Podcast and Liveblog: Ethan Zuckerman, “Digital Cosmopolitanism and Cognitive Diversity”

About the Talk

New media technologies have sharply increased the number of people who are able to create and disseminate content. But they may not be leading to a more diverse media environment, as tools that allow us to tailor what content we see and what we ignore are becoming more powerful and more personal. The framework of cosmopolitanism suggests a way through this challenge – by examining perspectives we are exposed to and insulated from, we may be able to design tools and approaches that help readers increase their cognitive diversity and prepare themselves to tackle transnational challenges.

Ethan Zuckerman is the Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media.

Moderated by Professor Ian Condry.


Introduction by Ian Condry

My name is Ian Condry, professor in CMS and Foreign Languages and Literatures, also affiliated with the Center for Civic Media.

Ethan Zuckerman is a man of many talents, bringing a unique and fascinating perspective to MIT. He is the director of the Center for Civic Media and cofounder of Global Voices. He has long experience with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

The main topic of his talk today is his new book, Rewire.

Ethan gave some background on the project, and discussed how it connects to the work being done at the Center for Civic Media.

The Blue Marble

Ethan shows a picture, “The Blue Marble,” which is the first picture of the whole earth, taken by the Apollo 17 crew. It’s gone on to be most likely the most circulated image in history. He is interested in this because this image evolved to have an enormous amount of significance and emotive weight in the environmental movement. This image becomes a symbol of envisioning yourself in relation to the planet in a certain way.

Ethan is interested in objects like this. How we think about who we are as citizens connected by the internet?

Ethan often uses this map, an image from NASA, that is a compilation of the world at night, sewn together into a cohesive whole. It became incredibly important to people working on networked communities and the digital divide — who has access and who is left out of them.

NASA Earth at Night

Any place that is in a dark spot on this map — that doesn’t have electrical power — is in danger of being without connection, and of being a place that we don’t have access or connection to. You would have to do the hard work of building infrastructure before that could happen.

But these images that present how to view the world can be deceptive.

Ethan brings up other examples that highlight this deceptive tendency. One is an example of a map looking at the spread of disease — of SARS. It starts in Southern China, appears mysteriously, you have entire hospitals getting sick very quickly, and people who did nothing more than live together in a hotel for a few days. Then due to the global travel networks, you had epidemics around the world.

Very quickly, people started discovering enormous proximity in a world that once seemed very very far apart.

This is a visualization called peoplemovin. You get a picture of the mobility of global labor, how you go from where jobs don’t exist to where jobs exist.

We may think of the ways in which objects move around the globe. This is a map of Leo Bonnani’s work showing how material goods move around the globe (in this case, laptops). We are connected to this flow from many places around the world.

We might think through how information travels from one point to another [Undersea Cables map, Telegeography, May 6 2013.]

But I think the map for me that’s best captured the emotion of this moment in time is this map.

Facebook friendship map

It was produced by Paul Butler, as an undergrad intern at Facebook, in 2010. Butler wanted to ask: Who’s friends with who, on Facebook? Using a tiny subset of data, he started graphing those geographic ties. And you can begin to see that there are parts of the globe where people are intensely related to one another.

What’s interesting is that Facebook embraced this map almost immediately. You see it all over the place in Facebook’s propaganda. When Mark Zuckerberg decides he wants to strike deals, he realizes he can show this map to other companies as evidence that Facebook is the technology that connects us all. As Facebook has told us, not six degrees of separation, but less than four degrees of connection to anyone on the planet.

I would argue that this map is trying to make a rhetorical statement. But remember that these maps are deceptive. When you start looking more closely, you realize this map is a bit of a false promise.

For one thing, we still have these dark spots — I always look at Africa first where I’ve done most of my work, and you have the same dark spot that you have on the grid map from NASA.

There are other parts where there are high degrees of connectivity, but there are in fact no connections there. China is completely missing, because China blocks Facebook. But they have a high degree of other forms of connectivity. Russia doesn’t block Facebook, but they don’t show up because no one uses Facebook, they have a different preferred platform.

The case I’m trying to make, is that we get a lot of rhetoric about a connected world. And some of that represents a reality. Our stuff gets spread globally — global supply chains, huge dependencies and interconnections with other economies. If we start looking at labor, there is a large amount of labor mobility, but this is something people push against and struggle with.

When we get to mobility of bits — of ideas, of thoughts and memes and culture, we have an incredibly high degree of potential mobility, but the actually mobility is a whole lot lower. The potential on Facebook is high. But the odds that the idea is going to get to someone from Lagos onto your Facebook feed is near 0, because that’s not how these networks work. They are instead designed to reinforce your existing social connections. Across the board, the average person has 130 friends on Facebook. 13% of ties are international. That suggests the average person has somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 people from another country.

But when you look at the actual ties, they are overwhelmingly domestic. And Facebook is incredibly effective at keeping you tied to your existing social network EVEN when you’re uprooted physically from that network.

I call the illusion of some of these maps “Imaginary Cosmopolitanism” — we imagine ourselves living lives that are interconnected over boundaries and cultures much more than we actually are. And this has caused or allowed us to scale back on some of our other technologies.

I started getting interested this when I was living in Ghana in 2000. There was a government coup, an exciting new president took over, and it go no attention outside of Ghanaian media. And I watched this from afar saying “Wait a second, this is the best news out of Africa in years — and no one is paying attention. “ At first I thought newspapers had fallen down in their coverage. In fact, what’s really going on is a much broader trend. US and UK media have become incredibly more parochial over the last 40 years.

Ethan Zuckerman's book RewireZuckerman discusses the maps that are appearing now, from major news sources (like New York Times), with amazingly persistent blind spots — the same areas (sub saharan Africa, etc.) that are systemically ignored or overlooked.

And this isn’t just an issue of the old media. New media like HuffPo — despite the international push — are giving possibly even less coverage.

Another map [Leetaru, et al., 2013] demonstrates that new media covers some new regions, others still need coverage from traditional media, and we consistently have blind spots.

Again, Zuckerman says, we have to ask what’s happening and when, and question the illusion that we are all connected by our networked technologies.

Why do we need to think this through?

Globally relevant issues like climate change can’t be addressed without a global conversation. Public health issues like pandemics require an immediate international response.

For Zuckerman, these networks of contact can be incredibly dangerous if they are dependencies we don’t fully understand.

Most of his work asks the question: How do we take advantage of the incomplete moment; the moment of potential connection in which we could engineer the flow of information across our own borders? It’s not a problem of technology, but a deep problem of sociology.

One of the issues is homophily, which is the tendency to “flock together,” and interact with and move towards people who are like ourselves. Ethan notes, “We are all looking for our tribe,” in a tendency that is documented over and over again. And we reinforce this in our computer networks in exactly the same way.

Zuckerman sees THREE BASIC PARADIGMS of how we gather information about the world:

  1. CURATION: This is visiting a resource where someone tells us the important things we need to pay attention to. This paradigm is powerful because it breaks through people’s assumptions about what is important to their lives. But curated media also have biases.
  2. SEARCH: In which we are in charge of looking at what we think is important. In this paradigm, we move from a world in which a gatekeeper tells you what information is important and what’s not, to a world in which you are in charge of that choice. But it turns out we may not be very good at identifying what information we need. This paradigm also lacks clear channels for us to get outside of our own preconceptions of what’s important. This leads to…
  3. SOCIAL: If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can rely on your social network. Emerging from search, when we search for information, we receive recommendations and answers that your social network has provided.

Zuckerman is interested in the idea of cognitive diversity. He recommends Ronald Burt’s paper, “Structural Holes and Good Ideas.” Burt worked as VP at Raytheon in a moment of restructuring. In a survey-based research project seeking out employees’ views of what direction the company should take, Burt finds that the people who have best ideas are bridges within networks. People who are bridges and ‘structural holes’ for the network are at “high risk” for having good ideas. Burt suggests that access to many different ways of looking at the world, you’re given a greater ability to generate experiments and ideas.

Looking at the current state of social media tools, Zuckerman says its clear within the design that the last thing we want to do is be challenged. Social media wants users to make the next click, and that’s by making it comfortable, by making it easy, by drawing on our attraction to homophily. (Zuckerman relates his awareness of the problem to his own work designing early social networks.) But this is not inevitable.

As a further illustration, Zuckerman points to Google Glass — a technology that’s invasive, lacks privacy, etc. But our acceptance of these tools is not inevitable either. We can act against those tools, and we have the ability to make these changes.

And while Zuckerman is devoting his energy to solving the problem of tendency toward homophily, he acknowledges, “I’m really, really bad at it. We’ve been working on this for 9 years with Global Voices, and in a good month, we might get half a million visitors.”

One solution Zuckerman offers are tools that monitor the information we consume, “a fitbit for the mind.”

MIT Media Lab doctoral student Nate Matias and Sara Szalavitz have made a tool (follow bias) to monitor Twitter followers. By looking at the names of Twitter followers, the tool shows you the percentage of genders of the people you follow. And by being confronted with this information, Zuckerman finds it truly alters the way you manage your Twitter followers from then on.

Catherine d’Ignazio’s project Mapping the Globe seeks to make clear some of the biases in existing media systems. (globe.mediameter.org).

Zuckerman most recently launched “What We Watch: a geographic exploration of popular YouTube videos.” at the Center for Civic Media. Using YouTube trends dashboard (of top 10 trending videos of a given data), the tools visualizes the information in different ways. Notably, the tool can demonstrate what Zuckerman calls “implicit links” between countries, who have top 10 videos in common. This begins to give a sense of how culture is spreading.

Example of video popular only in Ghana and Nigeria:

At the conclusion of the talk, Zuckerman notes his goal is to explore: Can we make tools that have cognitive diversity built into them?


Ian Condry: Can you speak about how we know diversity when we see it? Beyond gender splits etc, how do we define and think about it?

Ethan makes the point that cognitive diversity isn’t necessarily the same as demographic diversity. Cognitive diversity looks at people who solve problems in very different ways. Zuckerman wants people to consider whether you can look at networks and assess whether you’re getting differences of opinion — but difference is an incredibly hard thing to discuss. He references Cass Sunstein’s work on echo chambers and Eli Pariser filter bubbles. While in the US we focus on left / right, Ethan is more concerned about the us / them bias. It’s not as simple as counting demographic info, but requires a way of putting mirrors up to our own behavior.

Ian Condry: How do we balance the urge for diversity with the need to look at homophilous groups in order to address concerns within them?

5 things I want to pursue:

Zuckerman says, “Defenses for homophily almost always come up in terms of deficiency. Diversity is good for some problem while homophily is good for others.

In going for the question (from Ian) about how to change the world, how do we tackle it? Zuckerman says that part of Global Voices’ approach was to generate a connection with someone from a different locality by giving people around the world a platform. The first tactic Zuckerman notes is to go after a certain place. Clay Shirky has said to Ethan, in order to pay more attention to other countries, I’ve focused on one.

Another option, Ethan says, is to examine another culture. For example, Ian’s interest in hip hop led him to hip hop in Japan.

The conventional wisdom, Zuckerman says, on social change is to make changes close to home, because it’s what you know and care about. But what’s less discussed is that your geographic area may be harder to effect change within, than in other locations. Zuckerman recommends following the issues, following the passions, and if those issues are global then go out into the world and pursue it and make change on that issue globally.

Maria (post-doc working in political marketing in Colombia): Related to the idea of connecting people through interests, she has identified with a particular version of otherness. Can media tools replicate the sense of dislocation?

Zuckerman agrees that the moment of community shift, when we start asking “Who’s my tribe now?”, is very interesting. Connections can be arbitrary, but arbitrary connections can be incredibly powerful. For example, in Ghanaian culture, the day of the week on which you were born is incredibly significant. This provides a basis for connections between people who share a certain day, a completely arbitrary connection that creates strong communal bubbles. Groups based on these kind of arbitrary choices are good at creating groups that are also diverse. And what Ethan seeks to do is find ways to force that kind of mixing. In “Rewire,” he is reflecting on his use of the internet since 1989 — a time when the internet was a home for those with “weird, esoteric interests” to find others with that interest. Today, it’s been completely transformed. Facebook logs you in by asking you where you went to college and high school, and connecting you with the people you were already sharing a spehre with.

Chris Peterson (CMS ’13, researcher, Center for Civic Media): In the course of your work, how have you thought about balancing diversity with intelligibility?

Noting that he’s been beating on Facebook, Ethan also offers the praise of Facebook that staying connected with networks like hometown, rather than interest networks, allows for diversity within the group. There are multiple diversities to be aware of (political, geographic, etc.) But Zuckerman suggests that the solution to some of these problems, going back to the work of Ronald Burt, is the notion of the “bridge figure” (see Rewire) — a special subset of those who are bicultural and also embrace the role of explaining one culture to another. Ethan seeks to focus on how to empower such bridge figures.

Morgan Ames (post-doc, UC Irvine): As a former computer scientist and feminist, often witnesses boundary-crossing discussions online that are vitriolic, the darkside of what Ethan talks about — bringing about hate when people cross boundaries.

Part of what’s going on, Ethan notes, are people dropping into communities, throwing bombs, and then leaving. Boundary crossing brings both inspiration and infection. This is not new behavior but has gone in new directions on the internet. In the first chapter of his book, Zuckerman examines the ways a provocative film The Innocence of Muslims enflamed different communities — the darkside of connections. We will always have communities where it’s okay not to have bridges, to have conversations there; but hopefully bridge figures can also cross boundaries in good faith.

Megan Finn (postdoc, Microsoft Research): Interested in questions of mobility and cosmopolitanism. In addition, she notes the utopian vision of technologies since the telegraph, and what about this digital cosmopolitanism is different.

Zuckerman starts with the telegraph question. He gives the same examples himself, he notes, when looking at the history of these technologies, recognizing the cycical nature of utopian vision and then tearing down those views. His goal, he stresses, is to have written an anti-utopian book that deconstructs ideas of the 1990s about global connection. What he goes on to do is to try to locate how to get that, if we are willing to begin putting the hard work in. If we’re able to assess the tools realistically, we have a better chance of building what we want.

He mentioned his experience in Columbia, there is not one way to look into the world, cosmopolitan means interact with culture in many different ways.

What he seeks to examine is the responsibility we have to look at the ways that people view the world, and acknowledge the different worldviews people hold.

Ian Condry: In seeking to better our media diets, how can that be leveraged in groups?

Zuckerman says this points to one of the things that is the most broken on the web. Readers of his book has pointed out that because Rewire seeks to make converts to the idea that we’d benefit from a global information diet, it puts the onus on readers to change their view. But what he wants to get across is that it is institutions that make it incredibly hard to get outside of our homophilious groups. He notes a study of Facebook data at Harvard, early in Facebook’s development, on patterns of friendship on- and offline. Looking at photo copresence as a suggestion of real-world friendship. And the findings at Harvard were of high levels of homophily, in extremely specific groups, and the one thing that gets people to make strong ties across racial, cultural and religious backgrounds is kids who room together. And Harvard tries hard to room diverse people together. For Zuckerman, this is an example of how institutions could foster cognitive diversity. He is still unsure of how to modify major institutions to push them in this direction.

If you have a problem with a single right answer, a homophilous group might be your best group to solve this. However, Ethan says, in a large, complex problem with many different high quality answers (see Scott Page and collaborators), the best algorithms will underperform a diverse team of algorithms. There are sets of enormous problems that require diverse groups.

Jim Paradis (MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing): For Ian and Ethan, how do their research areas of fandom and culture and moving and connecting across cultures intersect?

Discussing his work, Ian Condry notes Japanese animators never anticipated that anime would become a global force. But in his work, Ian notes that seeing the dynamics of grassroots and fan culture, there could be the way to read his studies of diverse and homophilous groups and how they direct cultural movements.

For Ethan, an art form that is uniquely japanese has gone on to have an incredibly global reach. He mentions the interplay of hip hop culture as a particularly interesting example: How do groups performing politically conscious rhetoric in Wolof exposure in the U.S.? Is it by partnering with mainstream rappers in the States who have a large audience or less widely listened to artists who are on the far left of U.S. politics, but who carry a similar political weight as the rapper in Senegal?

Kelly Kreitz, (MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing) […]

Zuckerman states, he’s arguing that the internet is allowing us to connect on many different levels. There is a rhetoric of global interconnectivity, which comes with an impression of who belongs to that internet community, which is different than what that internet community actually is. To the extent that we look for social change, Ethan says, we probably need much more accurate pictures of those communities. He uses media and often news media as a lens because he feels that at the end of the day, we care about our ability for civic engagement and action. There is a natural internet(inherent?) tendency, he says, to find a small group of like minded individuals and to assume that that group is the world, and that their solutions will extend globally.

Ian Condry: Where are you going from here?

Through the process of writing the book has been the desire to build new projects addressing these issues. Ethan also realizes that it may be hard to address these problems in short-term, and he wants to think about the mechanisms by which people seek change and where civics plays out in pursuing these type of efficacious social change.


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