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Five key questions – and answers – about how our social horizons may shrink as we use more technology

- January 21, 2014

Ethan Zuckerman is the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. He is also the author of a recent book, “Rewire” (Amazon, Powells) about how technology is changing the ways that we pay attention to other people. I asked him five questions about his ideas.
HF: “Rewire” argues that even though the world is becoming more connected, people are paying less attention to other countries. Why is this so?
EZ: The Internet makes it possible to access news and information from other parts of the world, but it offers little help with fundamental human limits to attention. Indeed, as Herbert Simon observed in 1969, an abundance of information leads to a scarcity of attention. “Rewire” explores the idea that despite promises of a flatter, more connected world, our attention to different perspectives and views from other nations is constrained by how much commonality we feel with people of those nations. The Internet helps solve one problem — it increases the availability of information from some parts of the world — but introduces a set of new problems by making it extremely easy to pay attention to family, friends and those we are already connected to, especially through social media.
HF: How are social media changing the ways in which we learn about other people and other places?
EZ: Social media, at its best, is a great pathway toward discovering novel information and perspectives, and to paying attention to perspectives advanced by people are socially tied to. But social media systems operate based on choice, and a basic sociological tendency toward homophily, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together, means we often choose an online social universe of people who we share a common background, origin or faith with. On balance, the views and perspectives we encounter through social media are less diverse than those we encounter in more curated media, like a newspaper. The danger is that social media begins isolating us in ideological and cultural echo chambers, not just on political grounds (as Cass Sunstein posits), or through algorithmic filtering (as Eli Pariser argues) but through the choices we make as readers and the choices publishers and social media toolbuilders make to serve us.
HF: You say that the movie “The Innocence of Muslims,” which denigrated Islam, was like a kind of large-scale Internet trolling, designed to produce an angry response. How do we deal with trolls when they aren’t making people upset on Internet, but instead are provoking riots and changing international relations?
EZ: Attention is the scarce commodity on the Internet, and trolls have mastered it — they understand that manipulating our emotions is a path toward gaining attention. This operates offline as well — trolls like Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (the filmmaker behind “The Innocence of Muslims”) use online and offline tactics to seek attention, and the results are felt in online discussions and in riots and protests. The trolls win because their perspectives are so shocking and absurd that they make for great news copy; non-violent Muslims who support the spread of democracy aren’t news, but those reacting violently to Nakoula’s film are. Ultimately, we need media systems that are better at helping us see trolls in context, as attention-seeking outliers, which means we need to do a better job of understanding the reality of a world in which the vast majority of Muslims do not see themselves in conflict with Christianity, modernity or the United States. It’s hard for us to see that reality because contemporary media systems are tuned to warn us of the unusual, not to help us understand the everyday.
HF: What are the practical ways in which we could benefit from greater exposure to different people with different points of view?
EZ: In “Rewire,” I argue that the greatest benefits of encountering a wide range of perspectives aren’t just for security (anticipating threats from other nations) or economic gain (seeing new market opportunities), but cognitive. Recent research suggests that cognitive diversity, the ability for an individual or a group to access different ways of solving a problem, is strongly correlated with success. Scott Page, a political scientist and scholar of complex systems, has demonstrated that for problems with many possible, valid solutions, a set of highly diverse actors will find better solutions than a set of the most talented problem solvers: diversity trumps talent. I believe that the ability to access diverse perspectives via media offers similar benefits — by seeing a problem from multiple perspectives, we are able to seek creative inspiration and offer novel solutions we would be unlikely to find through associating only with a small universe of friends and peers.
HF: How can people shake themselves out of old habits and discover new connections?
EZ: The latter part of “Rewire” explores the idea of “engineered serendipity”, looking at old and new structures that help people make unexpected but helpful connections and discoveries. Some of these structures are embedded in media: a well-edited newspaper exposes us to stories we wanted to see and those we weren’t expecting, while a general interest magazine promises us high-quality writing, but offers no assurance of the topic we are to encounter. Others are societal approaches: in Ghana, where I’ve often lived and worked, nicknames are based on the day of the week you are born on, which gives Thursday-born people like me an immediate and wholly arbitrary connection to 1/7th of the population. The discovery of a common name and birthday becomes an excuse to converse and connect. Digital media needs to find ways to balance the power of choice with the power of arbitrary connection, and I believe it’s possible we can build systems that offer the best of both worlds.