Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: So, I’m parked next to the roadside here IN Sonora, Texas. The only thing I can really see is a sign that says “get your do your deer corn here.”
Micah Saul: Which is about as far as you can possibly get from MIT while still staying in the US.
Anderson: It does have that feeling. And yet this seems appropriate, somehow, because today we’re talking to Ethan Zuckerman, who’s the head of the Center for Civic Media. And he’s going to make the case for why we should care about places that are far from where we are. What we can learn from these other places. Why in fact we need to know about them.
Saul: Yes, exactly. We should probably real quick talk about what the Center for Civic Media is. It’s a program at MIT started as a partnership between the MIT Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies Program. Their whole thing is trying to create new tools to fill the information needs of community. They’ve got a bunch of really cool projects going on. I wanted to mention LazyMail [LazyTruth] just because it’s awesome. It’s fact-checking for your Gmail inbox. It’s a plugin that highlights verifiable facts in common chain emails. Which, I mean, I seriously just want to go home and install that on my mom’s computer, right now.
They also have a project called Between the Bars, which provides a paper blogging platform for…well, one out of a hundred and forty two Americans, the American prisoner.
Anderson: Yeah. And I think all of those things give a pretty good clue as to why we wanted to talk to Ethan. We’re interested in fundamentally new ideas, and the application of technology to tackle old civic problems, or new civic problems. You know, we’ve talked about technology a huge amount as a theme, but never really directly about how does technology—specifically media technologies…how do they give us new tools to sort of grapple with these problems?
Saul: Right. And you know, that’s really what made us interested in Ethan. But then we quickly get other places in this conversation. We should probably leave a bit of a caveat right before we turn it over to the Ethan. Uh…
Anderson: Oh, god, it’s not a caveat. Let’s be honest, it’s an apology.
Saul: It’s an apology.
Anderson: When I was recording this, I had my earphones on for the first bit of conversation. And the audio sounded great for that. And then…I took my headphones off. You know what’s coming: one of the mics went out. Ethan’s mic went out. And so, the only audio we have left is Ethan, picked up in the background off of my microphone. It’s good enough to understand, but it’s pretty embarrassingly bad. So, forgive us for this terrible lapse. I’ve been wearing my earphones ever since. Haven’t really been able to recreate the problem using all the same gear, so I still don’t know what happened. Ghost in the machine. But this episode unfortunately is going to sound pretty crunchy.
Ethan Zuckerman: I’m not sure I have a good answer to what I do for a living, so I can give you a history instead. I’m a new media guy. I started in the mid 1990s, trying to figure out how to use the Internet in interesting ways to help people have conversations. And so I was sort of the founding CTO of a company called tripod.com, which in some ways ended up being the precursor to MySpace, which of course is sort of a precursor to Facebook.
But it was a project that had really started as an edited magazine for recent college graduates. And we figured out quite uncomfortably that our users were much more interested in publishing online than they were in reading what we had to say. And so we went through a really uncomfortable eighteen-month shift figuring out that we needed to let people talk about what they wanted to talk about rather than trying to steer, direct, or edit that conversation.
I got very interested in whether the sort of transformations that I was seeing in the dot-com economy in the US were having impacts in other parts of the world. And I had previously lived in Ghana in West Africa. And so in 1999, I found myself with time of my hands. I’d left Tripod. I had money in the bank, and was curious about what to do next.
I started commuting between Western Massachusetts and West Africa and building a nonprofit called Geekcorps which tried to help people in developing nations build businesses using technology [inaudible] based around something that I discovered in my work in the dot-com industry was that technology is still very much an apprenticeship business. And so my fear was that in a country like Ghana, you weren’t going to develop a corps of programmers because you just didn’t have programmers. So if I could bring people over to work with the programmers on the ground, we could build a tech culture.
In that process of spending about four years going all over the developing world, ended up realizing that I felt woefully underinformed about the rest of the world. And being an angry young man sort of immediately went out to look for someone to blame. I decided it was The New York Times’ fault, and I decided that it was very specifically their fault when Ghana had a presidential election in 2000. And we had a pretty crappy presidential election in the US in 2000. Ghana had a wonderful election. It was free. It was fair. It was almost entirely nonviolent. And it barely got talked about outside of African circles.
Being a frustrated computer programmer, I started writing programs to analyze what what The New York Times paid attention to. And so we’d go into the search engine of The New York Times and say how many stories do you have about Ghana? How many do you have about Gabon? How many do you have about Germany? and putting them on a map and started seeing fairly obvious patterns of what media was and wasn’t paying close attention to.
That work brought me over to Berkman Center at Harvard, and while I was at Berkman trying to write about media attention, I ran into a remarkable woman, Rebecca MacKinnon, and so we both got very interested in could we reform the weaknesses we both saw in news media? And could we fix it through blogs? And so we started a project called Global Voices. We invited people in the developing world to talk about what was going on in their countries. We would edit. We would translate. We’d put it online. That project’s still going strong at globalvoicesonline.org [now globalvoices.org] It’s got about eight hundred people involved with it.
Miraculously enough, it hasn’t transformed global media. The New York Times is still the New York Times. It’s still fairly weak on content from Africa. If anything, we’re probably spending less attention on the rest of the world than we might’ve been ten years ago.
So, I’m now over at the Center for Civic Media at MIT. So, I’m really interested in three topics here. How new media might let us hear from people we don’t normally hear from. Can my friends in Ghana suddenly have a voice in the media dialogue through the media in a way they didn’t have before?
Second, I’m really interested in building tools that let us ask critical questions about what we’re consuming in terms of media. What are we hearing about and what are we not hearing about? What parts of the world? What topics? What people? So you have a lot of work building tools to monitor media on a very large scale and say here are subjects that we hear a lot about, here are subjects we hear very little about.
The goal is to build tools that help people find information to fill the gaps that they’re worried about. If I look at my media diet and say, “I know embarrassingly little about South America,” it’s not just enough to say, “Well, read some more South American press.” You actually have to find news from that part of the world that connects with your interests. You need to find translators. You need to find people who can do the cultural bridging to get you interested in that.
The last subject I’m interested in is this question of how the rise of participatory media changes what it means to be a citizen. So, if in the past my way of dealing with a problem that I was concerned about would be to try to get a law passed, or try to persuade an authority figure, there’s a whole lot of other ways to push for change nowadays. I can start a media campaign. I can try to get all my friends on Twitter to do something. I can crowdfund and try to get people together on Kickstarter or something.
So you know, if I’m pissed off about global media coverage, if my response before was to say, “We should reform public media in America. We should get more global media coverage.” Good luck with that. There’s a lot of other levers that I can play with right now. I can think about how do I push for individual change at scale? I can try to change the culture around us and sort of say it’s a problem for Americans that we don’t know enough about the world because the really interesting problems are global in scale. I can self-organize. I can build my own tools to do this. How does that change what it means to be a civic actor, locally and globally when those new capabilities come into play?
Aengus Anderson: So it seems like the the central theme in all of this is the idea of citizenship and knowledge, and the assumption that by having greater knowledge, and especially greater global knowledge, we can be better citizens, presumably address problems better. I’m assuming that’s all the implicit stuff.
Zuckerman: So I think the implicit piece that I probably have to draw out there is that I think one of the most important sources of power is agenda-setting. So, the famous way of introducing it is to say that the news isn’t very good at telling you what to think, but it’s very good at telling you what to think about. Getting on the air and essentially saying, “The nation is doomed if Barack Obama is re-elected, and Mitt Romney must be elected,” eh, that’s not particularly persuasive.
But getting on the air and talking about presidential politics for 80% of the time that we’re on the air is really really powerful in telling people that presidential politics is where the action is. It’s what you most have to care about. There’s another way of looking at this. Presidental politics matters very little. There are certainly differences between Obama and Romnney. There’s a lot of cases where they would probably do the same things. And despite the fact that most of us think of voting as sort of our one civic duty, there are many many other races we could vote in, and there are many many other things we could do as civic actors. But we are unlikely to talk about them, and we are unlikely to engage in them, unless they make it onto some sort of public agenda.
So, for me the unifying theme of all of this is, if you want people to do things, you have to get people to talk about things. And what we talk about and what we don’t talk about is an enormous, enormous form of political power. And it’s one that most of us don’t talk about and don’t understand very well.
Anderson: Are the people who are dictating the agenda now aware of agenda-setting, or is this just sort of some emergent media pandering that’s just ended up coincidentally giving us this agenda of presidential politics rather than say, actually knowing what’s happening in Ghana?
Zuckerman: So here’s part of what’s going on. We are in the midst of a shift in how we encounter information. And we’re wrestling with three paradigms at the same time. The oldest of these paradigms, for for most of us, is edited media. And so [unclear] thing about edited media is the front page of the newspaper. You have a powerful gatekeeper, the newspaper editor, who says, “Here are things you need to pay attention to today. Give this a small amount of your time, and you will be roughly up to date with what you need to know.”
If you look over time, these publications have biases. When people go back and talk about the golden age of journalism, friends of mine who’re scholars of African-American media like to remind me that you know, in the golden days of Walter Cronkite and the New York Times at its best, there are not a lot of black people. Not really part of the agenda. My critique when I started doing this work was that “not part of the agenda” was large parts of the world. Africa, Central Asia. So there’s flaws with that system. But of course there flaws with the two new paradigms that we’ve introduced, as well.
The next paradigms that comes into play is search. And so Google arises. Suddenly, we have this wonderful ability. If I want to know about Ghana, I can know whatever I want about Ghana. There’s a promise that I can get online, I can go almost as deep as I want, into any arbitrary topic.
That promise, that I get to know what I want to know, hides some other very big problems. I may not get to know what I need to know. That’s what newspaper editors— Newspaper editors were saying, “We know that all you want is the news of your neighborhood, and the sports. But we’re gonna realize that newspapers have a social responsibility so we’re gonna give you a little bit of what you don’t want but what you might need.”
But as we’ve gone over into the search paradigm, we start moving away from that. And we sort of say, “Well, wait. This isn’t very interesting. I’m finding out what I want to know. But I know that now.” And now I have the problem that I don’t know what I want to know. Or I don’t know what I need to know.
And so we say, “Well, maybe my friend knows.” So this is the social paradigm. The social paradigm basically says, “My friends know things that I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll find out what my friends know.” At best, this is a great discovery mechanism. You sort of say your friends probably share some of your interests, they’re probably going to push you in the right direction. But it’s also possible that your friends are very similar to you. And in general sociological terms, that pretty darn likely. So, social promises us an escape from the sort of traps of search. But I think very very quickly, you start bumping up against the limits of that.
So for me, the interesting question at this point is where do we go next? And I think the only place to go is to start thinking very seriously about serendipity.
Anderson: That is not what I was expecting you to say.
Zuckerman: What were you expecting me to say?
Anderson: I wasn’t entirely sure. It seems like we’ve gotten to this point where we’re acknowledging that to function at all, you have to surrender some of your agency in your media diet. Which is, at once, maybe better than the decisions you’d make but it’s also very disempowering. So it pits my sympathies against each other. I mean, I like the search model of going out and finding things, but obviously… I mean, this project is an example. We talk about giant systems all the time, and you can’t know what to ask. So, when do you just sort of like, meekly lower your head and raise your hands and go, “Can you curate this for me?” So how to serendipity play into that?
Zuckerman: Well, I think the first you have to do is you have to get over the misuse of the word serendipity.
Zuckerman: People sort of think of it as you know, “it’s the happy accident.” And you know, the answer is that’s not actually what it means. It’s an unexpected and useful discovery. Unexpected is important, because it’s not necessarily exactly what you’re searching for. Useful is important. Serendipity’s something that’s significantly better random. It’s something that you need to make discoveries, to learn more about the world. But it’s also unexpected enough that you’re unlikely to find it through a paradigm like search.
And so when we look at some classic examples of serendipity, they actually come from people who were very well-prepared for an unexpected discovery. So, Alexander Fleming is a great example of serendipity. Fleming is studying bacteria. He has Petri dishes out. A mold spore lands in one of them, kills off a bunch of bacteria, and he discovers penicillin. What a spectacularly lucky discovery. What if he hadn’t had that spore of penicillin mold?
You could also look at this from the other perspective. There’s lot of penicillin mold out there. And most of us don’t discover antibiotics. And the reason he’s able to discover this is that he’s got Petri dishes filled with bacteria that he’s watching very carefully. And he’s a careful scientist, and when he sees the speck of mold come in there and he sees bacteria die off, he says, “Huh. I wonder if that mold is somehow affecting the bacteria,” and then he’s able to isolate it [unclear] from there. Chance favors the prepared mind.
It’s quite possible, I think, that we could start building curatorial systems that are optimized to help us find stuff that is both unexpected and useful. And I think it’s really hard work. I think it’s engineering. I think it’s very careful tracking of what we already know, and already know about. And I think it’s a tolerance for risk, because I think unlike search where you can say with pretty good certainly that that first result is going to be helpful to you, a lot of what turns up is not going to be particularly helpful. And I think, to make it very clear, I would see this as a fourth paradigm, complementing edited media, search, social, and then I think some form of engineered serendipity starts getting us towards it.
Now, the the reason I think this is true is that ultimately I want you to pay attention to Ghana. And I may not be able to get you to pay attention to Ghana by getting it on the front page of The New York Times because I’ve been trying that for ten years, and it’s really hard. You not going to search for it, because you don’t already care about it, and you’re not really interested in it. Your friends probably don’t know anything about Ghana because you probably don’t have any Ghanaian friends, of friends who are engaging with Ghana. But you might get there through serendipity. If I can tell you something interesting and odd about Ghana that connects with— It sparks a novel connection for you, you might then have an inclination to explore further.
Anderson: Why should we care about Ghana?
Zuckerman: There are a lot of problems we face that are only solvable if you’re looking at the whole world. Because they are global in scale and global in spread. Epidemic, pandemic is sort of the most obvious one. There’s an argument that terrorism, whether we consider it a major threat or not, has absolute international implications in it. Climate change is absolutely unsolvable unless there’s some way to understand how the issue is playing in India and in China, because…India and China aren’t on board, you’re not going to solve climate change. Global financial systems. The spread of contagion from Asian economies suddenly destabilizes banks in the US. So many of the problems that we’re dealing with end up being incomprehensible unless you have a sufficiently wide view.
It’s not just Ghana. What I actually want you to do is pay attention much more broadly, and maybe shallowly, to a much broader global picture. Because we have so many technologies, whether they’re air travel, whether they’re the Internet, whether they’re financial technologies, that draw us all together. The threat comes from almost anywhere. So that’s the bad new.
The good news is that inspiration also comes from almost anywhere. And that the possibility of the good idea coming from other parts of the world is a very real and sort of easily-documented cognitive shortcut. There’s a guy named Ronald Burt. He studies organizational structure and psychology. He goes within the Raytheon corporation and he tries to figure out who has good ideas in Raytheon. He interviews hundreds of managers. He gets them to make suggestions for how to make the business better. He sends these suggestions to the CEO of Raytheon, has them rank them and say, “Wow, that’s a good idea. That’s a good idea.”
People at Raytheon who have the best ideas are at what are called “structural holes” within the organization. These are not people who talk to the same five people every day. These are people who end up being bridges between different parts of the organization. And it’s not necessarily because they’re any smarter, it’s because they have a different set of inputs. They are able to tap into the power of cognitive diversity. For many many problems, having a diverse set of approaches is actually better than having one significantly better approach.
So the reason I want you to pay attention to Ghana is that I think you need to be looking for the possibility of threat and radical change on the horizon. And I think that if you’re engaging with people who look at the world differently, it gives you a richer set of cognitive tools to bring to problems. So that’s why my work, in many ways, sort of looks around these questions of diversity of perspective, diversity of coverage, diversity of representation.
I think one of the natural reactions to that giant system is terror. If you take Lorenz’ butterfly seriously and my actions here in Cambridge may be causing tsunami in Indonesia, or on a much more subtle level of my well-meaning attempt to introduce lake perch into the Great Lakes region of East Africa, something that ends up destabilizing the local fish population, it becomes very hard to act at all. It’s so hard to look out and see those implications. I think you’ve got to find a way around that paralysis. And I think the first way around that paralysis is to sort of say, “These situations look paralyzing because I’m only able to look at it from one point of view.” And if I can access more points of view, I’m in a much more powerful position to make decisions with.
I [unclear] in my work a lot about bridge figures. And bridge figures are people who are embedded in two or more networks. They are…you know, the Ghanaian student in America who understands Ghana really really, well has been at an American university for two years and understands America pretty well. And I think these bridge figures have superpowers. I think they’re already bringing a richer cognitive toolkit to the table than many of us. And I think that organizations and structures and so on and so forth that figure out how to take advantage, both of the multiple perspectives and the simple lessons learned of how you translate those perspectives and bring them to bear on a problem, I think that makes people incredibly powerful as problem solvers, this sort of bringing perspectives into the equation.
Anderson: There’s almost like an underlying arms race of information that’s going on here. Feeling paralyzed is probably appropriate because we are so massively outgunned intellectually by the complexity of the systems. And it feels like a lot of people in this project seem to feel that we can get our heads around it. We can start really making better choices. And other ones feel that you know, the fix is in. We’re gonna do the damndest best we can. But it’s probably not going to work out in terms of dealing with systemic problems, some of which are natural, some of which are our creation. How do you sort of come down on that? I mean, that’s kind of an optimism/pessimism question framed in a lot of big words.
Zuckerman: I mean, I think what’s hard about that question is that my honest answer to it is a fairly pessimistic version of it. I don’t think we understand the dynamics of climate change. We’re already discovering that aspects of climate change are happening much more quickly than we think they are, and that there’s aspects of the system that are deeply nonlinear, and that predictability becomes extremely difficult. So, one possible response there is to say we don’t know whether dumping iron sulfide into the ocean to try to grow algae is a good thing or bad thing. So let’s not do anything. But of course that’s also clearly a terrible stance on this.
Anderson: And it is also a decision, too.
Zuckerman: And it is absolutely a decision. It’s basically a decision to continue on the path that you’re already doing, and having the continued influences that you’re having. I don’t think that one can responsibly sort of look at the world and say, “I’m going to wait until I have a fully-functioning model.” We’ve always dealt with incomplete information.
I think the flipside to that is to say, “I can also be aware of the shortcomings in my model. And if I know that in my model, I am likely to systematically undervalue voices of people in the developing the world because I’m a wealthy white guy in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” then I can try to figure out how to compensate for that. And in the process maybe I avoid some of my most obvious missteps.
So I guess I would respond to big systems question by saying I’m not interested in the perfect, but nor am I satisfied with the good. I’d like…the better. And it seems like this question of what are our informational inputs and what are our biases helps us get better in terms of what information we’re bringing into our systems.
Anderson: Say we actually develop some sort of system that brings serendipitous media to our table. And we actually take the time to look at it. It seems like beneath that there’s something else we need.
Zuckerman: One of the big things that I think is missing in American thought at the moment is enough of a common ideology that makes change possible. I was having a conversation with a friend this morning, and I found myself on one of my personal frustrations, which is there’s a very strong trend at the moment towards saying if we just had less governmental, a less incompetent government we’d be free to do more, the private industry would be free to do more. But I really want public transit from where I live in rural Western Massachusetts to Easter Massachusetts.
Selfishly, it would make my life a lot better. But we also have a whole lot of really interesting positive externalities. In my formerly industrial county where the population is shrinking, where rates of poverty are rising, where there’s very little economic opportunity, suddenly there’s the possibility of jobs within Boston. Suddenly, there’s the possibility that land, which is very cheap, and property, which is very cheap, suddenly becomes valuable because suddenly it’s connected.
It’s very hard to imagine the private sector building a railway. Won’t be profitable. It would have to have a subsidy. And the only entity capable of subsidizing is the state. The reason the state is capable of it is that they can capture the positive benefits through taxation. If the land in Pittsfield, Massachusetts suddenly becomes more valuable and my neighbors become richer, the state benefits. Private company doesn’t. So the state might be able to invest in infrastructure in a way that it’s very hard for a private company to.
But it’s wholly unrealistic. I could spend the rest of my adult life lobbying for public transit to Western Mass but I probably won’t get it. Because we moved from a paradigm that was fairly dominant in the US in the 1950s of expansion, growth, progress, building for strength—as my friend pointed, building to conquer the Soviets are or out-compete the Soviets—to a national ideology of exceptionalism. Which is actually sort of a backward-looking ideology. Americans are especially blessed people. If we were just more American or just as Americans we were in the 1950s, wonderful things would be accomplished.
Bullshit. We actually need a forward-looking vision that says we need clean energy, we need great education. But we need some sort of unifying theme that the vast majority of people feel like they’re able to hold on to. So, you’re right. We can get incredibly diverse media. We can see what we’re missing. We can see what perspectives we’re missing. But unless there’s some way of mobilizing political will around some sort of a broadly-shared vision, it’s hard to imagine certain types of change taking place.
Anderson: How do you encourage a thinking of us as us? I mean, your example of mass transit makes me think of the postal service. Who on Earth would fund something as ludicrous as the postal service today? You know, you have to think public good. And how do you think public good when you’ve been trained out of that?
Zuckerman: Well, so a couple of things. This sort of gets back to the agenda-setting. If you have enough people standing up and saying, “Progressive taxation is socialism. It’s redistribution of wealth,” and socialism is code for something we can’t talk about anymore, it does take off the table public goods theory. And what I think is so interesting about this is that even people who should know better end up picking up aspects of the thinking.
So, I’ve been writing critically lately about the phenomenon of crowdfunding. This is not that I don’t love Kickstarter. I support a lot of projects. But I am terrified of the notion that Kickstarter might become an alternative to taxation. So, Kickstarter has already become a much better way, as an artist, to fund the arts than the National Endowment for the Arts. But now people are sort of experimenting with questions like, can we take all the projects that the Parks Department of New York City can’t fund and put them on Kickstarter?
Now, that raises some really interesting questions. First of all, is it going to be remotely fair if you hit the point where the only parks that get funded are the ones where people have sufficient Internet access to get online, and sufficient disposable income that they can turn it on? But then the second part behind it is, what if it works? If it works, you have this incredible incentive to sort of say, “Well, I don’t really need the state. I have this service that takes 5% off the top. That’s pretty efficient. Puts the money together. I got what I wanted. Why would I need a public good?”
But of course, you know, not everything is going to work on that scale. And you hit a certain point with public goods where the only ways to capture the externalities are to be able to do it at a very big scale. And Once you take that public good notion off table, once you take the civic benefit notion off the table, lots of other aspects of what we want out of a functioning society also fall off the table.
Anderson: Say we’ve lost this idea of the public good. It’s just not a favorable climate for using that language. And what I’m curious about is the underlying ethical ideal that was beneath public good that would have made it so commonsensical in the 18th century or hell, in like the late 19th century and the progressive era. What’s changing ethically? Are we losing some sense of equality?
Zuckerman: So, one theory on this is that diversity makes it harder for people to figure out how to cooperate. There’s a classic experiment done on social trust. You say to somebody, “Assume that you went to a restaurant or a cafe. And you accidentally left your wallet behind on the table. Do you think your wallet will be returned to you?”
Countries where you get answers that are positive at 90–95% are places like Finland and Japan. Places that give you can very low answers to this are not necessarily places that are poor or places where they need the money, but they’re places with very high racial and ethnic diversity. The last time I looked at the research, Brazil came out lowest. That’s a country with very very complicated race relations. The US does not come up very high on this. People living in very diverse communities tend to hunker down, and they interact less with their neighbors than people living in very ethnically homogenous communities.
Anderson: Boy, that’s…disturbing sociology.
Zuckerman: Disturbing, worrisome…challenging. I mean, not necessarily…no one says this is an insurmountable. But useful enough, right? So, useful to know that you move to the city and you’re in a wonderful diverse neighborhood, and you are not automatically more cosmopolitan for doing this. You might actually have to do something to get all those positive influences and positive benefits.
So, one possibility is that we’ve seen states start to question their welfare systems when they hit a certain level of immigration. So Scandinavia is starting to have problems with this. Evidently it’s one thing to have a really rich social welfare system when the people who are on welfare look like you. But as soon as you have very different people (brown people; brown people who follow Islam) who are getting social welfare, it may be much much harder to make the [sell?].
So, one possibility on this is we’re simply a much more diverse and much more complex populace than when some of the social good theory was being advanced, and the notion of projecting ourselves onto our neighbor and sharing with out neighbor may be a lot harder to do than it was in earlier times. Now again, I don’t think this need to be destiny. I’m sort of bringing this up mostly because I think this helps characterize the problem. And that that then become something that if we’re going to live in a deeply diverse society, we have to find a way to solve.
Anderson: So there’s an empathy question.
Zuckerman: I think there’s a empathy question, which I think again actually turns into a knowledge and an information question. If we know nothing about the people who we’re living with. It’s almost impossible to have empathy. If we don’t have another empathy it’s very hard to get to know anything about them. It ends up in this very complicated ball, and I don’t think we benefit from sort of ignoring it away.
Nor do I think that there’s ever a stance where we close the doors, bar the windows, and stay disconnected. There is no way out but through, right. You’ve got to find some way to say we’re dealing with these diverse communities, maybe we are seeing an erosion of civic capital. I don’t think we can accept that notion, because the consequences of going to the point where we don’t have the public goods, we don’t have the ability to invest in our schools or in our neighborhoods… So then the question sort of becomes how do we get through this? How do we move forward?
Anderson: Right. And I think something I was trying to get to there was kind of an underlying notion of, is diversity causing something structurally or is there actually a changing ethic that we have? Maybe it’s always been hard to relate to the other. But I think this is also something you can apply to people who you can relate to. Are we losing part of our ethic that just saw ourselves as an us, even within the tribe?
Zuckerman: So, I might try to connect this to this earlier assertion that I was making, which is that once you lose a common goal or a common aspiration, maybe it gets harder to see the “we.” If the aspirational ideology is “I hope I do not fall further behind” then the we is what I’m competing against, right? If the aspirational ideology is, you know, the US will outpace the Soviet Union in terms of technological and scientific and social progress (There are things wrong with those ideologies, don’t get me wrong.) but it makes it possible for LBJ to declare war on poverty and have everybody say, “Oh, yeah. Poverty. We should go after that one.” Whereas if you’re in the ideology essentially of saying, “We are in decline. I’d better get mine,” poverty is someone else’s problem. My problem is making sure that I’m keeping my head above water. It really sounds to me like that’s the ideology that we’re in at the moment.
So, do I think the ideology has shifted? Yeah, absolutely. We’re at a very odd moment where it’s very hard for many Americans to imagine real systemic change. It may be a sense that things are harder for younger generations than they were for earlier generations, that things are getting worse rather than getting better. I think some of it is an understandable dissatisfaction with the political process. We’re at a moment where Congress is so partisan, and where the tactics of freezing forward movement are so powerful. And you combine that with problems that seem truly insurmountable. Climate change, you know, I think there’s a growing sense that we might’ve had a crack at it but we may have missed it.
I think in circumstances like that, it can be very very hard to have the collective ideology that says, “Let’s make this better for everyone.” Maybe the response at that point is to say, “How do I make the situation better for me? How do I get what I want and what I need?”
Anderson: Do you worry that there’s something biological that we’re up against there, almost a selfishness that is innate to us?
Zuckerman: I think there is a selfishness innate to humans, but I don’t see this somewhat nihilistic, “it’s getting worse not better so I’ll take care of myself” in all the societies that I hang out. I’m privileged enough to hang out in places that’ve just gone through democratic transitions. And when I talk to Tunisians, they are troubled and worried and fascinated, but they do have a sense that they’re moving somewhere. And that the somewhere they’re moving to may well be better than where they were before. And that they’re all engaged in the process. They may not like everyone who’s engaged in the process, and they may really be worried about what [inaudible] Islamists are engaged in the process. But they seem to be playing with a different arc. The ability to sort of think with audacity and at scale seems like something that is quite absent from American political dialogue right now. So I’m not willing to put it to biology. I think this is squarely in the space of culture, because I see other narratives taking place in other parts of the world.
Anderson: Beneath all of this, there’s a deep sense of the good that I’m getting in our conversation that involves aspects of egalitarianism, that involves democracy, that involves… We haven’t gotten into the material aspect too much, but I imagine there’s a sense that there’s a floor level of affluence that we would like to create. For you, where to those ideas come from?
Zuckerman: One of the foundational experiences of my life was moving to West Africa to study for a year when I was about twenty yeas old. I didn’t do particularly good research. I was an [inaudible] ecologist at that point. My writing coming out of that year was more or less crap. But what I got by the end of the year was a very clear sense that all my Ghanaian friends were phenomenally poor compared to my family, which was not rich by American standards. But that there were aspects of their families and aspects of their society that probably worked better. And that there are very very different ways to live that are equally [inaudible] happy.
And it’d take me decades to sort of process this and actually sort of think through the implications of this, but I guess what I would say is I think everyone has a definition of the good life. Everyone has an aspiration. And whether that aspiration is for an elimination of material [want?], whether it’s sufficient food and shelter, whether it’s access to opportunity— I think this is Amartya Sen’s sort of key discovery here, that development is freedom. It’s the freedom to behave in different ways. It’s the freedom to make choices. It’s the freedom not to be constrained by your material circumstances. But that other are people defining good in very very different ways. There are people for whom the good involves very tight family structures, collective ownership, collective decision-making. Things that don’t necessarily function all that well with the individualistic version of Western democracy.
I’m trying in many ways to get out of the habit of projecting my vision of the good onto others. But this doesn’t necessarily mean compromising my vision of the good. I believe in open societies. I believe in the free press. I believe in democratization. But it does mean when I encounter a friend in China saying, “That’s not our big priority right now,” that I have an obligation to try to figure out what they mean and what aspect of the good life that they are promoting conflicts with the definition that I’m putting forward. Doesn’t mean that I think that they’re right and I’m wrong, but forces me to think through it differently.
So, I use the term “cosmopolitan” in the subtitle of my new book, and I’m leaning on Kwame Appiah’s definition of cosmopolitanism. Appiah is a Ghanaian-American philosopher, teachers at Princeton, and thanks very deeply about crossing cultures. And he argues that cosmopolitanism is the combination of both realizing that they are very different value systems that other people might share and might believe just as strongly as I believe my value system. And not necessarily the sort of cultural relativism of saying they’re all equal and they all feel good, but saying, “Other people believe these things. And you may have obligations to them.” So, I’m willing to posit my vision of the good life. And I’m also happy to acknowledge that I think mine is shaped by my circumstances, my culture, my own individuality. I don’t know that it’s drawing from any particular political philosophy or stance, if that’s the answer you’re looking for.
Anderson: I think Lawrence Torcello would walk out of episode twenty-nine and give you a high five for saying that. He was really interested in okay, you’ve got all these people and they all do have different arational assumptions that you just can’t make agree. And we’re stuck in this pluralistic society together. We want to do the best we can. And he was really interest in how do you make that conversation happen. What Appiah was saying really resonates with I think a lot of things that Torcello thinks.
What I wonder, of course, is…is that its own comprehensive system? If you are sincerely a fundamentalist of some kind, then there is no compromise on some of those things, because part of your own comprehensive system is knowing that you’re right. And it’s knowing that some of that is non-negotiable.
Zuckerman: Yeah. I take some hope from my experiences as a freshman in college. I grew up in a largely secular mixed-faith Jewish/Christian household. And I get paired with a roommate who was Church of the Brethren, would’ve identified as evangelical. Deeply deeply deeply rooted in his faith. Brightest guy I’d ever met. And it was very clear to me that I had to start by getting rid of my assumption that people of faith were stupid. Which is probably a good thing, since I currently and hope to be for the rest of my life married to a rabbi. But, it was one of my preconceptions, was that you know, come on. All rational people are somewhere between general deist and agnostic or atheist.
Saul: friend Kurt had to deal with the fact that his heavy-drinking, drug-using, philosophy-reading, heavy metal-listening roommate was not in fact evil, though he might in fact be damned to Hell. And what happened after many months of very very very very long conversations is that we figured out that there were certain conversations that fairly quickly degenerated to, “You believe this and this is a pretty fundamental tenet of who you are. I believe something different. We’re probably not gonna sway each other on that, and that’s what we disagree on the other implications this.” And in other cases, we’d find maybe you know [inaudible] we’re just not talking talking about it the same way.
The only way you get there is through this first assumption of good faith. That your way of looking at the world is valid and meaningful, and I’m going to take enough time to listen and to understand it. To make that commitment to that conversation over a very long period of time. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not a simple path forward. But if you want to avoid that world of hunkering down, if you want to avoid that world of isolation, if you avoid the world where we give up on the public good and we each get what’s best for I rather than for we, that’s probably the first step.
Anderson: So conversation matters.
Zuckerman: Conversation matters.
Micah Saul: Conversation matters.
Aengus Anderson: I feel like when he says that he’s reaching out a hand and pulling us out of the swamp of self-doubt we have in this project where we go, “Does conversation really matter? Is the fix in? Are the systems too big?” Yeah, we should celebrate every time someone says that. Even when we’re not always necessarily persuaded. But let’s get into that more. Are we persuaded that conversation matters? Let’s start with the media paradigms.
Saul: So, these four media paradigms. I think that was really cool. This is a pretty new idea in the project. Sort of following the evolution of how we consume media.
Anderson: We sort of— I mean, we got into media from a very different direction in our conversation with Jenny Lee, but this is a really…different one with Ethan. It’s like a completely different side of media.
Saul: That said, I think there’s a connection here with these media consumption paradigms with Jenny Lee. Ethan’s just taking us one extra step.
Anderson: So, if I remember correctly Jenny Lee sort of leaves us off with we talk a lot about information glut and at some point you have to have filters. And for her one of the biggest filters was her friend group.
Saul: Right. That’s the shift from the search paradigm to the social paradigm. And then Ethan responds saying well you know, the social paradigm has its own big problems. The people you’re friends with are very likely very similar to you. And you end up with a bias.
Anderson: So you don’t learn about Ghana, which is Ethan’s great goal, to have us learn about Ghana, his stand in for essentially waking up to the rest of the world’s issues.
Saul: This is a very different place than we got with Jenny. Jenny was very interested in “there’s too much information so focus on the local.”
Anderson: You can get your head around that. There’s plenty of problems to solve there. Start there.
Saul: And Ethan says, “No no no no. These problems we’re looking at, they’re much much too large to address merely locally.”
Anderson: And so we get to the global through the fourth paradigm. We get to the global through serendipity, because we don’t even know what we want. We don’t know what we need as media consumers. And we sure as hell don’t know about Ghana.
Saul: We certainly do not know about Ghana. Let’s talk about serendipity for a second. I have a couple questions here. How tenable is this idea? We talk about information glut. And isn’t the engineered serendipity adding yet another stream to our already massive firehose of information that we’re consuming?
Anderson: Something that I edited out but the listeners should know about is that I’d mentioned that to Ethan, the information glut, and he said, “I don’t really buy that. We’re consuming more media than ever before. There’s space for a little bit of—” Well, there’s space on your plate for some vegetables.
Saul: Mm hm. I would have two responses to that. Let’s go with the easy one based on that analogy. Don’t most people just want meat?
Anderson: Well, that is a big problem, isn’t it? How do you change that, too? I mean, so say most people actually have the time for all kinds of media. You decide, “I’m going to read two stories a day selected by this serendipity engine, and I am going to know more about the world.” But you don’t want to, and there’s no one really forcing you to do that. So how do you get there? Like, I can hear Andrew Keen wailing in the background like, “Don’t say it goes back to education!”
Saul: Let’s go back to education. I mean, honestly that seems the only way, is to sometime in early life instill that sense of curiosity about the world.
Saul: Of course, all of this is based on a big assumption that we should care about Ghana.
Anderson: [laughs] I like his expressing it in that way. There’s a lot out there, and that it is directly related to us.
Saul: He goes a little farther than that, too. You know it’s not just solving these global problems. He thinks that there’s a deeper good in learning about Ghana.
Anderson: Does he?
Saul: Well, yes. I mean, it leads you to more knowledge, and it leads you to empathy. And it leads you to viewing the world as as one big world as opposed to the sort of parochial nation-state.
Anderson: I think the argument for that in terms of self-interest is so strong you could make it either way, that that is an intrinsic good or that at this point you’re screwed if you don’t.
Anderson: And I felt that in this conversation we didn’t get into as much of the arational. Clearly, there’s a deep sense of good beneath it for him. But Ethan says that he is somewhat pessimistic, but he also leaves us on a note of optimism, right?
Saul: Exactly. Conversation does matter.
Anderson: Yeah, and he gets us to the idea conversation mattering by a conversation with his college roommate. They’re two very different people. The one, the drug-using, heavy metal-listening atheists; that’s Ethan. And his roommate the Christian fundamentalist. And they have the conversation.
Saul: And that has really fundamentally affected how he looks at conversation and being able to talk to those that don’t share your views. My immediate thought was A> that’s awesome; B> Torcello would say they were able to have that conversation because they were both not only rational but they were reasonable. What would have happened if that evangelical Christian roommate was not reasonable? Or what would happen if Ethan was a little less reasonable, a little more…unyielding? You know, it’s all well and good that the two of them could have a conversation, but if you put I don’t know, the Reverend Billy Graham and Richard Dawkins in a room, conversation ain’t gonna happen there.
Anderson: That makes me think of Tim Morton’s example where he describes two such characters as summoning each other into being in a way that they are defined by what they’re not, right. They just can’t have conversation because of their own social needs.
Anderson: So do you feel that Ethan is adequately addressing the challenge of fundamentalism?
Saul: Yeah, I didn’t see a strong enough response to how you deal with fundamentalists.
Anderson: Is that because there simply isn’t one?
Saul: I think there isn’t one. I don’t… If the answer is engage them in conversation, we have the same problems we had with Torcello, which is what happens when they throw the chair at you?
Anderson: Right. And then that leaves you at the point of well, how do you move forward? As one who is reasonable, you don’t want to say, “Well, we don’t even try to have the conversation,” because that seems well…not very reasonable. So I think you have to say, we put as much stock conversation as we can and maybe you don’t dwell on the fundamentalism point.
Saul: I think in some ways this ties with…or it’s an extension of what we were mentioning earlier where the systems are too big and perfect knowledge is impossible, but gather what you can— You know, this is something very similar. This is maybe we can’t get to everybody, but we can have the largest conversation we possibly can. Because eventually we can have, maybe, a large enough conversation that we can actually effect some change.
Anderson: Intentionality, not morality as Francis Whitehead would say.
Saul: So, someone else who’s struggling with the tension between intentionality and morality is the next conversation.
Anderson: David Keith at Harvard. He studies geoengineering, one of the the biggest questions in town when you’re talking about climate. Should we attempt to stop global warming? There are a variety of tools to doing this, but all of them have implications for everybody on the planet. So they’re very thorny morally. They raise big questions environmentally. But there’s also the enormous question, as Ethan was leading us into earlier of, is inactivity worse? It’s also a decision. So we’re going to get into a lot of these big questions, and we’re going to talk in a very global sense again next conversation.
That was Ethan Zuckerman, recorded at MIT’s Center for Civic Media on October 24th, 2012.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.