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 tri​pod​.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 glob​alvoic​eson​line​.org [now glob​alvoic​es​.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.

Anderson: Okay.

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 9095% 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.

Anderson: Right.

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.

Saul: Sure.

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.

Saul: Right.

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.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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