JULY 12, 2013
NINETY PERCENT OF EVERYTHING may be crap — as the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon discovered in his famous “revelation” of 1958 — but what sort of crap, exactly? What are its peculiar qualities? Most of the numerous popular technology books churned out each year, many of which feel like PowerPoint presentations padded out to 250-plus pages, are guilty of the same offenses. Like a muddied color palette, the individual qualities of the books in this genre tend to run together, losing any sense of distinction. They usually promise some vision of a future that will never come to pass but is dramatic enough (in either a utopian or apocalyptic sense) to flatter the vanity of its readers. Light on research and well-stocked with opinion and dinner-party anecdotes, these books, with names like The New Digital Age and Who Owns the Future?, explain that we live in momentous times; they tell us that the internet is changing everything, and that we must respond accordingly by becoming more like the internet itself: non-hierarchical, well-connected, global in our reach. They draw on the writers’ experiences consulting and working for large technology firms, but even when expressing dissatisfaction with the state of the tech industry, individual companies rarely come in for specific criticism (in part because Silicon Valley is a highly mobile industry; today’s competitor might be tomorrow’s collaborator). Rather, some hazy lack of “innovation” or “ambition” is blamed, and the perpetual punching bag of government receives its ritual beating. Although such books frequently consider issues that have political dimensions, realpolitik is brushed off in favor of a denuded liberalism spouted from a privileged corporate perch. In the cyberutopian future, such concerns will be incidental. Don’t let the vicissitudes of reality stand in the way of a good prophecy.
Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection seems like a reaction to these books, an effort to avoid their errors, though at times it skirts perilously close to their territory. Zuckerman is a media scholar and the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media as well as an entrepreneur. He was an early employee of Tripod.com, which began as an online publication and later became a web hosting platform in the vein of Geocities. His many other affiliations include membership on the boards of the Wikimedia Foundation and the open-source mapping company Ushahidi, and he is also a founder of the blogging and citizen journalism network Global Voices. He’s lived in Ghana, and for years he has kept a hand in that country’s development (his personal website is called “My Heart’s in Accra”), working with various NGOs on programming and technology projects. In short, Zuckerman’s CV reflects someone concerned with how technology can improve standards of living and give voice to cultures and communities who may be otherwise marginalized.
Zuckerman’s book, his first, is a continuation of that laudable effort. He’s excited by the possibilities the web provides for exposing isolated communities to the world, for making Americans more tolerant and culturally literate, and for connecting far-flung populations. The internet can, in his view, help make us all into digital cosmopolitans, xenophiles sampling the world’s cultures while recognizing each one’s unique value. At the same time, he’s conscious of how “cyberutopianism” can undercut these possibilities, though he takes issue with the term itself, which, he says, “is an uncomfortable label because it combines two ideas worthy of careful consideration into a single indefensible package.”
One of Zuckerman’s concerns is that we have become parochial in our consumption of media and culture: that we are suffering from some form of what the internet CEO and activist Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble.” Zuckerman points to studies showing that most US media outlets publish fewer international stories than they did in the 1970s. He also tracks his own browsing habits and finds that, though he calls himself an Afrophile and often visits Ghana, he spends his time in the US mostly reading local news and mucking around online. We may aspire to be global citizens, but in practice, our attentions remain stubbornly local.
In illustrating the folly of this situation, Zuckerman brings up “Innocence of Muslims,” the atrocious YouTube video that attacked the prophet Muhammad and led to riots in some Muslim-majority nations. Zuckerman correctly points out that the video was a hateful, amateurish production that unfortunately went viral after finding an amplifier in the Islamophobic pastor Terry Jones. It could’ve easily disappeared without notice (until Jones found it, it had). And while much of the media coverage focused on the violence that the video incited, less attention was paid to some more salutary repercussions, such as the thousands of Benghazi citizens who marched to protest the attack on the US consulate there. The US media was part of the problem, Zuckerman claims, as when Newsweek published an inflammatory cover of a Muslim crowd with the bold-faced title of “Muslim Rage,” and then encouraged readers to tweet under the hashtag #MuslimRage. When many Muslim users took to Twitter with satirical remarks (“3-hour lecture tomorrow at 8 am. Why. #MuslimRage”), they were “trying to fight a simplistic narrative that obscures the larger transformation taking place in the Middle East.”
This sort of media coverage, according to Zuckerman, “suggests we’re getting a distorted picture of the world. This limited view, attuned to some narratives and not to others, makes it hard to anticipate and understand major shifts like the Arab Spring.” Fair enough, and Zuckerman’s heart is in the right place, but his treatment of these events is itself rather distorted. The #MuslimRage debacle wasn’t the result of some vague “we” on the receiving end of a “distorted picture of the world.” It was the consequence of lazy, racist journalists trying to provoke their audience — “trolling,” in the rather exhausted parlance of the times — in order to sell copies of a failing news magazine. In other words, these were the actions of real human beings, who should be held accountable, just as violent protesters or hateful Florida pastors would be.
Yet in Zuckerman’s account of the affair, a moral problem of people and behaviors becomes a technical problem of the internet and associated technologies. Agency and responsibility fade away; filter bubbles and networks that haven’t been “rewired” for the modern, globalized world take all the blame. “We need to move towards a physics of connection,” Zuckerman writes, in order to produce “an understanding of what’s necessary to build real and lasting connections in digital space.” New technologies and practices might help create this better informed world, but some rather basic intellectual honesty — practiced by journalists and readers alike — would also go a long way.
Continuing the theme, Zuckerman laments that Fiji Water’s attempt to “go green” — no easy feat for a company that manufactures plastic bottles of water and sends them around the world on container ships — received more news coverage in 2007 than political upheavals in Fiji (the country). He remarks, quite rightly, that “we are increasingly dependent on goods and services from other parts of the world, and less informed about the people and cultures who produce them.” But should we know more about Fijian culture and politics or, in this case, about the water company’s practices in Fiji, where it’s paid minimal taxes and cozied up to the military regime? And perhaps we should also know that the company has been sued for “greenwashing” its environmental credentials: it achieved its carbon negative label by essentially giving itself credit for trees it plans to plant between 2007 and 2037. Zuckerman leaves out these details, but they strike me as worth including, not least for their connection to Fijian politics.
The thumbnail sketches in Rewire sometimes exchange such complications for a simple narrative binary; in this case, the poles of politics and consumerism actually have much to do with one another. “Fiji Water is apparently more mobile than Fijian news,” Zuckerman notes, a bit forlornly. But perhaps they simply have a better publicist, or some editors decided that readers are more interested in news about a popular brand of water than they are the troubles of a distant, tiny nation? The latter interpretation does not mean we have to accept that the choices news organizations made were the right ones — to the contrary — but it does at least offer a grounded explanation, one that considers the human actors involved and the competing priorities of media organizations. Zuckerman, instead, speaks in the language of computation, speculating that physical products somehow inherently travel better than information: “Could it be that atoms are more mobile than bits?”
This is all too bad, because Zuckerman does acquit himself as a pleasant, curious personality, thoughtful about the effects that increasing internet connectivity will have on developing countries. His narrative of his work with Global Voices is measured, interesting, and far from self-aggrandizing. He explains the various issues his organization has encountered in balancing expanding news coverage to underserved markets while also maintaining standards of professionalism. Perhaps most pertinent to the book’s concerns, he writes about Global Voices’ decision to move into publishing in other languages, including Malagasy, one of Madagascar’s official languages (the other is French). The site now has more translators than writers and is available in at least 30 languages. Adding these languages involved more work and putting trust in inexperienced subordinates, while also sacrificing the internet traffic that comes with publishing in English, a global language. But it was repaid by adding to the site’s linguistic diversity and bringing in loyal readers who were happy to be able to read news in their native tongue. This venture, in particular, seems like an exemplar of the kind of digital cosmopolitanism Zuckerman espouses.
I’m a little more puzzled by some of Zuckerman’s other case studies, however. He writes of using volunteer translators for Global Voices — an understandable choice given the site’s shoestring budget and its roster of amateur journalists. But he seems to have no problem with TED — the expensive, extremely popular ideas conference — using unpaid translators for subtitling its widely watched videos. These translators are credited and some are even invited to the conference, but it strikes a discordant note that someone who has spent so much time in the developing world would cognizance a well-heeled organization, one that caters to elites, using unpaid labor.
Elsewhere, Zuckerman celebrates “bridge figures,” people who have lived peripatetically and are adept at both transitioning between communities and establishing bonds between disparate ones. Bridge figures can have “superpowers,” Zuckerman says — a bit of hyperbole that may leave readers wary. Some of these figures on the surface appear rather admirable, such as the white South African producer who brokered Paul Simon’s relationship with black South African musicians. The result was Graceland, and a new global audience for South African music. But while Zuckerman absolves Simon of the sin of cultural appropriation and notes that he paid his studio musicians above standard rates, he doesn’t consider the other controversies that have attended Graceland, such as the charges that the American singer essentially stole compositions from African artists. (Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin has repeatedly made similar claims, saying that Simon refused to share songwriting credits on the album’s final track, and then challenged the band to sue him.)
Other choices are even less explicable. Zuckerman surveys the research of Ronald Burt, a sociologist and University of Chicago Business School professor who tried to help the defense contractor Raytheon integrate some of the acquisitions it made in the late 1990s. (The Gulf War was good to Raytheon, maker of the Patriot Missile, and sent it on an acquisition binge.) Raytheon had trouble making these homogenous companies cohere together and perhaps, Zuckerman indicates, we can learn from the defense giant’s difficulties.
The Raytheon example presages the book’s eventual tilt towards addressing, in very direct terms, business executives and members of the Fortune 500. “The world’s biggest corporations are seeking cosmopolitan leaders to build world-straddling businesses,” Zuckerman writes. They want CEOs with global perspectives — people like the leaders of Coke and Pepsi, “American institutions [that] are led by a Muslim from Turkey and a Hindu from India, respectively.”
It doesn’t seem to matter that there is little that is inspiring about Coke and Pepsi’s actual business practices, and indeed much to criticize. Nor do these companies reflect the values that Zuckerman extols in his work in Ghana or with Global Voices. In Rewire, Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi, serves as a useful illustration simply because of her biography and ethnic background (Madras-born, educated in Calcutta and New Haven, jobs at Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, and Motorola). “While she is not without critics,” Zuckerman writes, “Nooyi is widely recognized as one of the most powerful and successful executives on a global stage.” Status is its own reward and example.
Similar treatment is accorded Carlos Ghosn, “born in Brazil, of Lebanese descent, and educated in Paris,” who ran the car company Renault before becoming CEO of Nissan. At Nissan, he shut down plants, ended some well-entrenched practices, and fired “workers who had expected lifetime employment.” He also switched the company’s language of operation from Japanese to English. He did so well that Renault, which has a major stake in Nissan, asked him to be CEO of both companies.
Ghosn may very well have rescued Nissan, but he clearly did so at some cost to its employees. And once again, there’s the sense that Zuckerman respects him more for his multi-hyphenated identity than for his actual work.
These examples, and a number of others, shift Rewire‘s emphasis away from cultural cosmopolitanism toward economic globalization. Soon Zuckerman’s offering suggestions for how “smart multinationals” should hire managers, and suggesting that occupying armies need to “employ as many anthropologists and linguists as explosives specialists,” without noting, as one might expect from someone immersed in academia, that many social scientists consider it a violation of their professional duties to work with militaries.
Authoritarian, business-first Singapore is the kind of place global business leaders find quite attractive, and Zuckerman respects the country’s decision to preserve a statue of a British conqueror who founded a colony there. This, for him, signals Singapore’s “openness to connection with people from all nations, irrespective of previous colonial relationships.” (Or could it just be white-washing?) Still, Zuckerman acknowledges that “one of the secrets behind Singapore’s economic success is a system of government that’s far from open. Building a state that’s both open and attractive as a market state is an unsolved problem.” Why is democratic government incompatible with being attractive to investors?
When it comes to the academic world, Zuckerman recommends that schools embrace students who may serve as bridge figures and “encourage xenophilia as a core skill.” There’s a strangely bloodless tone to this suggestion, as if developing an interest in other people and cultures is like studying calculus. This seems a far cry from the Zuckerman who enjoys sumo wrestling and poring over West African newspapers.
But then I recall an earlier passage in Rewire, in which Zuckerman warned that “without a way to build personal connections to people from other parts of the world, it’s hard for us to take their perspectives and insights seriously.” Empathy, curiosity, basic decency and respect for other people, a desire to experience different cultures and challenge one’s own assumptions — all of these constituent parts of xenophilia apparently founder without a way to build connections (presumably, technological ones) to other people. Without the internet, in other words, we won’t be able to take foreigners “seriously.” It’s a remarkable, and frankly baffling, slide from the first few chapters of the book, when Zuckerman waxed rhapsodically about Ghanaians’ naming practices and the Chinese writers who translate that nation’s media into English, allowing us to enjoy a more complicated picture of their society.
That’s the Ethan Zuckerman whose work I want to read, not the one who advises corporations to “invest in spaces […] where employees can connect,” or who writes, with a note of implied regret, that “the transparency that connection brings makes it increasingly difficult to wage war without attracting international scrutiny, as America discovered at Abu Ghraib.”
The Ethan Zuckerman worth reading will be the thinker who forsakes the value-neutral language of management consulting and global markets, instead remembering that, even in a rewired world, the old problems of politics, ethics, history, culture, and sovereignty won’t go away. In fact, these are the challenges most deserving of our attention, and the ones that someone of Zuckerman’s experience and sensitivity is capable of addressing.