Rewire: finding new ways to engage with the world

photo by Alessio Jacona

Ethan Zuckerman would like to shatter your illusions about how cosmopolitan you imagine yourself to be in our digitally connected world. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunities the Internet offers to increase our awareness of other countries, his research has shown that “the abundance of choice on the net means we end up in echo chambers”, which instead of making us more cosmopolitan, “only reinforces our view of the world.”

One could say that the flow of influence has been skewed, with global culture focused on disseminating Western culture and consumerism to young people in other parts of the world, rather than the other way around. In many ways the new digital cosmopolitans are in those other parts of the world, not in Europe and North America. They are also using the greater connectivity we now have  to build stronger links among themselves. A teenager in Tehran can be just as obsessed with Korean popular culture as one in Seoul or Perugia and that provides common reference points between them.

“The truth is, where the Internet is probably most important right now is for diasporan populations. So if you’re a Nigerian living in the United States, the Internet is incredibly powerful as a channel for keeping one foot in Nigeria.”

“What I’m hoping is that these channels will start opening in both directions which is to say that the Nigerian living in New York becomes a way to help New Yorkers understand Nigeria.”

At his talk at the festival, he spoke about the need for bridge figures such as Amira Al Hussaini of Global Voices, a worldwide collective of bloggers that Zuckerman co-founded. He stressed how figures like Al Hussaini, “who is our Bahraini Middle East editor, based in Manama but has lived and studied in the UK and so has a deep understanding of global culture to put context around [the Arab Spring],” need to become more visible in the mainstream media. They give a unique and more local perspective on international stories and rather than from “someone like me who’s an approachable American,” explained Zuckerman.

“It’s not a good thing if I become the guy that you talk to about Ghana despite the fact that I’ve lived in Ghana. I would much rather get Mac-Jordan who’s our Ghana author and blogger in there. What’s funny of course is that if it was twenty years ago, you’d get some guy from the State Department who’d been to Ghana once and he’d be your Ghana expert.”

“This is the sort of project we’ve been involved with for ten years with Global Voices, looking for people who are these bridge figures and essentially saying can you help us bridge between these cultures, because for me in the long term if we really want to have representative global solutions to global problems, we’re going to need to have people from around the world sharing thoughts and opinions.”

Initiatives like Global Voices have been successful in increasing the supply of multiple perspectives, but there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in audience demand, which is where Zuckerman’s new book “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection comes in.

“The argument behind the book in many ways was: we need to think about making people’s echo chambers visible to themselves. If we could make it easier to say you’re really only seeing this from one perspective or one point of view, then maybe people make the decision change that.”

So is he the cyber-utopian some have accused him of being?

“In no way am I making the argument that the Internet will magically make us wiser, more knowledgeable, more cosmopolitan, in fact the book argues the opposite.”

“It argues that it’s much easier for something like Kony 2012, which may have been well meaning, but was deeply misleading about the current situation in Northern Uganda and the Central African Republic. It’s easier for that to spread because your ill-informed friends spread it to other ill-informed friends.”

“There are big aspects of both old and new media right now that are pretty much unfair. We end up with pictures of nations that are simply wrong and simply exaggerated and the good news is that we can use the same media to stand up and call that out.”

“I think we can find ways to build tools to make that better and easier.”

Zuckerman and his team of graduate students has been working on a range of tools to help individuals and news organisations monitor their own biases. One such tool being developed by his graduate students, FollowBias, allows individuals to check for gender bias in who they follow on Twitter. Terra Incognita, another, monitors what news sites people visit on the Chrome web browser and first tells them what parts of the world they are currently focused on and then suggests alternatives.

“I have a handful of grad students and a small lab. We’re not necessarily going to change the world with the software we write but these are ideas that if they influence people at Google, at Facebook, if they influence the next generation of web developers in Nairobi right now, maybe we’ll start getting something very different coming out of this.”

Adeola Eribake