Digital Cosmpolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part One)

Ethan Zuckerman is one of the big thinkers, and doers who consistently inspires me. His Wikipedia entry identifies him as “an American media scholar, blogger, and internet activist.” All of this is true, but that’s just part of the picture. He’s also someone who consults regularly with major foundations, think tanks, NGOs, and policy-makers, as they try to understand the potentials, and risks, of networked computing. As the founder of GeekCorps and Global Voices, he’s put his geeky skills to work to try to change the problems which worry him the most about our contemporary culture. He’s someone who has a formed a network of other bloggers and digital activists around the world, and someone who travels often to parts of the planet that most of us could not point out on a map, in order to better understand the political, cultural, and technological conditions on the ground there. He’s become one of our best thinkers about “digital age civics” and through his work as the Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, he’s leading a team of graduate students as they seek to design tools which might empower activists and community leaders to be more effective at fostering social change. He does this while remaining mild-mannered, easy-going, modest, and open-minded, a model for what an engaged public intellectual might look like in the 21st century. I am lucky to be able to call him a friend.
Last year, he published an important and timely book, Rewired: Digital Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Connection, which should be required reading for all Americans. Zuckerman is asking us to think more deeply about how we learn about the world and whether our access to the WORLD Wide Web has done much to change the parochialism within our culture. Here, he draws on the full range of his experiences to bring us face to face with the blind spots in our information consumption, with the challenges in overcoming isolationist and xenophobic tendencies in our society, but also to propose alternative strategies by which some people are becoming “bridge builders” who embrace diversity and insure that we have greater access to alternative  perspectives. Zuckerman understands the complexities and contradictions of our current moment, adopting a position that is sometimes optimistic, somethings skeptical, but always feels  is in the service of building a better society.
In the interview that follows, Zuckerman spells out some of the core concepts from Rewired, including some consideration of what the book might have to say to fans, journalists, educators, and other citizens.
Much of the media discussion around the Arab Spring movements has centered on the fantasy of more person-to-person communications across borders via social media rather than through the more formal relations between nations or the mediated communications of traditional journalism. Why has this fantasy of a “Twitter Revolution” proven so compelling to people when their everyday practices often involve relatively limited communications outside of their immediate circles of friends and families?
 
Like many compelling fantasies, the Twitter Revolution myth has some roots in fact. Tunisia’s revolution had a strong media component. Protests in Sidi Bouzid would likely have been invisible to the rest of Tunisia and the rest of the world had they not been documented on Facebook, edited and contextualized by Nawaat.org and amplified by Al Jazeera. And there are deep ties between activists in Tunisia and in Egypt that helped spread ideology and tactics of those revolutions via social media. But any account of the Arab Spring that doesn’t focus on existing labor movements, soccer fanclubs, neighborhood organizations and other forms of offline social organizing misses the point.
 
I think Twitter revolutions are such a compelling idea because they allow us to inscribe ourselves on global events. If digital media is the key actor in a political event, and we’re participating by amplifying tweets online, we are part of the revolution, an exciting and compelling prospect. And there are times when this, too, is true – if an event is visible locally and invisible globally, and we take responsibility for translating and amplifying it, leading to global coverage, we might, in fact, share some credit for changing circumstances on the ground.
 
But this ability to be a participant in a minor way in a global event tends to blind us to our more ordinary use of these media. Very few of us are Andy Carvin, using our online presence to curate digital media and connect our readers to global events. Our use of these tools tends to be about connecting with friends and interests that are far closer to home. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – it’s fine for social media to be a tool that connects us locally if we have other media that informs and connects us globally. What strikes me as dangerous is the illusion of connection, the compelling idea that we are encountering global perspectives via digital media when we’re mostly reinforcing local ones.
 
You write, “[New Media] tools help us to discover what we want to know, but they’re not very powerful in helping us discover what we might need to know.” This seems to be a central theme of the book, that we have opened up new channels of communication which might allow us to connect with others around the world, but that our use of those tools has been limited by a lack of motivation or understanding. We seek out information only about those topics we already care about, and a large part of the world falls outside of that zone of interests. What are some of the signs that our interest in the world is more limited than our technological reach at the present time?
 
 I think the main reminder is sense of surprise that pervades much of modern life. The Arab Spring was a surprise, but only up to a point. For those few watching Tunisian social media, it became clear pretty quickly that something deeply unusual and transformative was taking place. At Global Voices, we were able to see the protests unfolding weeks before they received attention in mainstream American media. There’s a strong tendency in our contemporary media environment to pay attention to stories only when they’ve reached a crisis point – we’re always arriving in the fourth act, and we never stay through the denoument. It’s possible to imagine a form of media that’s scanning the horizons and giving us a better sense of what’s coming, not what’s already arrived.
 
I think a second reminder is our ability to turn on global networks at moments of crisis. The global response to SARS was quite amazing – within a week of identifying a new syndrome, the WHO had global videoconferences that allowed frontline medical personnel to identify symptoms and jointly diagnose new cases. Once those networks were set up, the spread of the disease slowed dramatically. When we need international connection, we’re capable of bringing it about very quickly.
 
One of the reasons the book has been challenging to describe is that this question you’re asking -what are we missing when we’re so tightly attached to local media – is a really hard one to answer. I tend to understand it in personal terms. I follow African media, particularly west African media, quite closely, due to my long personal ties to the region, and as a result, I see stories well in advance of their visibility in broader media. And while that sounds self-congratulatory, patting myself on the back for my global vision, the actual experience is more anxiety-producing, because it’s a perpetual reminder of how much there is to know and discover. The little I know about Nigerian politics that most Americans don’t is a perpetual reminder of how much else is going on in the world, and how little we encounter until it manifests as a crisis or emergency.
 
What roles does the news media play in shaping what we care about and conversely, to what degree does our lack of concern or interest impact what the news media is prepared to cover?
 

I think this relationship between caring and coverage matters much more than it did a generation ago. Newspapers include stories on a wide range of topics, local, national and international. Until recently, our sense for what readers wanted to hear about came from newsstand sales and letters to the editor, very inexact tools for understanding which stories were being read and which were being ignored. Now we have incredibly granular information, that shows interest on a story by story level, including readership and time spent per reader per article. Publishers are acutely aware of these statistics, and more editors and writers are becoming aware of these figures. It becomes harder and harder for authors to report on stories that don’t already have an audience, as there’s a very strong temptation to write what people want to hear, as they will reward you with their attention.

 
This becomes a circular equation, because people need help developing an interest in new topics. A fascinating story isn’t immediately apparent or comprehensible to an audience. Take the mortgage crisis a few years back – most coverage focused on the moment to moment details, featuring stories that were comprehensible to financial professionals and few others. This American Life made a major investment – an hour-long story called The Giant Pool of Money – that helped audiences understand the crisis and become better consumers of future stories on the crisis. If we wanted people to pay attention to protests in Sudan (people beyond those of us who are already watching those protests), we’d need to invest time, energy and reader attention in explaining the context and importance… and we’d be gambling that we were able to create an audience for that story in the future. 
 
The net result of this cycle, I fear, is that we get an enormous amount of information on stories we “know” are important – the minutia of US federal elections and the machinations of Congress  – and very little information on parts of the world we know little about, care little about, and care little about because we hear little about.
 
I’ve often thought that there might be a need to shift from a focus on international news (news about things happening elsewhere on the planet) to global news (news that shows the connections between distant events and people in our own communities.) Would such an approach help resolve the gaps you are describing here? Why or why not?
 
I think we’d gain a great deal from journalism that helped contextualize global events in local terms. The best newspapers and broadcasters have historically tried to do this – one of the losses we experience  when local newspapers cut international bureaus is the connection between global stories and local communities. 
We need something broader, I suspect, as not every event in Myanmar has an immediate local connection. Sometimes we need heroes and heroines – think of Malala in Pakistan and the ways in which her story has been a window into gender and educational issues in that part of the world. While we can go too far and turn a story about issues into a story about a single person, we often benefit from stories that let us feel like we know and care about an individual in another country or culture.
 
I think we also need to learn how to tell stories that look at local facets of global issues. A story like climate change is critically important, but extremely difficult to report. We might benefit from an approach to reporting that showed us the implications for different people in different communities, interweaving personal stories with the science and politics of the issues.
 
Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.