June/July/Aug 2013

A Small World After All

A new book sheds light on how little of the world we see through our browsers

Astra Taylor


At a recent conference on media reform, I found myself talking to a professional activist and technologist. He told me about some online images—customized for sharing on Facebook—that civilians in Syria had circulated to protest Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on dissent in their country. The images were both powerful and deeply moving, he told me. “It’s like we are building a giant empathy machine,” he said, referring to the Internet. The effortless sharing of memes, he explained, was a crucial step toward a more peaceful world. In fact, he went so far as to insist that the invasion of Iraq would have been impossible today, given the ubiquity of social-media platforms.

He was such a pleasant and positive fellow that I felt a bit bad raining on his parade, so I resisted the urge to point out the innumerable and very popular corners of the Internet that give full and lavish attention to empathy’s enemies—xenophobia, racism, misogyny, condescension, and bullying. Instead, having just read Rewire, Ethan Zuckerman’s patient and thoughtful rebuttal to the widespread embrace of the Internet as a facilitator of global understanding, I tried to channel the author, who doesn’t denigrate the utopian impulse that fuels grand pronouncements about the revolutionary power of social media. Rather, Zuckerman carefully demolishes such assertions for “conflat[ing] what could be with what will be.”

Early on in Rewire, Zuckerman presents a paradox that I repeated to the activist: “While it’s easier than ever to share information and perspectives from different parts of the world, we may now often encounter a narrower picture of the world than in less connected days.” Zuckerman compiles compelling evidence that Americans are reading less international news now than they did in the decades before the Internet, even though it’s now technically easier than it has ever been to access information from faraway places. My interlocutor briefly considered these comments but ultimately disregarded them, as though only a curmudgeon would contradict his rosy view.

Zuckerman, however, is not a knee-jerk naysayer about all things digital. The director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and cofounder of the international bloggers’ website Global Voices, he is extremely enthusiastic about the potential of using technology to connect people across cultures. He wants the Internet to be an empathy machine. The difference between him and the full-throated apostles of cyber-utopianism is that he does not believe that the online world is foreordained to fulfill this purpose, nor does he naively assume that the outcomes of cross-cultural connections will always be desirable.

Zuckerman’s goal in the first half of the book is to reveal the degree to which disconnection persists and is even exacerbated online. His aim in the latter half is to encourage his readers to take responsibility for “rewiring” their lives so as to realize the full promise of the Internet’s battery of still largely hypothetical global connections. In the opening and closing chapters, he enumerates the advantages we stand to gain from the cosmopolitan rewiring of our lives, and offers some advice on how best to accomplish this aim. Meanwhile, the scope of Zuckerman’s counsel also reveals some of the political limitations of his project.

The world is complex and interconnected, Zuckerman rightly insists, and the evolution of our communications system from a broadcast model to a networked one has added a new dimension to the mix. The Internet has made us all less dependent on professional journalists and editors for information about the wider world, allowing us to seek out information directly via online search or to receive it from friends through social media. But Zuckerman also contends that this enhanced convenience comes with a considerable risk: that we will be exposed to what we want to know at the expense of what we need to know. While we can find virtual communities that correspond to our every curiosity and kink, there’s little pushing us beyond our comfort zones or into the unknown, even if the unknown may have serious implications for our lives. This problem was astutely satirized by a headline in The Onion that went viral after this spring’s Boston Marathon bombings: “Study: Majority of Americans Not Informed Enough to Stereotype Chechens.” (Meanwhile, in the scarcely distinguishable world outside of news satire, the embassy of the Czech Republic was forced, in the wake of evidence that the attack had been carried out by the ethnic-Chechen Tsarnaev brothers, to release a statement clarifying that “the Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities.”) There are things we should probably know more about—like political and religious conflicts in Russia or basic geography. But even if we knew more than we do, there’s no guarantee that the knowledge gained would prompt us to act in a particularly admirable fashion.

As the truth embedded in that joke shows, Americans are prone to drastically overestimating just how international they are. Average citizens may be dismayed to learn that most of their clothes are made in China and that their bottled water is shipped all the way from Fiji. They may be convinced that immigration is on the rise or feel like they get plenty of foreign news. Yet Zuckerman challenges the idea that the world has been flattened. Tariffs and subsidies distort supply chains, immigration regulations and patterns are deeply uneven, and the global flow of information across borders is constrained, primarily by our limited “interest and attention.” As a consequence, we exist in a state of “imaginary cosmopolitanism,” a condition fueled by a cognitive bias that exaggerates encounters with the unusual. Day-to-day homophily—the tendency of like to congregate with like—exerts a stronger influence over us than the desire for novelty or difference. In all aspects of our lives, off-line and on-, we compulsively and mostly unconsciously sort ourselves into groups and niches, reassuring cocoons from which we rarely venture.

To put it another way, parochialism is a symptom of audience empowerment. We search for information we already want or find new things through people we know, and since these people tend to resemble ourselves, a lot happens in the world that we never hear about. For instance, Zuckerman notes that Americans may not learn about what’s happening in Zambia unless we happen to know some Zambians. And in the age of Google and Facebook, if our habits of media consumption are limited, we are to blame, not some all-powerful gatekeepers. So Zuckerman argues that if “we want digital connection to increase human connection,” we need to experiment. Specifically, he outlines three areas of digital life that could use “rewiring”: language, personal connection, and discovery. In sizing up the sphere of online language, he applauds the ongoing development of “transparent” or automated translation, which may soon allow us to seamlessly follow conversations unfolding in otherwise obscure idioms. At the same time, Zuckerman argues that translation alone is not enough, which leads to his anatomy of those he deems “bridge figures,” who have roots in multiple cultures, and xenophiles, or enthusiastic bridge crossers. Individuals who fall into these categories serve an essential purpose, transmitting ideas across cultural and national boundaries while also providing indispensible social context and mitigating misinterpretation.

Zuckerman’s case for deepening technology’s capacity for discovery is more complicated. He compares the Internet to a city and raises the possibility of “engineering serendipity” so as to encourage unexpected encounters. Architecture always has an agenda, Zuckerman observes, whether you’re talking about urban planning or software design. As a consequence, he insists, we need structural solutions—architectural adjustments, if you will—to encourage cross-cultural connection. Thus he calls for tools that will help us seek out the unfamiliar—for instance, an application that can layer online maps with annotations from a wide array of social groups, and recommendation engines that would encourage people to make riskier choices rather than merely introducing them to things that fit their established patterns.

Some may find the idea of engineering online platforms to promote diversity paternalistic, but in reality, online spaces are already engineered with specific outcomes in mind—that is to say, they are designed to serve the needs of advertisers, who want to sell us things, and Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who want a return on investment. Curiously, Rewire, for all of its emphasis on the pivotal role that individuals play via the filters they impose on the flow of information, glosses over the myriad ways social media are shaped by market forces. While Zuckerman describes traditional journalism as “hobbled by business concerns,” he never mentions the way those same concerns have carried over into a digital age, and yoked the development of private platforms to the quest for profit. For example, when talking about Netflix’s recommendation engine, he doesn’t acknowledge that the program is risk averse because it is designed to facilitate consumption of movies that customers will enjoy; he fails to reckon with the obstacles that such economic imperatives pose to the project of making our online experience less predictable. Ultimately, Zuckerman avoids political economy and emphasizes personal responsibility and choice. He argues, in essence, that we should find innovative ways to expand the repertoire of what we want.

Given this view, it makes sense that Zuckerman profiles a handful of characters who have embodied his outward-facing ideal and benefited from border crossing: Pablo Picasso, whose art was inspired by African masks; Paul Simon, who drew on similar musical influences to produce his megaselling Afro-pop album Graceland; and Matt Harding, an American who made a series of chewing-gum-sponsored YouTube videos of himself dancing with strangers around the world.

Still, there’s something discomfitingly thin about such case studies, suggesting that Zuckerman’s version of a cosmopolitan ethos is merely one of mixing styles. He maintains that these figures are more than appropriators or tourists, but it’s far from clear how they may challenge the status quo of selective and voyeuristic Western encounters with an exoticized version of the world at large. In this regard, they underscore the privileged perspective that Zuckerman himself consistently falls back on. In Rewire, he is focused on the problem of individuals choosing not to seek out information from other places, and in plumbing the issues arising from this problem, he assumes that all of us feel empowered to investigate other communities but simply don’t bother. The world’s cultures are portrayed as a buffet everyone feels equally invited to sample from. But in real life people are marginalized and excluded from this experiential banquet—in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that Rewire doesn’t account for.

Zuckerman is not unaware of social inequities. Indeed, it was his shock at the lack of coverage about Ghana, a country where he worked and lived, that motivated him to begin thinking about these issues. Nonetheless, privileged people widening their view of the world won’t necessarily make the actual world more inclusive. Likewise, increasing diversity doesn’t automatically make the world more just or fair.

Skirting these complexities, Rewire ultimately provides an unsatisfying answer to the fundamental question it raises: Why should we strive to be cosmopolitan? The book’s jacket copy offers a surprisingly mundane rationale: A “wider picture” of the world, it states, is “critical for global success.” The ability to make connections, Zuckerman writes, “is a new form of power.” Rewire’s final chapter portrays a handful of powerfully cosmopolitan individuals, including the CEOs of Pepsi, Coke, and Nissan, the latter a Brazilian of Lebanese descent who awed Japanese businessmen with his “audacity” when he laid off 14 percent of the automaker’s workforce. In an unexpected twist, multinational corporations are held up as paragons of connection, deserving praise for hiring executives from foreign countries to screw their employees. Why not praise small restaurants for “leveraging diversity” by having Mexican kitchen staffs or upper-class families for hiring Tibetan nannies?

Zuckerman comes across as a kind and generous person who wants to make space for everyone, including, it seems, the global financial elite. While I respect his openness, I’m less forgiving. If cosmopolitanism is to be a force for desirable change in this world, it has to have a purpose more profound than the vision Zuckerman describes in his final chapter. The ease of digital connection may not bring about world peace, but that doesn’t mean we have to disavow all idealism and big dreams. If we’re going to rewire, let’s try to go further.

Astra Taylor is a political organizer, documentary filmmaker, and writer.

RameshR

June 4, 2013
1:37 am

Why so much people are on Facebook ?Why people so addicted with Internet?Simple answer is 99/p.c people are mentally herd..They never developed their thinking faculty because if anybody start to think on any issue he must take responsibility of his decision.Most people donot want responsibility so they follow blindly decision of majority. If everybody joining Facebook why should not I ? This herd mentality is main reason of sucess of social online web.

Patron13

January 2, 2014
5:16 pm

Yes, it's absolutely right what you wrote RameshR. But on the other hand, when you're studying i.e in Poland there are students groups on Facebook and if you don't have an account you may not even know that tomorrow you're writing test... So social exclusion forces people to be on FB.

It's just important to stay away from FB-Dopamine-drug-killer which kills our time. :) It is nicely written about it here: http://fantastichabits.com/dopamine-dangerous-drug/

By the way, internet is powerful. Do you know any bigger revolution than revolution of global network? TV? steam engine? wheel?

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June 20, 2014
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