new world

“The way we wrote about computers at Business-Week, the way most people talked about computers, were as tools, a way to get jobs done,” he says. “But Papert saw computers as something that could help you see the world in new ways and as a medium for kids to express their ideas.”

What are computers?

“Computers can be carriers of powerful ideas and the seeds of cultural change,” Papert wrote in his seminal manifesto, Mindstorms. “They can help people form new relationships with knowledge that cut across the traditional lines separating humanities from sciences and knowledge of the self from both of these.”

Computers from accessible to inaccessible

Two days later the Macintosh 128K introduced the graphical user interface, forever transforming our relationship with technology. Computers were cute. They were friendly, easy to use, no longer so challenging. Children went from being budding programmers to passive users. Separately, as Papert later lamented, the computers themselves were moved into special rooms at school called computer labs. Programming became a specialized activity, an elective practiced by the few, the lonely, the nerdy (and much later, the rich).

Learning philosophy

This is central to the digital learning philosophy, which puts much of its emphasis on motivation. Children should—and do, intuitively—want to learn. It’s up to us, the blundering, wrongheaded adults, to frame the lessons correctly.

Coding and writing

Resnick and Siegel both agreed that learning to code wasn’t just about training the computer engineers of the future. It was a terrifically efficient method to learn how to learn. “Learning to code helps you organize, express, and share your ideas—just like learning to write,” says Resnick. “That’s important for everyone.”

Gardener than CEO

Leading the Media Lab is more like being a gardener than being a CEO — watering the plants, tending to the compost, trimming hedges, and getting out of the way so that the explosion of creativity and life of all of the plants and wildlife in the garden are allowed to flourish.

Risk over Safety

Hardware becoming like software

So what happens when the hardware business becomes a lot more like the software business? The rules change. When the cost to bring a product to market—or to simply bring an idea to a large audience—could drive an institution into bankruptcy, it made sense to privilege safety over risk.

Intellectual Property laws have changed

The Internet actually reversed the dynamic: It’s more expensive to keep secure an idea, or even the rough blueprint for a product, than it is to let it go wander the world in the form of the bits that it is.

Incremental improvement

As Google cofounder Larry Page told Wired, “[ Most] companies decay slowly over time [because they] tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change.”

Shanzhai manufacturers

Then something rather amazing happened: The clones started improving on the originals. Specifically, they started innovating. Freed from the grips of patent lawyers and restrictive regulations, shanzhai manufacturers began cranking out weird and wacky features—a phone with an HD wall projector, for instance.

Dinosaurs vs frogs

The script we’re reading here in America is as worrisome as it is familiar: China on the rise, the American Imperium in decline. The frog leaping past the dinosaur. But this storyline exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of the new age. American companies and Chinese companies are in the same boat. The dinosaurs don’t need to be worried about other dinosaurs. They need to start thinking like, acting like, the frogs.

Private vs secret

It’s also compatible with the original Cypherpunk’s Manifesto: “Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.” Bitcoin requires something of its users—that they decide how much they’re willing to reveal, and to whom.

Ecosystem » Knowledge

Due to the requirement for clean-room processing, he thought it would be cheaper to run production in the United States, but the American shops didn’t have the expertise or capability of his shop in China to produce the tools, and even if they did, they couldn’t touch his cost for such value-added services. This role reversal is an indicator of how the technology, trade, and know-how for injection molding has shifted to Shenzhen. Even if the United States had the manufacturing capacity, key parts of the knowledge ecosystem currently exist only in Shenzhen. Which is also where the tolerance for experimentation, for failure—for risk—far outpaces ours.

History repeats?

In the nineteenth century, American publishers blatantly violated copyrights until the country developed its own publishing industry. Japan copied U.S. auto companies until it found itself in a leadership position. It feels like Shenzhen is also a critical point where a country/ ecosystem goes from follower to leader.

Difficult to replicate exactly

Just as it’s is impossible to make another Silicon Valley somewhere else, although everyone tries, after spending four days in Shenzhen, Joi is convinced that it’s impossible to reproduce this environment anywhere else. Both Shenzhen and Silicon Valley have a “critical mass” that attracts more and more people, resources, and knowledge, but they are also both living ecosystems full of diversity and a work ethic and experience base that any region will have difficulty bootstrapping.

Building networks with leaders

Joi believes that Shenzhen, like Silicon Valley, has become such a “complete” ecosystem that we’re more likely to be successful building networks to connect with Shenzhen than competing with it head-on.

Disobedience over Compliance

Steganography vs Cryptography

The advantage of steganography is that, by definition, it does not draw attention to itself. However, if someone other than the intended recipient discovers the hidden message—say the tattooed slave falls ill on the road, and a well-meaning physician shaves his head to relieve his fever—there is nothing to prevent that person from reading it. Cryptography, on the other hand, encodes information so that only the intended recipient (or a particularly clever or persistent adversary) can decipher it.

Disobedience vs Criticism

It’s also important to note that disobedience is different from criticism. There is, for example, a very important design movement called critical design—a perspective that provides a critique of modern techno-utopianism that we technologists often find ourselves espousing. However, criticism is about our work, where disobedience is the work.

Practice over Theory

Do » Think

Putting practice over theory means recognizing that in a faster future, in which change has become a new constant, there is often a higher cost to waiting and planning than there is to doing and then improvising.

Funding and incrementalism

Metrics are important for measuring your progress when you know exactly what you want to do, but they can also stifle innovation. Organizations that rely on grants for much of their funding may become tethered to incrementalism. If each of their grant proposals describes not only the research they intend to carry out but also how it will be measured, they won’t be able to explore unexpected paths or pursue an interesting wrong turn.

Poor schools vs rich schools

The poor one will teach to the tests, adhere to common curricula, and “guarantee you the basics, thus suiting you for a service job.” The rich schools, on the other hand, will emphasize problem solving, innovation, and the skills required to produce new knowledge. “Those kids will make out very well in the global system.”

Learning by connecting their interest

There’s been a great deal of research showing that people learn best when they can connect the things they’re learning to their interests, their personal relationships, and the opportunities they’d like to pursue. However, the traditional educational system in the United States and many other countries still employs a disconnected, metrics-driven approach built around an outdated model which assumes that children given twelve years of sufficiently rigorous education will emerge with the skills they need to excel in a rapidly changing social and economic environment.

Self-directed learning

As the pace of technological and social change continues to accelerate, students who merely absorb the education offered to them, without also developing the capacity for interest-driven, self-directed, lifelong learning, will be at a perpetual disadvantage. Students with a passion for learning will always be able to teach themselves the things they need to know, long after their formal education ends.

Diversity over Ability

But they’re holding out another promise as well: a realization that conventional management practice is often dead wrong about who is best suited for a task. The best way to match talent to task, at least in the world of nanobiotechnology, isn’t to assign the fanciest degrees to the toughest jobs, but rather to observe the behavior of thousands of people and identify those who show the greatest aptitude for the cognitive skills that the task requires.

Who solves the problem?

But what’s interesting is who solves the problems, and how. According to research out of Harvard Business School, there’s a positive correlation between successful solutions and what the researcher, Karim Lakhani, calls “distance from field.” In plain language, the less exposed a given solver is to the discipline in which the problem resides, the more likely he or she is to solve it.

Diminishing returns of diversity

“Ability matters,” says Scott E. Page, author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. “But in the aggregate it offers diminishing returns.”

Expanding circle of empathy

Pinker credits this pacification, in part, to what he calls the “expanding circle of sympathy.” We once reserved our love and concern for our kin, then we learned to expand it to cover our tribe. From there we embraced the village and by the 1800s the general run of humanity would grudgingly grant their regard to those of similar race, religion, creed, and most of all, nationality.

When times are bad

When times were good, the industry did its level best to recruit women and minorities from the end of the pipeline, but we failed to probe further when that only succeeded in increasing diversity by single-digit percentages. That may be where the greatest moral failure—or at the very least, the greatest failure of imagination—has occurred. And it’s where we should concentrate our efforts now.

Resilience over Strength

Oak vs the reed

When hurricane winds blow, the steel-strong oak shatters, while the supple, resilient reed bows low and springs up again when the storm has passed. In trying to resist failure, the oak has instead guaranteed it.


Just as a healthy immune system responds to infection by developing new defenses against pathogens, a resilient organization learns from its mistakes and adapts to its environment. This approach has helped shape the Internet as it exists today; rather than planning for every possible attack or failure, the Internet has developed an immune system by responding to and learning from attacks and security breaches as they occur. In its early days, when the price of failure was low, this gave it the resilience it needed to survive without increasing costs.

Anticipating distant eventualities

Over time, focusing on resilience over strength may also help organizations develop more vibrant, robust, dynamic systems, which are more resistant to catastrophic failure. Because they do not squander resources anticipating distant eventualities, or expend excessive quantities of time or energy on unnecessary formalities and procedures, they can build up a baseline of organizational health that will help them weather unexpected storms.

When is resisting failure costing more than yiedling it

It simply recognizes that at some point there will be failures, and that the most functional systems will be able to regenerate rapidly. The key is to recognize when resisting failure costs more than yielding to it, and to maintain your resilience even as your organization grows.

Everything than can be hacked will be hacked

It also, however, demonstrates why resilience is always preferable to strength: There is no Fort Knox in a digital age. Everything that can be hacked will, at some point, be hacked. To convey just how stunned security experts were when Stuxnet became public, consider this: The SCADA systems in use at a nuclear plant are “air-gapped.” That means that they have absolutely no connection to the outside world.

Best defense

The goal of the paper was to find the optimal strategies for both players so that they would each maintain control over the system with the lowest cost. They started from the assumption that however strong your system is it will be compromised. They then proceeded to show that whenever an attacker is adaptive, the best defensive strategy is to play “exponentially”—to make a defensive move (such as resetting a password or destroying and rebuilding a server) at the same average time but at different and hard-to-predict intervals for each instance.

Faster and unpredictable

A key factor in playing a defensive game, then, becomes the ability to move faster than attackers and become unpredictable. Resilience over strength. Today malware, computer viruses, and other forms of cyber attacks can respond with blazing speed, circumventing defenses as quickly as they can be mounted. The only way defense might catch up, then, is to appreciate that the modern Internet bears a closer resemblance to the complexity found in a host of other networks composed of heterogeneous actors.

Attack vs defence

Aggravating the problem is that a cyber attack has the deck stacked in its favor. Unlike in a police investigation, hackers don’t have to worry about national borders or jurisdictional niceties. And to be successful, an attack need only pierce the castle in one place. The king, on the other hand, has to protect every inch of the wall around his kingdom. And none of this reckons with the sheer speed and agility with which hackers work.

Security like antibody

Increasingly, Forrest believes, it will help us mimic those systems as well. To catch a mouse, think like a mouse. And to catch a virus, it might help, say a rising chorus of security experts, to think like an antibody, or an immune system.

Monoculture vs Variety

“One design strategy that helps biological systems achieve robustness to these threats is diversity—genetic diversity in a species, species diversity in an ecosystem, and molecular diversity in an immune system.” By contrast, the computer industry specializes in homogeneity: churning out near-infinite quantities of identical pieces of hardware and software. The result is that an agent that can wreak havoc in one host—read: computer, or increasingly, any number of the objects joining the Internet of Things—can as easily infect any number of those copies.

Analogy to parenting

But that never works. I’ve caught wise the last few years and have accepted that all my expectations about parenting or, hell, free will, created a false dichotomy: By trying to win, I’ll always lose. Only when I accept that there will be no winning or losing, just events unfolding and the way I chose to react to them, do I succeed.


Resilience doesn’t necessarily mean anticipating failure; it means anticipating that you can’t anticipate what’s next, and working instead on a sort of situational awareness.

Thriving » Winning

If this book is written for anyone, it’s the individual determined to make the hard call and chart a new strategy predicated less on winning and power than on thriving in an unpredictable world. As Finn has helped me understand, acceptance is its own brand of courage.

What vs how

In other words, researchers treated the organ as an object of study, and devoted entire careers to specializing in its anatomy, its cellular makeup, and its function within the body. But Boyden didn’t come from this academic tradition. The synthetic neurobiology group, as his lab within the Media Lab is known, tends to regard the brain as more verb than noun, less discrete organ than locus of overlapping systems that can only be understood in the context of the ever-changing stimuli that determine their function.