Ethan Zuckerman – Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection

June 24, 2013

Our guest this week is an inspiring thinker whom we’ve wanted to get on the show for a long, long time: Ethan Zuckerman.

He’s the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and works at MIT’s Media Lab. He’s also the co-founder of Global Voices, a community of global bloggers—and has worked in the past at Geekcorps and Tripod.

We’re here to discuss his new book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection—which among other things argues that the technological ability to communicate with someone does not inevitably lead to increased human connection. In other words, it’s about nothing less than how to use the Internet to open, rather than close, your mind.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry from Monday, June 24th, 2013, on the show this week, Chris talks to media scholar Ethan Zuckerman about his new book, Rewire Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. This week, my guest is really great, an inspiring thinker who have wanted to get on the show for a long time. Ethan Zuckerman. He is the director of the Center for Civic Media at M.I.T. and works at M.I.T., his media lab. He’s also the co-founder of Global Voices, a community of global bloggers and has worked in the past at Geekcorps and Tripod. We’re here to discuss his new book, which is entitled Rewire Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection. And as I think you’ll see, it is about nothing less than how to use the Internet to open rather than close your mind. Ethan Zuckerman, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Good to be with you, Chris. 

Great to have you. 

So, you know, I’ve been reading your new book, Rewire, and I guess I’ll start out by saying it’s not totally what I expected because it’s not some dirge, La Cass Sunstein Republic that come about how the Internet’s making us more polarized and isolated. Or it’s not just that. I mean, it’s very it’s. It strikes me as a lot more about how to get around it. Would that be fair? 

I think that’s fair. It would have been a much easier book to write. Had I just gone for the the Internet is isolating us. 

That’s making us stupid. It’s, you know, forcing us all to to talk. Only to people who are familiar, who have the same background. And there’s bits of that argument in there. I’m very concerned that a lot of the tools that we’ve recently built on the Internet are much better at introducing us to familiar people than they are to unfamiliar people. But I also find this attitude that the Internet is broke and it is making us, you know, foolish in one fashion, other to to be, to a certain extent, crazy talk. We’re talking about a technology that, for the most part has been developed in the last 20 years. We’ve really had 20 years of the commercial Internet. A lot of the social media tools that I’m talking about are less than 10 years old. The idea that we can’t have a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of these tools and potentially try to alter and build better tools if we don’t like what we’re getting, it just seems a little too hopeless to me. So I. 

I ended up being forced to write a much more complicated book that if I were simply being depressive about it and you’re you’re at M.I.T. now, but it seems like this perspective that you take a merged I mean, there’s a background story here. You are doing work in Ghana. 

You also were in the Internet startup world. And it seems like that shaped your view here. 

Well, that’s right. 

My professional career started as sort of the first tech guy for our company called Tripod at Tripod was sort of a Proteau social network and allowed people to host their own home pages. And we introduced a bunch of community features called Pods that link different home pages together. So I had a chance to sort of watch the early Internet and particularly to watch as it brought really interesting and different people online. One of the things that was most fascinating about that time was watching people in Malaysia and particularly in Malaysia’s political opposition come on line because it was a free and open space where they could talk about politics, which is very difficult to do in the Malaysian media at that point in time. 

And then I moved over into the sort of nonprofit world working on bringing technology and particularly technological expertize into sub-Saharan Africa, working with geeks on the ground in a country like Ghana, but bringing international geeks in to work together. So for me, the Internet has really always been about how do we bring people together? How do you interact with people from very different parts of the world? And I’ve become worried more recently that both an online media and also, frankly, an offline traditional journalistic media, that we’re not getting as much internationalism as we were maybe 30 or 40 years ago. 

I want to remind listeners that Ethan Zuckerman’s new book, Rewire Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, is available through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dawg. So let’s go back to this. 

This concern, this concern that we’re getting too narrow of a picture of the world right now through our media, the digital or otherwise. I just want to read a quote that I think is very effective from the book. You say, we need to ask whether we’re reading the Times of India or imagining we are. We are simply because we could be. We have to look less at what’s made possible by the Internet and more what we actually choose to do. 

So that’s a phenomenon that I’ve started calling imaginary cosmopolitanism. I think the Internet really invites us to imagine that we’re getting content and contacts from all over the world. And I think we actually look at our behavior. It tends to be a lot more complicated. And I say this from sort of monitoring my own behavior as I was writing this book. I decided to pay very close attention to what sort of media I was consuming. And I set up a bunch of sort of personal tracking tools, the same way that you might track your steps or track your diet if you were trying to lose weight. I set up a bunch of tools that helped me track what you are, Relles. I was looking at what I was paying attention to, and I think of myself as a pretty global guy. I’m on the board of a bunch of international organizations. I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about sub-Saharan Africa. I spend a lot of my time reading, read it, and I spend a lot of my time reading about the Green Bay Packers. 

And it was really interesting to be sort of confronted with my own behavior. 

There are people who have made the argument Mathematic Lacey has just just made a great version of this argument that this is a golden age for media. The fact that when you’re interested in a topic, you can go really as deep as you would like in it, and you can often get news and perspectives from people who are on the ground. 

But the trick with that argument is you have to make the decision to do so. 

And we tend to feel like more choices, more freedom, and it’s always a good thing. And one of the things that I ended up exploring in the book is kind of the danger of choice. Many of us given choices about what to pay attention to. We’ll pay attention to what we already think or know to be important. And it may or may not be what we need to know. So it’s this tension between thinking that this is the most important thing and not necessarily getting information from parts of the world that we don’t know are important, that we don’t know that we need to pay attention to. 

So let me just ask you, are the devices that you use to track your behavior where you found where you were surprises that easily available for people to use, or did you have that kind of program? 

Well, we a it’s an interesting enough problem that I started using it as my opening lecture in a class that I teach called News and Participatory Media. 

And what I asked students to do is to figure out a way to track their media behavior over the course of a week and then show us what tools they use. 

The tool that I used is the one that most of them turn to, which is Rescue Time, which is a terrific little Mac program that will sit and just watch everything you do on your computer and it will tell you at the end of the day or at the end of the week. Here’s how much time you spent in a word processing program. Here’s how much time you spent on your Web browser. And here are the sites that you paid attention to. And you can set it up to prevent you or to or to sort of punish you when you spend time on certain things. 

If you want to spend less time on Facebook. You can have it sort of beat you up about it. It’s actually just a really powerful tool for sort of saying, wow. 

Packers’ constituted one point five hours of your online time in the last week. And you can then ask yourself the question, is this really where I want to be spending my time? 

So you can have a little device tell you that you’re digitally close minded. Well, it to come up. 

And it’s an interesting question. Right. So if you’re reading a site like The New York Times or like Slate, it’s going to give you that an aggregate, but it isn’t actually going to tell you whether you are going through the hard times and, you know, mostly reading the sports pages or whether you’re getting sort of a blog broad global view out of it. 

But what’s nice about it is it does start giving you information you can work with. And I would say in general, we’re building some similar tools now at the Media Lab to sort of think through this. 

My my grad student, Nathan Matee US has been working on a set of tools to try to make gender and gender bias seeds more visible. 

And one of the tools that he’s worked on is called follow bias. And this is a tool that lets you simply look at who do you follow on Twitter and what’s their gender. 

And I ran my Twitter verse through this and discovered that I was following fifty five percent men and about twenty seven percent women. And the rest are robots. Right? I did it to restor or bots or brands. 

And I don’t know if that’s true for you, Chris, but for me, I now think a bit more closely when I add someone on Twitter. And he doesn’t. He doesn’t. 

Beat you up about it? He just sort of says, here’s how it is, he doesn’t even know. I don’t know what your numbers are. 

They may be better, aren’t great, but I was more surprised by the bots than by the gender bias. And I bet it definitely made me more conscious of gender bias. But but the bots were more shocking. 

Well, so what’s interesting about this is a lot of the work that people have done, sort of questioning what’s the diversity of media that you’re getting? 

There’s some good stuff around gender like these tools. There’s some good stuff around left and right. And I think Eli Pariser did a great job with the filter bubble, sort of getting us to look at this question of if we’re politically on the left, are we seeing opinions from the right? 

But that filter bubbles three dimension. Right. It has to do with all sort of aspects of who we are and what we pay attention to. 

And while I’m looking more than anything else, it’s sort of nation and culture and language in this book. What I’m really trying to make the point about is that. Really good media tries to give us a very broad range of perspectives, and they’re optimizing for political perspectives and gender perspectives, national perspectives and so on and so forth. And as we’re choosing more and more of what we encounter, because that’s what the Internet is all about, it’s about giving us a choice of how we want to spend our time and how we spend our attention. We need to think through those biases as well. 

So what about the person who says this is great? I mean, the Internet does exactly what I want it. It connects me to the people I know and care about. What do you say to that person? It did. Does it really well. 

Right. And and I’m not actually convinced that everybody needs to become a digital cosmopolitan. I, I have three arguments for why you might want to take this seriously. 

So the first argument is that there are certain categories of problems that require a global perspective. 

If you are an epidemiologist trying to figure out how diseases spread, you need to be looking locally and you need to be capable of seeing things on a global scale. If you’re trying to take on very big environmental or social problems, if you want to take on global warming in a meaningful way, you probably can’t take that on as a North American problem. You would need to think about what the needs of people in China or India are at that moment in time. So the first argument for this is that there’s big problems that require the global perspective. 

The second argument is that there’s pretty incredible opportunity that if you can look at ideas coming across cultures, you can often find sort of unexpected inspiration. And so there may be opportunities that come to you by having that global point of view. You may be aware of trends coming down the pike. Earlier on, I was talking to someone about one of the examples I gave in the book where I talk about, again, they an election that was very successful, very good news for the African continent, got very little attention in the US. And the person said, well, why did it matter? I said the simplest reason that it mattered is that, you know, had you invested in Ghana in 2000, you would’ve made a lot of money because we’ve seen a decade of sort of Africa rising. And so if you have a media perspective that doesn’t let you see that, you end up with some really interesting missed opportunities. And then the third is this idea of cognitive diversity. And it’s decided a lot of social psychologists have put forward that lots of problem solving seems to go better if you’re working with people who approach the problem in different ways. And while cognitive diversity doesn’t map one to one on to sort of socio economic or national diversity, they do tend to correlate. So if you’ve got a whole bunch of people in the room who all have the same background, that’s likely that many of them have the same approach to solving problems. 

At the end of the day, on a lot of problems, they’re going to get beaten by a team of people who can bring different ways of thinking to bear. 

And so I think there’s a real argument to be made that if we are isolating ourselves, if we’re only getting the people that we want to hear from, if we’re filtering out all the voices that we don’t want to hear, that we’re getting polarized, that we’re missing the big picture, that we’re missing opportunities, and that in many ways we may literally be making ourselves less intelligent or less creative than if we were getting that broader view. 

Let me remind listeners again that Ethan Zuckerman’s new book, Rewire, is available through our website Point of Inquiry Dawgs. Who can you give us a model? 

Cosmopolitan. You mean who’s modern? 

Because in the book, the one that stuck out the most for me was actually Picasso, because his art became better because he paid attention to African art. That’s not contemporary, but it certainly makes a lot of sense. And I guess it’s because I know because I’ve looked at Picasso’s and so it totally clicks for me. And there’s some some examples where somebody really succeeded by being cosmopolitan in this way. 

Sure. Well, let’s actually not run away from Picasso quite so fast. 

Right. So Picasso got really obsessed with African art and that African art. You can see the influence coming to his painting. You can see it basically as the roots of what we know now as cubism. 

But when Picasso started going to some of the museums in Paris that his friends were dragging him to saying, man, you got to see these these masks. 

He would write about sort of the terror and almost the horror he had in sort of encountering the art that was so different. 

So, you know, he he he wasn’t necessary. Sort of jumping into this with with both feet and going. This is great. Give me to influence his reaction was actually kind of one of fear and terror first. And I think that’s a good reassurance for people who find themselves looking for influences from other places that are totally overwhelmed by it at first. What’s fascinating is that Picasso went on really to be a true cosmopolitan. 

He had a lifelong friendship with Leopold Senghor, the founder of Senegal, a poet and a great man of letters. So that’s that’s an interesting thread to follow. 

You know, in contemporary days, a lot of the cosmopolitans that I encounter come from projects like Global Voices, which is a project that Rebecca MacKinnon and I started to try to recognize people who are bridge figures between cultures. And we found that a lot of people who got involved with blogging and citizen media early in the movement often were people who were trying to bridge between different cultures. They knew that most of the people reading online came from sort of a conventional American, North American, Western European culture. But they really wanted to share what was going on in their countries with the rest of the world. And so people who immediately come to mind, my friend I met, who made who is probably Jordan’s best designer and who is sort of obsessed with cutting edge design on a global scale, but writes on a blog called 360 East about design esthetics in the Middle East. And in the Jordanian world, Eric Hirschmann, who who’s one of the founders of Shahidi, the global mapping software company. Eric is American, actually former member of the U.S. Marines. But he was also born and raised in Kenya and now lives there. And he has an amazing connection to Nairobi culture and can really unpack sort of what’s going on in that country for global audiences. So these are people who are sort of walking between different worlds. They’ve got one foot in one world. They’ve got another foot, another world. And as a result, they can sort of dig in and share what’s going on and bring it to us globally. The last one really quick, Zain, up to Fashi. She is a Turkish academic. She teaches at the University of North Carolina. Right now, she’s probably the single best way to follow the Occupy Gezi protests because she she knows the ground. 

She knows the politics. She knows the language. She can unpack it for you. And because she’s a U.S. based social scientist, she’s using a lot of those lenses and frameworks to sort of open that up for us. 

So I think there’s a distinction here in terms of people who are listening, trying to make some of this useful to themselves between, on the one hand, broadening your mind so that you actually, you know, you consume more information and it makes you better in some way. 

There’s that which you’ve made the case that it’s valuable. I certainly don’t disagree. But then there’s how related is it to, you know, if you’re worried that your cause or your interest is stove piped? I mean, you know, you’re worried that you write let’s say you write for science blogs and only science aficionados read them and you want to reach a broader audience. So it’s not just improving your consumption anymore. It’s taking some set of ideas that’s stuck in a rut and in enlarging its audience. I mean, can you apply this to helping someone achieve that? 

Yeah, absolutely. I think some of the ideas apply whether we’re just cutting across subjects or whether we’re cutting across cultures. 

I end up sort of positing that there are three basic things that you have to do if you want to break out of some of the traps that we find ourselves, and I refer to these as homophily traps and homophily is a social science term used to mean our our tendency to flock together. The notion birds of a feather flock together. 

So if you feel like you’re you’re mostly flocking with scientists, there may be sort of three things to do. 

The third. 

The first one is literal translation in a lot of the work that we do with a group like Global Voices. The first thing we have to do is get into the same language. 

And, you know, while automated translation exists, it hasn’t reached the quality level of human translation. And unfortunately, one of the things the Net has also done really well is made it possible for humans to get together and translate text manually. If we’re talking about people sort of sharing ideas from one discipline to another, sometimes there isn’t a little bit of a literal translation. I think trying to figure out how to take an article and build glossaries around it. One of my students did something just brilliant this last semester. She took scientific articles and she used the online tool rap genius to annotate them and to sort of take terms that just weren’t going to be understandable to a general audience and sort of blow them up and bring them out in the same way that the tool was meant to be used to annotate rap lyrics. The second level of this is thinking about bridging and bridging is another form of translation. But it’s really a cultural translation. And it sort of says here are the assumptions that we were making when we had this conversation within our space. So if we were just talking about science, here are some of the assumptions that we made and maybe we need to make them explicit in working in another space. Or maybe we need to sort of say, let me invite you to sort of understand where we’re coming from and let me try to explain how this map might map onto where you’re coming from. So sort of a cultural translation. 

But the third, which may be the hardest, is thinking about discovery systems right now. I would argue we tend to find things through three ways. We find them through curators, whether that’s the editor of a newspaper or someone who assembles a broadcast or a podcast. We find them through search, which is great. But then we have our own biases of choice. We find them through social media. But that leads us to a lot of these homophily biases we’re hearing mostly from people like us. I’m suggesting that we may need a fourth mode of this, which is serendipity, that we may need much better tools that look at what we’re seeing and what we’re not seeing. And help us find unexpected discoveries. And I realized that that that sounds really hard to implement, but I think it may be easier than we think. I think it may be about building systems that become very aware of what we are and what we aren’t exposed to, and then trying to follow the threads that we’re interested in, in very different contexts. 

So it’s like a it’s like Google meets Pandor or something. I don’t know. It tells you, you know, people who are, you know, focus on this problem. They need more of this. And so it starts feeding it to you. 

I think it’s like Pandora. I think we need to go a step beyond that. 

So all the recommendation engines we have right now or the vast majority of them rely on the same basic sort of algorithms. 

And these algorithms as a whole are called collaborative filtering. The idea behind them is, hey, you and I both like the Beatles. I like the Rolling Stones. I bet you’ll like the Rolling Stones. And they can work reasonably well within certain domains. They start by getting your preferences. Then they find someone who looks similar to you and then they give you that person’s preferences. So one way we could play around with these algorithms is to say, can we find you someone who’s not exactly like you? Can we find you someone who has partial overlap with you but is different in some very specific ways? So if I were building an algorithm like this, I might say, hey, here’s someone who tweeted five of the same your rels that you did this week. But this person’s from Nigeria and they have access to a very different social circle and set of concerns than you might have. You have enough in common that you may be getting good recommendations, but this may add some diversity to use for recommendations. I think the other thing we can do is that we’ve been pretty frightened in going after quality metrics. So we tend to go after popularity. But one way to think about this is popularity and different audiences. 

One way to recommend is to say, hey, this is popular within your crowd and you’re reading mostly what’s popular within your crowd. Can we find you a crowd that is somewhat similar and somewhat dissimilar and show you what looks like high quality in that space? 

But I think there’s a lot of promising directions around this. We’re starting early work on a tool at the Media Lab called The Weekly Different, which looks to see what you tweet every week. 

It looks at the URLs you tweet and then it tries to find who tweeted the same mural’s. And then rather than matching you with that person, it tries to shift 10, 15, 20 degrees. Find someone with a little bit of overlap, but also a little bit of difference, and then look to see how their recommendations work out. 

Gosh, I love. I just love when geeks to feed all of our problems. You guys keep keep it off because I need, you know. 

So let’s let’s be really clear on that one. I don’t think the geeks are gonna defeat. OK, I’m exaggerating. No, no, I hear you. 

I just eat this book. For better or for worse, it is going to be seen as part of a debate between some very smart but very critical scholars, like getting Moris of who are arguing that we’re looking for too many of our solutions from technology and people who who may be putting forward very tech, techno centric solutions. My sense is that the reason at the end of the day that the Internet isn’t doing a terrific job of introducing us to people from other countries isn’t just the technology. 

It’s just that that’s a very basic human tendency. What I’m trying to argue in the book is that that may not be a real healthy tendency at this moment in time, and that if we wanted to try to correct for that natural tendency, one of the places where we could try to shift to this technology, which is very mutable and malleable. 

So I just want to be clear that I don’t think that all the answers are technological. 

I’m trying to recognize that a lot of these problems are really basically fundamentally human. But I think we’re missing an opportunity if we don’t look at this idea that we could, you know, build technology to try to make things better. 

I understand. It’s just that I come from the media. And so it’s a breath of fresh air. And there’s a point to me saying this is a breath of fresh air to encounter someone who always has like you, who has the well, let’s try this and, you know, build this and maybe this will fix it approach as opposed to the media world where we just don’t even. 

It’s too often that we don’t even bother thinking the kinds of thoughts you’re delivering right now. And so I guess a ski question here is that, you know, the old media still have a lot of power and a large audience. I mean, I know that they’ve been hobbled a great deal, but if they don’t change the way they behave, then ultimately a lot of people’s information stream is not going to be as diverse as you or I might like. I mean, it’s hard to see much change there, at least as I look at it. 

No, I think that’s absolutely right. And I actually think both parts of your statement are spot on. 

The more that I have studied the relationship between digital media and traditional media, the more that I realize the importance of broadcast media, whether that’s radio, whether it’s television, whether that’s a daily newspaper. But media where one person is speaking out to a very large audience, whatever agenda is set on those publications has an enormous amount of power for what we talk about. And I think that there’s all sorts of socioeconomic reasons why we’re getting less international news at the moment. I think that honestly, the fact that media organizations are better at seeing consumer behavior isn’t doing us a favor, which is to say that if all of us are gravitating towards the local, if we’re gravitating towards our local sports teams or, you know, crime in the neighborhood, we’re basically signaling to professional media outlets that we want less and less international. 

And so the question becomes, if you you buy my argument that, you know, for some of us or for all of us, that it may be dangerous for us to live in a world where our stuff comes from all over the place where threats come from, all over the place where opportunities come from, all over the place. And we’re not getting that deeply global perspective. We actually need to sort of take matters into our own hands and deal with it. That might be changing our own behavior. That might be building new tools, that might be lobbying media organizations to take this more seriously. 

Yeah, good luck. I don’t. 

I just did the reason I come to this perspective, which, you know, I really was saying, you know, I was really cheering and a couple points in your book is just it’s fortuitous. But, you know, I wrote a book about hurricanes in 2007. And so if you read a book about hurricanes, you see that they affect many parts of the world, not just the United States. And you quickly see that lots of people die in the developing world, whereas in the United States, for the most part, a couple exceptions, basically buildings and property get damaged. And then you see. But nevertheless, that’s what gets all the attention. And when, you know, thousands of people die in Madagascar, you never hear about it. 

No, that’s right. And so one of those questions becomes war. 

What would it take to get you to hear about Madagascar? And one is to say, if you know people who are in Madagascar, you have a much better chance of hearing about it. 

We have a lot of Malagasy. Folks who work on Global Voices, I tend to follow that reasonably closely, but that’s sort of what I talk to guys at Facebook about that. That’s sort of their theory of this somewhere in your social network. 

You will have someone from Madagascar and therefore you’ll hear about it. 

I think where I’m going in this book is to sort of say, well, if it’s important and if it’s something that might change your view of the world and maybe it forces you to rethink how you’re thinking about storms, maybe we need better information systems to help you stumble over it or help you discover something that I would say that I’m finding in my work right now. 

Maybe not so much in the book, but I hope building on it is the sense that I would love it if we found out about more issues where we could have influence. I think one of the things that drives people away from international news is the sense of, oh, that’s terrible. That’s really depressing and there’s nothing that I can do. And so I wonder if one of the things that we want to think about in all of this is how do we give people news and perspective that is somehow going to change them, whether it’s going to change their perspective or whether it’s going to give them a tangible thing that they could work on. 

Do. I wonder if that’s another thing that we have to think about in this equation? 

Well, I tell you, it’s it’s fascinating. And I just hope that either through the book or maybe through some of the things you’re building, I mean, that other people can learn to broaden their their focus because that’s definitely what this show is all about and what it supports. And so I just I want to thank you for everything that you do. 

Oh, thank you so much, Chris. And thanks for for featuring the book. And thanks for giving me a chance to talk. And, you know, look, the book is really it’s an invitation to people who find this an interesting problem to pick up a part of it and try to help me solve it. And I hope you’ll hear from listeners of your podcast who are interested in the book or we want to work together on some of these tools or I guess. 

I hope so, too. Ethan Zuckerman, thanks for being with us on Point of Inquiry. Great to be with you. Thanks so much for having me. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show, you can visit us at point of inquiry, dawg. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry, dawg. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

One of inquiry is produced by Atomize ICCJ and Emersed New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney