Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection
Ethan Zuckerman 2013 read 2014/01
The internet connects us to much of the world - but few of us take advantage of that. Our news is of our nation, state, city - and if the Oregonian newspaper is to be believed, about a Portland urban lot populated by goats.
Zuckerman writes of the frustrating experience of search engines being "too helpful" - invading our privacy to give us the narrow view that we (or the companies we give money to) seem to want. My take: There is no "surprise me" button for google - even an anonymous terminal at the public library gives me only what a consumer in urban Oregon is expected to want.
This isolates me from the world. While some point out that commerce and culture are still as local as they have ever been (almost all US commerce is still within borders), invention is the mixing of ideas, and 96% of human minds (and their ideas) are outside the US, and 99.95% are outside the Portland area. And while English is usable by perhaps 1.4 billion people, that still cuts me off from 80% of the world. Though English is the world language of science and technology, and I can read many authors in translation, there may be many ideas I will never be capable of learning.
Personally, I am isolated in other ways from the world - in some ways, I have more in common with fellow geeks in Norway than with my football-watching neighbor across the street. My communities are oriented around ideas involving the physical world, not television or sports or high literature or music; in those ways, most of my fellow citizens are more connected to global communality than I am. But no person can connect to all 7 billion others; instead, we connect through friends and friends of friends. I've met a handful of Nobel Prize winners, famous musicians and authors, brilliant technologists ... and thousands of the less famous, many with extensive personal networks. If I needed to get an important personal message to the President of the United States, or of China, I could do so; and thus, so could every one I know. There are enough people aware of my interests that interesting factoids come at me from the darndest places. And a lot of non-interesting trivia, and demands for my time ... but at least I have the choice.
For day-to-day stuff, I mostly consume atoms, not bits, and those atoms mostly need to come to me. I buy hardware from China, package food from europe and asia, fruits and vegetables from North America and the Pacific Rim, wood from the Pacific Northwest, and microprocessors from Intel, a bicycle-ride from my home. I buy a surprising number of components and repair parts from eBay and Amazon; even living in a region with millions of people in it, cell phone flex cables and electric motor brushes and space movies come from China and England and Germany. Not a big fraction dollar-wise, but if a $10 imported part fixes a $200 imported appliance, it connects me in a personal way to the people that made the appliance, while delaying the purchase of a replacement imported appliance from a local big box store. This is not "better" or "worse", but it does add more threads connecting the world. The importance of these threads is not that they build a uniformly scaled network, but that they establish a trickle of connection along rarely used paths that can scale to a torrent when necessary.
Ethan Zuckerman laments the loss of international desks and foreign bureaus for the world's major news organizations, though points hopefully at sharing between these organizations. Context is lost - editorial cartoons involving kleptocracy and infrastructure collapse in Russia don't translate well without a lot of explanation. But then, if it is important I have Russian immigre friends, and local Russian store owners, who can explain them to me. I am usually too lazy - sadly, so are most news outlets, and almost all of my neighbors.
Zuckerman writes about automated language translation, much of it based on a corpus of multilanguage human translations connecting the 23 languages of the European Union. Google Translate uses that corpus, and my Swedish 4th cousin Dan and I use that to compose emails to each other. It isn't as good as fluency in both languages, but there are hundreds of languages in the world, and my friends have about 50 birth languages; I will never speak all of them, and while I am too lazy to learn another language well, I'll leave that to others and master many of the languages of technology and science instead. I can work with my friends for the others. Zuckerman writes for the moment, the now - we are both equally isolated from the people and languages of the distant past and future, spoken by tens of billions before us and (perhaps) quintillions after.
Zuckerman highlights the connection of culture, exemplified by the pop band Journey finding a new lead singer in the Phillipines, and performing worldwide. That is good, but I am even more interested in the long-term mix of people. My ancestors came from many regions of Europe and even Africa. Perhaps 3% of the world's people are working, living, and building homes and families in countries other than where they were born. If this continues for a hundred more generations, or accellerates with ever-cheaper global travel, we will be thoroughly mixed and connected.
When an information packet from Russia is as cheap to transport to me as one from Moscow, Idaho, I may not choose to pay attention to either, but I can connect to either in seconds if the fancy strikes. Zuckerman might do so for songs and sports, I might do so for science and software, and our descendants may do so for love. When the ephemera of pop culture evaporates, connection will endure.