Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 25 Jun 13 08:44
Inkwell welcomes Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT's Media Lab. He's here to discuss his book, _Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection_, published this month by W.W. Norton. Publisher's Weekly calls _Rewire_ "fascinating and powerful reflection on what it means to be a citizen of the world in the Internet age." 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 at http://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. If you're not a member of the WELL, and want to participate in the conversation, just send your comment or question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 25 Jun 13 08:47
Ethan, thanks so much for joining us! Before we get to the book, could you expand on the evolution of your work from your days with Tripod, to Geekcorps, Global Voices, and your current work with MIT's Media Lab?
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Thu 27 Jun 13 09:08
Hey Jon - Thanks for having me. I'm a long-time fan and follower of The WELL from afar, and it's great to be here with you. As you noted, I've been experimenting with internet technology since the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, I was one of the early people involved with Tripod.com, one of the web's first social media sites. We let people host personal homepages and built tools to help them connect with one another, in a way that would look familiar to people who use LinkedIn or MySpace. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Tripod was discovering how many people from around the world used the service. In 1996, after the US and the UK, we had the most users in Malaysia. After a bit of research, I figured out that we were hosting many of the supporters of Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim, who wasn't able to get much coverage in Malaysian media so shared his message online instead. I thought that was a pretty fascinating way to use digital media for political speech, and started thinking about how the internet might change political and financial systems in other parts of the world. That led to my next two projects. Geekcorps was a volunteer corps that sent tech people from North America and Western Europe to work with tech startups in sub-Saharan Africa. That project got me fascinated with how little much of the world knows about Africa, and I started Global Voices (globalvoicesonline.org) with Rebecca MacKinnon, an international aggregator of blogs and citizen media that gives you perspectives on the world through the eyes, ears and voices of people in other nations. These days, I run the Center for Civic Media at MIT's Media Lab. My students and I study how media and social change influence work together, both by examining case studies (a recent one was a deep dive into online and broadcast media around the Trayvon Martin shooting) and by building new tools, including tools that help users monitor what online and broadcast media sources cover and don't cover.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 27 Jun 13 14:23
From your perspective, how has the Internet since it started getting mainstream adoption in the 90s?
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Thu 27 Jun 13 17:33
Jon, the major change has to be ubiquity. In the early 1990s, there was a sense that people online were "internet people", with a certain amount of technical knowledge and interest in networks. As we moved into the late 1990s, you couldn't make any assumptions about why anyone was online - large percentages of the population in the US and Europe were online. And then in the last decade, we've seen massive populations in the rest of the world, including the developing world come online. In those early days, there was a sense that you might be able to strike up a conversation with someone based around a common interest in networking, online life, etc. As the internet has become more ubiquitous, I think we're less likely to reach out to random individuals, and more likely to (re)connect with people we already know. Think of it this way - if you're the first person in Tuvalu on Facebook, all your friends are going to be non-Tuvalans. You'll be the most cosmopolitan guy on Facebook, with all your contacts in other countries. But as you introduce your friends and neighbors to Facebook, suddenly you're mostly friends with your fellow Tuvalans. I think that experience has happened to many of us who got online before the wave of mainstream adoption.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 27 Jun 13 18:05
Mentioning "the most cosmopolitan guy" brings us to your subtitle, "Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection." Who, and where, are the digital cosmopolitans?
Administrivia (jonl) Fri 28 Jun 13 09:14
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Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Sat 29 Jun 13 06:36
The digital cosmopolitans are the people who use the internet to make meaningful and helpful connections to people in other nations, languages and cultures. The core argument of the book is that it's helpful to build these connections, because it makes us more likely to see problems and opportunities that arise from global connection, and is likely to make us more creative and effective problemsolvers, leveraging cognitive diversity. But it's hard, because there's a tendency to use the internet to connect with the people and topics we already know about. Two groups of digital cosmopolitans are particularly interesting. Bridge figures connect two or more disparate communities. They are people who know two cultures well and can act as a broker between cultures - think of a Nigerian student in the US explaining his home country, or a foreign correspondent who's spent a long time in China and can report on China to a US audience. Xenophiles are not bridges, but people who want to cross those bridges - people who systematically seek out encounters across cultures.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 30 Jun 13 06:17
You and others (like Eli Pariser, who writes about a "filter bubble") express a concern about an echo chamber effect with the Internet, as you suggest in your first paragraph above. How is that effect baked into the structure of the Internet as it's evolved? What are some of its effects?
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Sun 30 Jun 13 17:33
Eli worries about filter bubbles, where algorithms make it difficult for you to access conflicting opinions. I worry more about echo chambers, where we surround ourselves with familiar opinions through a combination of choice and habit and hear few perspectives that contradict what we already believe. The internet makes it much easier to find what we want. For the most part, this is a good thing - we can explore topics in depth that we never would have bothered to pursue in a library, and we routinely get lost in discovery. But the ability to choose news and opinion content can have a powerfully isolating effect. The rise of search was a first step towards this sort of isolation, making it possible to find the content we wanted without much wandering. Personalization was a second step - once we told Google News what we wanted to know about and what we wanted to ignore, we removed ourselves from a good bit of random encounter. The personalization and recommendation algorithms Eli worries about are a third factor, and the rise of social media as a tool for recommendations is a fourth factor, as it is likely that our friends have a good bit in common with us, and are likely to recommend similar sources. The main fear of echo chambers, articulated by Cass Sunstein, is that they tend to polarize us. When liberals deliberate with other liberals, Sunstein finds, they become more extreme in their views - same for conservatives. He suggests that we need to exit echo chambers to maintain a functioning democracy. But I'm worried that there are other effects as well. It's worth remembering that echo chambers are three dimensional - we tend to get isolated not just in terms of left and right but in terms of us and them. We have a strong tendency to see the world from our national and local point of view, and here, the net effect may not be polarization so much as blind spots, an inability to see what's important and unfolding in other parts of the world because we're overfocused on what's important locally.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 30 Jun 13 21:24
Before the Internet appeared and evolved, when we had a very limited number of channels for news and information about the world, we depended on professional curators/editors to tell us what information was important, and to deliver just that information. Information delivery has been disintermediated, and at the same time the information channel has changed from a narrow dripping faucet to a firehose blast. Attention is limited and we may be focusing more of it on less authoritative and reliable sources, and also on the very process of information-gathering. We also increasingly build our world-view from randomized references in Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, to name a couple of popular sources. This means that our worldview is more of a patchwork, often built from less authoritative sources. Quite a mess, wondering how we sort it out? Meanwhile it's tough for news organizations to fund real journalism, in-depth reporting. You talk about ways to connect, build bridges, cultivate the emergence of digital cosmopolitans. How can we make them smart about the world they're in? How can we preserve the profession of journalism in this digital era?
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Mon 1 Jul 13 10:11
This is both the best of times and the worst of times for journalists. It's the worst of times because the revenue model for journalism in the US is broken. We had a very good run with ad supported journalism, and I think we are now reaching a point where relying on ad revenues to fund a critical public service is a bad idea. We need to take a close look at what other democracies do to support public media, and we need to consider models that don't just serve a well-educated elite that's willing to subscribe to high quality media, including charitable and public service models. But it's also the best of times, in that it's easier than it's ever been to feature the voices of real people in your stories. I think of a friend like Andy Carvin who's found new ways to cover events like the Arab Spring by listening to and amplifying voices through social media. Whether or not reporters can afford to travel to cover stories, there are almost always people on the ground reporting on what they see and experience and they provide richness and detail to stories that was absent in previous years. You're right to identify the challenge in curation and verification. When we can hear from dozens or hundreds of different sources, the challenge is deciding who we pay attention to and who we ignore. The heart of my argument in "Rewire" is that we need to think through those decisions carefully. Right now, we tend to pay disproportionate attention to wealthy nations (the long-standing bias of US media), to our friends and family (the bias of social media) and to topics we already think are important (the bias of search), and not enough attention to much of the world, to people culturally or politically distant from us, and to topics that may be emerging in importance. Not only do we need to find a way to continue paying for investigative reporting, we also need to find a way to pay curators for the work they do helping drive us towards unexpected but important stories. Some of these curators will be professional journalists, while others will be bridge figures who take on the job of curating what's important in their local conversations and sharing it with global audiences.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 1 Jul 13 17:42
Can you give some examples of "bridge figures" and how they work?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 5 Jul 13 05:22
As a consequence of the social media-catalyzed movement we call "Arab Spring," Mubarak of Egypt was out and the Islamist Morsi was elected. His administration bombed, and military's removed him. The Muslim Brotherhood appears to have lost all influence there. A question I and others had about the so-called Arab Spring was about its longer term effects. You can use social media to catalyze a revolution, but with revolutions the question is always "what next?" This reminds me of Steven Johnson's points about clustering vs coping in the Howard Dean campaign: once you've built a following (clustering), you have to manage and lead (coping). How might digital cosmopolitans address this problem in creating more participatory governance in the Middle East and elsewhere?
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Fri 5 Jul 13 07:23
On the topic of bridge figures: In the book, I talk about my friend Erik Hersman as a notable bridge figure. Erik is American, but born and raised in East Africa. He lives in Nairobi and has co-founded a number of key Kenyan tech institutions, including Ushahidi, iHub, the BRCK and Afrigadget, a fantastic blog that features hacking and technological innovation in Africa. He's deeply embedded in the global tech scene, so he understands how to talk about African innovation in a global context, but he also has a deep understanding of local culture in Kenya, which gives him access to sources and ideas that I don't have as an outsider. In general, bridge figures have roots in at least two worlds. They're often people who've in two cultures for a significant piece of their lives and who understand both cultures deeply, which allows them to broker ideas across cultural boundaries. On Egypt: There's still scholarly debate about the role of social media in catalyzing protests during the Arab Spring. I am comfortable pointing to the role of social media in the Tunisian Spring, where activists documented protests using social media, which when amplified by Al Jazeera, helped spread participation in demonstrations. (See http://dspace.mit.edu/openaccess-disseminate/1721.1/78899) In Egypt, social media likely had a mobilizing effect, but massive offline mobilization probably played a greater role. One way or another, we've seen online activism assert more influence in opposition to ideas than in proposing constructive alternatives. Think of the protests last year against SOPA/PIPA - activists were effective in making their outrage at proposed legislation known and felt, but attempts to create alternative legislation through online channels have been anemic and unsuccessful thus far. The Egyptian Spring ousted a government that had lost all public confidence. In the vacuum that resulted, the Muslim Brotherhood was the best organized party and was able to claim power. They, too, lost legitimacy and were ousted. The question now is whether anyone can claim and hold power or whether Egypt's new tradition of revolution is so strong that it will challenge anyone's hold. I don't have much confidence that the way forward for Egypt comes from online political deliberation. I suspect it comes from a much longer process in which people who've been active in ousting governments become the people involved and engaged in building governments.
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Fri 5 Jul 13 07:36
Responding specifically to your question about digital cosmopolitanism and participatory governance: I think the tensions in Egypt reflect just how difficult it is to get full representation in a diverse society. Many of the people who overthrew Mubarak weren't particularly excited about political Islam, or the Muslim Brotherhood. A more inclusive political structure would have given those secular Egyptians more of a voice post-Mubarak, and might have avoided the protests that ouster Morsi. One challenge for digital cosmopolitans is to avoid the dualities that characterize conventional politics. Egypt went from being pro/con-Mubarak to pro/con-Morsi. In truth, it needs a politics that recognizes tensions between those who support political islam, those who want a secular state, those who want strong protections for minority rights, those who see large or small roles for the military. It's a multipolar system, not a binary one. If digital cosmopolitanism can help us see multiple points of view on key global issues, then it's a helpful concept for situations like the Egyptian one. As far as what it advises for people building participatory governance, we need to start with the assumption that we have a politics that moves beyond dualism and supports multiple points of view. Then we need systems that help us understand and value those multiple perspectives.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Fri 5 Jul 13 08:02
"Then we need systems that help us understand and value those multiple perspectives." Ethan, what things are unique to digital platforms that might help in understanding and valuing multiple perspectives? Is there still more work to be done on that front, and is anyone doing it?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 5 Jul 13 13:02
That's a great question, Ted. Just want to add this thought: the problem of needing to be inclusive and respect minority views is crucial - and why I suggest that we avoid the term democracy, which is too broadly interpreted as "majority rule" - he who has the most votes, wins. What we hope for is a participatory consensus, which is what "democracy" is really about = everyone who's eligible participates equally. (That question of who's eligible is important, too.) In that sort of structure, compromise is inherent.
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Sat 6 Jul 13 17:39
Ted, I think there's tons to be done on that point. There's a strong tendency, at least in US media, to assume two sides to any story. In part, that's a convenient convention - in the days when the "fairness doctrine" ruled American airwaves, a station could be in compliance by making sure a second opinion followed a strongly expressed opinion. We've lost the requirement but kept the formula - we see a lot of terrible television journalism that shows two sides disagreeing on an issue and goes no further. One potential the internet gives us is a much larger "shelf space" - we're freed of some of the time constraints that govern broadcast media and can explore many more perspectives than a simple duality. We might start by looking into an issue and casting as wide a net as possible, then curating clusters of responses or proposals. Many of the systems I'm considering try to avoid the notion of "sides of an issue" altogether - they don't try to identify people on the left and the right and try to feed each the other side's links. Instead, they identify people as the product of the pages they've read and recommended and then try to move them towards highly-ranked links outside their community of practice. We don't need to label one pile "conservatives" or "liberals" or even "Americans" and "Nigerians" - we can simply say "Here's content that other people, who've got some things in common with you, are finding interesting and which you're very unlikely to find on your own." I think it's also not purely a technical issue. I suspect that valuing perspectives has to do with respect for people articulating those perspectives. One of the reasons I find Twitter such a useful source of links is that I'm able to follow people like Howard French, a journalist I respect deeply on issues of China and Africa. When Howard expresses an opinion or offers a reading suggestion, I take it very seriously. I'd like to find a way to identify those bridges and curators who could introduce people to topics they'd like to be more knowledgeable about.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 7 Jul 13 08:26
Ethan, in your next to last paragraph above, you seem to describe an existing app - does that app exists, or is your description aspirational? Also re identifying bridges and curators: if you had an algorithm that could identify them, what would the next step be?
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Mon 8 Jul 13 10:44
The description is aspirational, Jon - we're in the early stages of working on a product called "The Weekly Different". The idea behind Weekly Different is that it will monitor your Twitter behavior, probably by following the links you post, then match you to people who have similar, or dissimilar behaviors. We should be able to calculate degrees of similarity and we'd want to test and see whether people prefer getting news from people who are significantly dissimilar. Our hypothesis is that some level of dissimilarity is helpful for discovery and that the level of discomfort/risk needs to be counterbalanced with those benefits. Another possible input into Weekly Different is information on where you are, and where your followers are, using geoinformation from Twitter. We might look for someone who's recommending very similar stories, but comes from a very different place, perhaps helping you find someone with common interests and a different context. We might be able to use that information to identify people likely to be bridge ties in networks - people who have lots of ties to people in two largely disconnected communities. There's a difference between bridge ties and bridge figures - bridge figures make a decision to broker information between cultures. But bridge ties are a great place to look for bridge figures. If we had a good algorithm for identifying bridge figures, we could start building indexes and directories of them. I can imagine a very different sort of discovery engine that tries to connect you to someone who's knowledgeable and passionate about a community and likely to be able to connect with you on the topic.
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 8 Jul 13 11:06
Out of curiosity -- do you think it's likely that is something the NSA can do -- or could learn to do -- with phone and email interaction records? Would that provide insight into people who might leak/inform/spy?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Tue 9 Jul 13 07:21
Ethan, anything you wish you had added to your book, or new reflections having written it?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 9 Jul 13 09:44
Interesting data point: http://www.thenetworkthinkers.com/2012/10/2012-political-book-network.html Valdis Krebs has been analyzing book purchases using data from Amazon, algorithmically determining political leanings of purchasers and determining which books were bought on the left vs the right, also looking at the overlap, if any. The resulting clusters suggest how polarized we are (or, at least, how polarized Amazon's customers are). In 2012 he saw a greater number of books being read by both clusters, thought the polarization is still evident. Could those authors be seen is bridge figures?
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Tue 9 Jul 13 12:28
Gail, I think the NSA likely has enough data that they could do a very good job of identifying bridge figures in networks - if the level of government surveillance we're experiencing didn't deeply anger me, I'd consider asking them if we could license the data. :-) I don't think they're going to have a ton of luck using this data to identify spies. I've done some work with very large data sets. It's hard to build an algorithm that detects something that's very rare - you're basically trying to train an algorithm based on very few data points. I expect that whistleblowers and leakers are so rare that it's difficult to detect characteristics that they have in common and few others have, though I could certainly be wrong.
Ethan Zuckerman (ethanzrewire) Tue 9 Jul 13 12:35
Ted, I'm about to write something for my blog responding to a thoughtful, critical review of my book in Book Forum by Astra Taylor. (http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/020_02/11685) She rightly points out that I'm far too easy on internet companies and probably place too much trust in them to take on the problems I'm identifying. Ultimately, I end up arguing that we need risk to overcome homophily. She points out that internet companies, which depend on advertising, don't want risk. Neither does Netflix, which wants to make you happy by giving you movies it safely predicts you'll like (perhaps at the expense of movies you'll love.) I wrote the book in the hopes of persuading people in the tech community to join me in caring about these issues, and I think I probably wasn't critical enough of the corrosive role of advertising in making the internet safe and relatively unexciting. I tried not to pick a fight with Evgeny Morozov and others who are arguing that people turn too often to technology to solve social problems - I tried to make the case that technology was often problematic and doesn't automatically address issues of diversity, but argue that we need to see technology as political and strive to make it embody the politics we aspire to. I suspect there's no ducking that fight, and I probably should have made a stronger case for intervening using technology. It's not that information technology is the best solution to all problems - it's that our software is so protean that we can experiment quickly and at low cost to try to find directions worth exploring that it seems foolish to dismiss the idea that we might accomplish change through code.
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