Friday, October 28, 2011

Networks Understanding Networks: Fall Event Followup

Thanks again to my co-host César Hidalgo and everyone who helped organize and participated in the Fall Media Lab event Networks Understanding Networks—my first meeting. I was very inspired by the energy and the sense of community and I hope you felt the same. While we’re still energized from the experience and great interactions, we’re already thinking about how to make improvements for next spring’s meeting. Please email any thoughts or feedback you might have to

Both César and I agree that one of the most important messages that we imparted in two jam-packed days was the benefit of offering a meeting that is highly participatory and inclusive of all of the participants. We firmly believe that great ideas come from encouraging all attendees to talk to lots of different people about topics of greatest interest to them and their organizations. We hope that the meetings are both the source of great new ideas as well as a way to share our ideas. We will continue to look for new and engaging formats to maximize these opportunities. For this meeting we focused on unconferences and research open houses. We’ll be refining these for next year, as well as adding new formats for interaction.

And as part of the Lab’s new focus on openness, for the first time we offered all the meeting’s presentations to the world by live streaming them on the web in real time. These are archived and available for viewing (

Keynote speakers included: Albert-Lászió Barabási, on human dynamics; Nicholas A. Christakis, on the evolutionary significance of human social networks; and Ricardo Hausmann, on what countries know about what they produce and why it matters. Other talks were by Ethan Zuckerman, on understanding media as an ecosystem; Sep Kamvar, on search and the social web; and the Media Lab’s Ed Boyden, Kent Larson, John Moore, Neri Oxman, and Sandy Pentland. You can also view a panel discussion on open innovation and creativity that included Larry Lessig, John Seely Brown, Yochai Benkler, Chris DiBona, and me. The closing remarks by Wadah Khanfar, who until recently was the director general of the Al Jazeera Network, were presented via Skype, which unfortunately created some quality issues for viewing,

Take a look and listen, (, and let us know what you think.

- Joi

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Cognitive Limit of Organizations

This is a slide that I got from Cesar Hidalgo. He used this slide to explain a concept that I think is key to the way we think about how the Media Lab is evolving.

The vertical axis of this slide represents the total stock of information in the world. The horizontal axis represents time.

In the early days, life was simple. We did important things like make spears and arrowheads. The amount of knowledge needed to make these items, however, was small enough that a single person could master their production. There was no need for a large division of labor and new knowledge was extremely precious. If you got new knowledge, you did not want to share it. After all, in a world where most knowledge can fit in someone's head, stealing ideas is easy, and appropriating the value of the ideas you generate is hard.

At some point, however, the amount of knowledge required to make things began to exceed the cognitive limit of a single human being. Things could only be done in teams, and sharing information among team members was required to build these complex items. Organizations were born as our social skills began to compensate for our limited cognitive skills. Society, however, kept on accruing more and more knowledge, and the cognitive limit of organizations, just like that of the spearmaker, was ultimately reached.

When the Media Lab was founded 25 years ago, many products were still single-company products and most, if not all, of the intellectual property was contained in a single company. Today, however, most products are combinations of knowledge and intellectual property that resides in different organizations. Our world is less and less about the single pieces of intellectual property and more and more about the networks that help connect these pieces. The total stock of information used in these ecosystems exceeds the capacity of single organizations because doubling the size of huge organizations does not double the capacity of that organization to hold knowledge and put it into productive use.

In a world in which implementing the next generation of ideas will increasingly require pulling resources from different organizations, barriers to collaboration will be a crucial constraint limiting the development of firms. Agility, context, and a strong network are becoming the survival traits where assets, control, and power used to rule. John Seely Brown refers to this as the "Power of Pull."

The Media Lab and its members need to adapt to this world by focusing on creating a platform that can help all of us navigate this new landscape. Together, we are more likely to find niches in the complex and dynamic industrial ecosystem of the 20th century. Openness and engagement will be key in this journey.