Despite or because of this diatribe, Mr. Ito was invited back in 2003, this time as MC of the event. But if Mr. Idei and the organizers of the Japan Dinner had hoped to temper Mr. Ito’s remarks by this show of magnanimity, they failed. He had been warned, he said: “Don’t talk about complicated issues; the foreigners won’t understand.” Nevertheless, he railed. Reform plans for the Japanese economy read like “Zen riddles,” he declared, and nothing ever comes of them. The bureaucracy is defined by its resistance to change, a system that “rewards people for their obedience” and leaves critics fearing retaliation. (“In fact,” he half-joked, “fear of retaliation is what I’m feeling right now.”) Japan had, if anything, fallen further since the previous year; Mr. Ito called again for revolution.
For a time, Mr. Ito threw himself into Japanese politics with his usual single-mindedness. In 2003, he published an online manifesto, “Emergent Democracy,” which posited that Internet technology could facilitate the development of truly direct democracy. But fervor for political reform in Japan has cooled with the nascent recovery of the country’s economy, Mr. Ito says, and he also came to realize that democracy was broken in many places around the world, making his efforts at home feel a bit parochial. As his interest in politics waned, he also became increasingly fearful that corporate and government powers were moving rapidly to weaken or constrain the very freedoms that made the Internet such a potent democratic tool.
“At a very high level, I’m philosophically disturbed by the damage that aggregation of power and authority causes, whether in big business or the government,” Mr. Ito says. Seeking to foster online communities to counter this type of power, he shifted his activism to organizations like ICANN and Creative Commons, along with several other collective online efforts: the Open Source Initiative; Mozilla, which produces the open source Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail client; and Witness, which trains human rights workers to use video cameras to document abuses. He sits on the boards of each of these organizations, as well as that of Wikipedia, the volunteer-written online encyclopedia, and those of most of his portfolio companies.
“He became very interested in my work, and actually started hanging out online with all the Wikipedians in our chat rooms,” says Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder and president. “He became involved and he edited some articles. That’s pretty unique. Lots of people are interested, but they don’t really dig in and get involved. He’s one of the few people I’ve met, particularly among venture capitalists, who really understand social networks online, and he understands because he digs in and gets his hands dirty full time.”
Meanwhile, among technological entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, Mr. Ito’s not-for-profit work gives him the cachet of being particularly plugged in. “There’s no substitute for such a synthesis of technology, social, and business know-how,” says Mr. Sifry of Technorati. “There’s stuff going on at ICANN, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Creative Commons that you won’t notice if you’re singularly focused on closing business deals.”
With his latest interest, in World of Warcraft, Mr. Ito is entering a new domain: entrepreneurship within a purely made-up environment. He has no money invested in Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft’s creator, but the hours he has invested in rising through the game’s rankings would probably have sufficed to produce a doctoral dissertation. And he is constantly in touch via e-mail, online chat, and cell phone with the 250 members of a guild that he cofounded — a diverse body of game characters whose creators are scattered around the globe, across demographic groups and age levels. His “raid leader” is an emergency room nurse; another important player is an unemployed bartender with attention deficit disorder who has gone off his medication; and lately, the 9-year-old daughter of one of his CEOs has been taking part. Keeping these folks on the same page and happy takes a great deal of time.