Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, by Ethan Zuckerman

Tara Brabazon on building difference online

September 5, 2013

In a recent Skype conversation I had with my 85-year-old father, we summoned the conventional play of life: family, health and shopping. We laughed at the slogan on his T-shirt: “I could be wrong. But I doubt it.” Then with much enthusiasm he described a newly downloaded app: Viber. He listed his Viber contacts with the preface: “Everyone is here.” “Everyone” included his son and daughter-in-law, grandchildren and neighbours: reaching citizens in Canada or South Korea was not a priority.

Ethan Zuckerman could have predicted just such a conversation. We could use Google to read the Indonesian national news in Bahasa Indonesia or employ iTunes to download insightful lectures from iTunes U. Instead, we giggle at Grumpy Cat memes. We log into Foursquare to display our location to people who care (or don’t). We check our Facebook status, hoping for a few more “likes” to confirm that we are alive (or at least popular).

Rewire enters this culture, and has many introductions, starts and stories. And as readers bounce from Liu Jianlun, the first victim of SARS, through to the Arab Spring, Diogenes, Picasso and Fiji Water, the case study threads fail to loop or blend into a scholarly tapestry. These misfires are frustrating: readers are made to wait for the book to start. But even in these early pages, there is a shimmer of the intellectual sunlight to follow. A key early observation points to Zuckerman’s main argument: “While one of the great promises of the Internet is that we might encounter anything online, in practice much of what we encounter comes from much closer to home.” We could be monitoring the political situation in Homs: instead, we text our partner about vacuuming the living room.

By chapter 3, the book’s direction becomes clear: we are at a pivotal moment in history in which subtle but distinctive changes are emerging in the way we communicate, organise and make choices. Zuckerman argues that we are not maximising the benefits of the online environment: sharing Gangnam Style clips is not the basis of effective globalisation. We are not “digital cosmopolitans”. We may drink Fiji Water, but we know little about the current state of Fiji.

As the professional curators for news and information have been lost through digitised disintermediation, “we” are responsible for finding our own data. The problem is that we require information literacy and expertise. Instead, we have Google and online experiences of finding YouTube videos of cats flushing the toilet. As Zuckerman realises, we live in a time where “what we know is whom we know”.

Thus globalisation and cosmopolitanism exist only in a very particular form. As Zuckerman notes, “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” – a state he calls “imaginary cosmopolitanism”. We live in a warm, safe and compliant digi-zone of friends and family who think, behave and talk as we do.

While important, there are gaps in his argument. Zuckerman may not realise that similar observations about the self-selecting and self-reinforcing construction of groups were made in 1957 by David Matza and Gresham M. Sykes in their article “Techniques of neutralization: A theory of delinquency”. They demonstrated that we move through life justifying our actions because “everyone does it”. This linguistic pattern can reinforce risky drug, sexual and gambling behaviour, and creates an increasingly exclusive and extreme social group. The online environment is the archetype of Matza and Sykes’ work, and Zuckerman’s argument could have been enhanced by acknowledging this heavily cited research.

It may be understandable that a 1957 article (albeit one with 3,195 references recorded through Google Scholar) is absent from Rewire. More worrying is the lack of engagement with the work of scholar Nicholas Carr. The title of his 2008 book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google confirms a link with Zuckerman’s tome. But wider alignments with Carr’s 2010 work, The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, would have improved Zuckerman’s analysis.

Although he fails to draw on these strands of intellectual connectivity, Zuckerman’s own innovative concepts shine through: cosmopolitanism, cognitive diversity and serendipity. He realises that “encountering the world through shared interests is a shortcut to encounters that connect us with other human beings”, but questions whether such short cuts are valuable. We require context, care and respect. Put another way, we do not know what we do not know. Sharing Grumpy Cat is not a building block of social justice.

Beginnings are important. Endings matter more. Rewire reveals some false starts, bumps and intellectual culs-de-sac, but the sites of innovation, dynamism and imagination create a productive ride through the pages. In arguing for context by stressing cognitive diversity, “structured wandering” and “self-tracking and self-discovering”, Zuckerman shows that we can move beyond Twitter followers and Facebook friends to embrace the unfamiliar, strange and unusual. A digital world of difference and dissonance can be built. Only then may a deep globalisation – a socially just one – appear in our Twitter feed.

Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection

By Ethan Zuckerman
W. W. Norton, 288pp, £18.99
ISBN 9780393082838
Published 12 July 2013

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