By Ethan Zuckerman. W.W. Norton, 288 pp, hardcover
With the near-total domination the Internet and social media in particular enjoy in our lives, it’s easy to draw some faulty conclusions. We tend to believe, understandably, that we’re growing more cosmopolitan, that we’re becoming increasingly familiar with distant lands and unfamiliar world-views. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the reality, according to Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and author of the new book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.
Zuckerman dispels some of the more optimistic assumptions about the power of the Internet. “[W]hile it’s easier than ever to share information and perspectives from different parts of the world,” he writes in the book, “we may now often encounter a narrower picture of the world than in less connected days.”
The Project for Excellence in Journalism revealed in a 2005 report that front-page coverage of foreign affairs fell from 27 percent to 14 percent for 16 major U.S. newspapers between 1977 and 2004. Zuckerman points out that 94 percent of page views by U.S. Internet users are of American websites.
Though the Internet has decentralized media and made it more likely that alternative voices might build a stage, it’s actually led to many of us merely seeking out sources we already agree with. Our cosmopolitanism is greatly exaggerated. The belief that we’re more informed about unusual and counterintuitive ideas is little more than “imaginary cosmopolitanism”, according to Zuckerman.
So he calls on us to experiment and explore new sources of information. Zuckerman approvingly identifies “bridge figures”, people who have lived long periods of time in two cultures, interpreting one to members of the other, and xenophiles, people like Zuckerman himself, who are interested in other cultures and are likely to spot the relevant bridge figures and amplify their voices.
Throughout the book, he consistently looks to those kinds of people and to the rest of us, as individuals, to “rewire” the Internet and familiarize ourselves with cultures and bodies of knowledge just off our collective radar. It’s almost a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy—emboldening and inspiring, yet naive about the forces severing the connections in the first place.
This very problem is raised by Robert W. McChesney in his illuminating Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. McChesney emphasizes the importance of looking at the Internet in the context of our political economy. “The ways capitalism works and does not work,” he writes, “determine the role the Internet might play in society.” Zuckerman discusses Netflix’s great supply of foreign content and the fact that we nevertheless largely choose to ignore it. Yet, the fact is that Netflix operates on recommendations, and those suggestions will, if Netflix wants to continue making money, always be cautious and risk-averse about recommending content customers might not enjoy (i.e. foreign content).
The impression we’re left with is that Zuckerman’s book underscores individual efforts and responsibility to make new connections at the expense of analyzing the economic institutions and incentives that rupture those connections in the first place.