The World Wide Web has not yet fulfilled its promises – and full potential – for enabling more social interaction, stimulating business growth, and promoting greater equality and opportunities for all, among many others. Like all “new” technologies, the internet has provoked unintended consequences. For all its ubiquity and power, the World Wide Web just doesn’t give us a very wide picture of the world. But it’s not a problem of access; it’s one of attention. And Ethan Zuckerman, MIT media scholar, activist and optimist, is making sure we give it everything we have.
The crux of the issue, as Zuckerman – director of the MIT Center for Civic Media – sees it, is this: the world is ever more global. Our economies and our problems are increasingly global in scale. But media, and our consumption of it, is less global by the day. “It’s a weird moment in globalization,” he says. Our “stuff” comes from everyone, but our ideas and perspectives are actually hyper local. In fact, there is compelling evidence that Americans are reading less international news now than they did in the decades before the internet. He calls it “imaginary cosmopolitanism,” and it’s making us – as individuals and enterprises – vulnerable.
Fully understanding the problem and embracing the complex issues is not difficult, but it is necessary. “In thinking about the rest of the world as a market that needs to catch up with the U.S. and Europe, we’re missing really interesting – and important – opportunities,” says Zuckerman. “Again and again, the internet gives us really intriguing hints that people are developing their own tools and their own solutions in other parts of the world. We need to get better at paying attention. If we do, it will give us enormous strategic advantages.”
And if we don’t, we’ll continue to be exposed to what we want to know at the expense of what we need to know. Zuckerman is championing for change – to “rewire” how the internet is used to provide a wider view of the world. It’s a challenge – and opportunity – Zuckerman presents in his book of the same title. In “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), which was recently honored with the Zócalo Book Prize, he emphasizes the need to expand our focus, sample other cultures, and seek out the new and unfamiliar.
“The internet has given us the ability to look at problems from different perspectives – why not use it that way?” he asks. He’s seen the potential firsthand in the poorest cultures of Africa and South America. The promise is real. As Zuckerman points out in his TED talk, “global conversations are needed to get to global solutions.”