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MIT’s Zuckerman On Building A More Cosmopolitan Internet

BOSTON — The Internet was supposed to forge connection, make the world smaller.

But Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, argues in his new book, “Rewire: Digital Cosmpolitans in the Age of Connection,” that the Web has not lived up to its promise.

A redesign, he argues, may be required.

Zuckerman appeared on WBUR’s Radio Boston last month. And this week, I caught up with him for a Q&A of my own. The interview is edited and condensed.

David Scharfenberg: The Internet held out hope for a more connected, cosmopolitan world. You argue it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Why now?

Ethan Zuckerman: The Internet’s done many things to help us connect with one another simultaneously. It’s lowered the cost of creating content. That’s perhaps the most powerful change we’ve seen. You have everybody tweeting, everybody blogging, everybody Facebooking. And we’re suddenly left with the problem of information explosion. And so what we’ve seen an enormous amount of work on lately is the question of how do we build filters, how do we decide what it is we should be paying attention to online? And a lot of the filters have been built with the presumption that we want to pay attention to what’s local and to what affects our friends and family.

This may be a moment in time where it’s very important to be paying attention to issues at a global scale. It might be a moment in time when there are moral or ethical or even practical and economic reasons to be paying a lot of attention to Syria, or a lot of attention to China. But that requires us to make a cognitive stretch that we tend not to do naturally.

And so really, all the book is trying to point out is that the Internet doesn’t automatically lead to this wonderful cosmopolitan future. You would have to make a conscious effort, either as a user of the Internet or a builder of these Internet tools.

But how much of this parochialism is tied to our limited capacity to absorb news?

It’s an interesting question. I don’t know that the human capacity to absorb news has ever been particularly rigorously tested.

It turns out that creating news is pretty expensive. It’s pretty easy to report on sports or celebrity, because in some ways they cover themselves. Whereas when you’re covering something that doesn’t want to be covered, like investigative journalism, it requires a good bit of a lift.

So I don’t know that we’ve ever had journalism that fully challenges us and says: Here’s everything that you might want to know about the world, how much of it are you actually able to pay attention to?

Tell me about the design of the Internet and how it might be encouraging our parochial habits?

I would say that it’s really the design of discovery systems: curation, search and social.

In curation, someone like The New York Times — or a new curator like a Maria Popova of Brain Pickings — says, “Here’s what I think is important today. I’ve gone out and looked at a fairly wide set of what’s out there, and here’s what I’m going to feature.” Curators are great, but they’re inherently biased. Curators are always making an editorial decision. Those biases have really big implications. If The New York Times is systemically bad at doing Africa, you’re not going to get a lot of Africa.

The second way people discover new content is through search. And search has a really straightforward bias, which is your interests. We unconsciously tend to look for stories about people like us. We look for stories on our existing interests.

And then social has this tendency to really amp up these biases. In social, we basically say, “OK, we get it, the Internet is very good at telling us more about what we’re interested in. But we need mechanisms to discover things that we didn’t know we wanted to know.” The way we’ve gone about solving this is to say, “Well, let me figure out what my friends know, because my friends will have information that I don’t know. But being that my friends tend to be like me, I’m likely to want to know what they know.” And the danger of this is that it turns into its own echo chamber.

So I felt that some of the great potential of the Internet, to introduce us to people and ideas that we probably would not have discovered otherwise, are getting counterbalanced by these tools that work so hard to say, “Here’s something that I know that you’re going to be interested in.”

We end up possibly putting ourselves in a situation where we have less discovery of novel and important news than we did in a pre-digital age.

So let me get to a solution. You talk about something called “designed serendipity.” 

Engineering serendipity is this idea that we can help people come across unexpected but helpful connections at a better than random rate. And in some ways it’s based on trying to reassess this notion of serendipitous as lucky — to think of serendipitous as smart.

There are two ways of looking at [Alexander] Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. You can either say, “Man, that guy had an incredibly lucky break. Wasn’t it fantastic that a little bit of penicillium found its way into his petri dish?” But the other way to look at it is to say, “Well, he did have a lot of petri dishes full of bacteria sitting out there. He wasn’t necessarily looking for an antibiotic, but he was certainly thinking about the field. He was ready for an outside inspiration. [And] out of all the different places that penicillium mold spore land, he was someone who was sort of able to run with that inspiration and take it in different directions.”

So I want to take this idea of serendipity and essentially say that serendipity is a product of being prepared for that unexpected discovery, being willing to run with it and then sort of opening yourself to that influence.

And I think that the way that we get there is by helping people discover the ruts that they’re in and how they might get out of them.

Say I’m interested in questions of inequality and I’m looking at them within this particular circle of people in the United States and these particular sources. Is there a way of looking at who I’m paying attention to and who I’m reading — an algorithm can say, “Well, that’s great. I see that you are looking at this topic, but you’re not getting any ideas or inspirations from these communities that are pretty distant from you on the social graph, but might be talking about the same thing.”

You also suggest there are people who can bridge cultures. Who are they and what can we learn from them?

I talk a lot about the notion of the bridge figure. And this is work that has come out of the project that we’ve done called “Global Voices.” About eight years and change ago, my colleague Rebecca MacKinnon and I got interested in this idea that we were finding all sorts of wonderful, inspiring content from bloggers in the countries that we study — she studies China, I study sub-Saharan Africa, particularly West Africa. And we were finding all these amazing stories and we said, “Geez, if we just start sharing these blogs, people will have this very human, very on-the-ground connection to stories in this area.” And we started sharing these stories and we discovered that we were flat-out wrong.

Someone who is really interesting to me, as someone who knows Nigerian and Nigerian politics pretty well, is probably incomprehensible to the average American — even the average, fairly well educated American. That post from someone in Nigeria requires quite a bit of cultural translation to get to the point where it’s legible to a different audience. And the people who are capable of doing that kind of cultural translation are called bridge figures — they’re people who have backgrounds in two or more different cultures. So it might be a Nigerian who’s spent a bunch of time studying abroad in the United States. It might be an American who is working on the ground for years at a time in Nigeria.

In the book, I talk about bridge figures as being an essential component to any sort of system for discovering a wider view of the world. Trying to figure out how we identify these people, trying to figure out how we amplify them and help them reach broader audiences is a big piece of it.

Another big piece is this idea of the xenophile — the idea that most of us are not sufficiently rooted in multiple cultures that we can take on that bridging role, but we can affirmatively say, “I think there is a lot to be learned, so I’m going to actively go out and look for people who can help explain Nigeria to me, who can help explain China to me, and I’m going to put myself out there as an audience and an amplifier for those folks, so that I can find ways of diversifying my inputs and helping the people that are paying attention to me diversify their inputs.”

Part of this starts with recognizing that we’re at this moment in time where almost all of us, to one extent or another, are nodes in a media ecosystem. You’re a big node as someone who is writing for a broadcast publication, but many of us are small amplifiers even to just the 150 folks that are following us on Twitter.

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