Joho the Blog » ethan zuckerman

September 17, 2014

The problem is not with our imaginations

Yet another brilliant post by Ethan. (I think I’m going to turn that into a keyboard macro. I’ll just have to type ^EthanTalk and that opening sentence will get filled in.) It’s a reflection on the reaction to his piece in the Atlantic about advertising as the Net’s original sin, and the focus on his “confession” that he wrote the code for the Net’s first popup ad.

But I think I actually disagree with one of his key points. In other words, I’m very likely wrong. Nevertheless…

Ethan explains why the Net has come to rely on advertising money:

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

He recommends that we question our assumptions so we can come up with more imaginative solutions.

I agree with Ethan’s statement of the problem, and admire his ability to put it forward with such urgency. But it seems to me that the problem is less a failure of imagination than the success of the power of incumbent systems.Is access to the Net in exactly the wrong hands because of the failure of someone to imagine a better way, or because of the structural corruption of capitalism? Similarly, why are we failing to slow global warming in an appreciable way? (Remember when Pres. Reagan took down the solar panels Pres. Carter had installed on the White House?) Why are elections still disproportionately determined by the wealthy? In each of these cases, imagination has lost to entrenched systems. We had innovative ways of accessing the Net, we’ve had many great ideas for slowing global warming, we have had highly imaginative attempts to get big money out of politics, and they all failed to one degree or another. Thuggish systems steal great ideas’ lunch money. Over and over and over.

Ethan of course recognizes this. But he ties these failures to failures of the imagination when one could just as well conclude that imagination is no match for corrupt systems — especially since we’ve now gone through a period when imagination was unleashed with a force never before seen, and yet the fundamental systems haven’t budged. This seems to be Larry Lessig’s conclusion, since he moved from CreativeCommons — an imaginative, disruptive approach — to a super-Pac that plays on the existing field, but plays for the Good Guys ‘n’ Gals.

Likewise, one could suggest that the solution — if there is one — is not more imagination, but more organizing. More imagination will only work if the medium still is pliable. Experience suggests it never was as pliable as some of us thought.

But the truth is that I really don’t know. I don’t fully believe the depressing “bad thugs beat good ideas” line I’ve just adumbrated. I certainly agree that it’s turning out to be much harder to overturn the old systems than I’d thought twenty or even five years ago. But I also think that we’ve come much further than we often realize. I take it as part of my job to remind people of that, which is why I am almost always on the chirpier side of these issues. And I certainly think that good ideas can be insanely disruptive, starting with the Net and the Web, and including Skype, eBay, Open Source, maps and GPS, etc.

So, while I don’t want to pin the failure of the Net on our failure of imagination, I also still have hope that bold acts of imagination can make progress, that our ability to iterate at scale can create social formations that are new in the world, and that this may be a multi-generational fight.

I therefore come out of Ethan’s post with questions: (1) What about this age made it possible even to think that imagination could disrupt our most entrenched systems? (2) What makes some ideas effectively disruptive, and why do other equally imaginative good ideas fail? And what about unimaginative ideas that make a real difference? The Birmingham bus boycott was not particularly imaginative, but it sure packed a wallop. (3) What can we do to make it easier for great acts of imagination to become real?

For me, #1 has to do with the Internet. (Color me technodeterminist.) I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about #2. And I still have hope that the answer to #3 has something to do with the ability of billions of people to make common cause— and, more powerfully, to iterate together — over the Net. Obviously #3 also needs regulatory reform to make sure the Internet remains at least a partially open ecosystem.

So, I find myself in deep sympathy with the context of what Ethan describes so well and so urgently. But I don’t find the rhetoric of imagination convincing.

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February 23, 2012

[2b2k] Ethanz on linguistic isolation

Ethan Zuckerman asks a simple question — is there a correlation between how many outside news sources the people in a country consult and whether those people’s language is spoken mainly in their own country? — and leads us through the quantifiable maze looking for an answer.

Ethan defines “linguistic isolation” as “how well does the dominant language of your nation affect your ability to engage with information produced in other countries?” Using data from Worldmapper, and after some careful discussion of the limitations of that data (e.g., he only considers first languages, which obviously skews results for countries where many residents speak a second language, especially since one would expect (note: I am data-free!) that in many linguistically isolated countries there is a premium on learning a second, more globally popular language), he concludes:

…looking at data from 31 countries, there’s some correlation (R2=0.38) between linguistic isolation and low international readership. But there are exceptions – Argentina and Chile both have very low isolation scores, but they don’t read a lot of Mexican or Spanish news… or even each other’s news. South Africans show high linguistic isolation (languages like Zulu and Afrikaans aren’t widely spoken outside South Africa), but read a lot of international media in English, though it’s a minority language. I’m looking forward to examining a larger set of media consumption data and trying this linguistic isolation score alongside other factors, like total population (small nations might read larger nations’ news) and migrant population (the desire to read news from home.)

I’m not a quant (obviously), but I like watching people who are when they are asking fascinating questions, and when they teach as clearly as Ethan does.

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June 22, 2011

Ethanz to head the MIT Civic Media Center

Ethan Zuckerman has been named the new director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media.

This is fantastic news for the Center. There is no one imaginably better for this position than Ethan. Plus, Ethan and Joi Ito [twitter:joi] (new head of MIT’s Media Lab) will be working together, which promises a type of quantum energy not seen since the Big Bang.

Ethan of course will have less time to spend at the Berkman Center, where he is an irreplaceable source of heart and brains. But, he’s actually going to be in Cambridge considerably more than he has been (he commutes from western Mass.), and the two centers are already discussing deeper, richer collaborations.

I am privileged to count Ethan as a close friend, and I couldn’t be happier for him. Plus, the collective, collaborative energy emanating from Cambridge is about to multiply. Woohoo!

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May 16, 2011

Ethan on serendipity and cosmopolitanism

Ethan Zuckerman blogs the brilliant and delightful “extended dance mix” of his talk on serendipity at CHI 2011.


He begins by wondering why people migrate to cities, even when those cities have been vastly unappealing, as per the stink of London in the mid 19th century. “You came to the city to become a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.” You may still have encountered a tiny stretch of humanity that way, but you’d at least be in a position to receive information about the rest of the world. “To the extent that a city is a communications technology, it may not be a surprise that early literally portrayals of the internet seized on the city as a metaphor.”


Ethan wonders if cities actually do work as “serendipity engines,” as we hope they do. Nathan Eagle “estimates that he can predict the location of ‘low-entropy individuals’ with 90-95% accuracy” based on aggregated mobile phone records. [Marta C. Gonzalez, Cesar A. Hidalgo & Albert-Laszlo ? Barabasi recently in Nature made a related claim.] We are not as mobile as we think, and our patterns are more routinized than we’d like to believe. Even in cities we manage to mainly hang out with people like ourselves.


Likewise on the Net, Ethan says. He’s analyzed the media preferences of 33 nations, and found that countries that have 40+ million Net users tend to strongly prefer local news sources. The result is “we miss important stories.” Even if we are well-plugged in to a social network, we’re not going to learn about that which our friends do not know. Ethan reminds us that we need to worry about “filter bubbles,” as Eli Pariser calls them. While social filters are powerful, if they only filter your own network, they are likely to hide more than they show.


Against this Ethan recommends serendipity, which requires “an open and prepared mind.” We should learn from cities when designing Web spaces that enable and encourage serendipity. “What makes cities livable, creative, vital, and ultimately, safe is the street-level random encounter that [Jane] Jacobs documented in her corner of Greenwich Village.” Design to “minimize isolation.”


Ethan then talks about some of the ways we get guided serendipity in cities — friends showing you around, local favorites, treating a city like a board game via geocaching, etc. As always, Ethan has some amazing examples. (He even points to the Library Innovation Lab‘s ShelfLife project, where I work; I promise I didn’t realize that until I’d already started blogging about his post.)


I’d started blogging about Ethan’s post because I love what he says even though I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to much of what people say about serendipity on the Net. Ethan is different. His post represents a full-bodied conceptualization. I read it and I nod, smile at the next insight, then nod again. So, what follows is not a commentary on Ethan’s post. It’s actually all about my normal knee-jerk reaction. (Oh, bloggers, what _isn’t_ all about you?) I’m trying to understand why serendipity doesn’t square with the hole in my own personal pegboard.


Perhaps the problem is that I think of serendipity as a sub-class of distraction: Serendipity occurs when something that hijacks our attention (= a distraction) is worthwhile in some sense. We now have social networks that are superb at sharing serendipitous findings. So, why don’t we pass around more stuff that would make us more cosmopolitan? Fundamentally, I think it’s because interest is a peculiar beast. We generally don’t find something interesting unless it helps us understand what we already care about. But the Other — the foreign — is pretty much defined as that to which we see no connection. It is Other because it does not matter to us. Or, more exactly, we cannot see why or how it matters.

Things can matter to us in all sorts of ways, from casting a contrasting intellectual light on our everyday assumptions to opening up sluices of tears or laughter. But cosmopolitanism requires some level of understanding since it is (as I understand it) an appreciation of differences. That is, we can (and should) be filled with sorrow when we see a hauntingly disturbing photo of a suffering human in a culture about which we know nothing; that’s a connection based on the fundament of shared humanity, but it’s not yet cosmopolitanism. For that, we also have to appreciate the differences among us. Of course, appreciating differences also means finding the similarities. It is a dialectic for sure, and one so very easy to get wrong and impossible to get perfectly right: We misunderstand the Other by interpreting it too much in our own terms, or we write it off because it is so outside our own terms. Understanding always proceeds from a basic situatedness from which we make sense of our world, so cosmopolitan understanding is always going to be a difficult, imperfect dance of incorporating into the familiar that which is outside our usual ken.

This is why I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitanism primarily in terms of serendipity. Serendipity sometimes — not in Ethan’s case — is proposed as a solution as if we can take our interest in the Other for granted: Just sneak some interesting African videos into our usual stream of youtubes of cute cats and people falling off of trampolines, and we will become more cosmopolitan. But, of course we will fast forward over those African videos as quickly as we used to turn the pages in newspapers that reported on Africa. The problem isn’t serendipity. It’s that we don’t care.

But, we can be brought to care. We know this because there are lots of examples (and Ethan recounts just a handful of the trove at his command) of our attention being arrested by cosmopolitan content. To generalize with a breadth that is sure to render the generalization vapid, cosmopolitan content that works — that gets us interested in something we hadn’t realized we cared about — seems to have two elements. First, it tells us what we need to know in order to let the otherness matter to us. Second, it is really well done. Both of these are difficult, and there is not a known formula for either of them. But there are also lots of known ways to try; Ethan gives us bunches of examples. Creating cosmopolitan content that works requires craft and, if it is to be transformative, art. It can range from the occasional Hollywood movie, to New Yorker articles, to blog posts, to Anthony Bourdain, to Ethan Zuckerman. Content that creates interest in itself may be extraordinarily difficult to craft, but it is a precusor to the possiblity of serendipity.

Take the wildly successful TED Talks as an example. They satisfy a need the “market” didn’t know it had, and if asked would probably deny: “Hey, do you have a burning interest in questioning the assumptions of bio-engineering?” TED Talks ripple through the social networks of serendipity because they create interest where formerly there wasn’t any. That’s how social serendipity works: It begins with works that through skill, craft, and art generate their own motive power. TED shows us that if we are trying to remedy the dearth of intellectually stimulating materials passing through social networks, we should worry first about creating materials that compel interest. Compelling materials create social serendipity. And the corollary: Nothing is interesting to us until it makes itself interesting to us.

But perhaps it simply comes down to this. Perhaps I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitianism primarily as a problem with the lack of serendipity because I personally approach the world as a writer, and thus focus on the challenge of generating interest among readers. When I see people passing over a topic, I think, “Oh, it must not have been written well enough.” And on that idiosyncratic worldview, I would not seiously base an analysis of a topic as vast and important as the one that Ethan Zuckerman continues to address so profoundly.

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October 14, 2010

It’s a small world

Jeez. I just took a break from working on the last chapter. The paragraph I’d just written mentioned Ethan Zuckerman’s work on how we might get past our smug homophily, followed by a brief reminder that there’s lots of value in having many weak ties. Knowledge disseminates and is retrievable through weak ties, and innovation is often spurred through such networks. I was thinking of adding something about Ronald Burt‘s work on the importance of “structural holes”, i.e., the places between the network clusters; Burt writes: “people who stand near the holes in social structure are at the highest risk of having good ideas.”

But, instead I stopped for a moment and checked Ethan’s blog. Sure enough, he’s got a substantial, brilliant post about the value of weak ties, Ronald Burt, and the dissemination of news.

Yet another great post from the Ethanator.

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July 14, 2010

TEDglobal talks, blogged by Ethanz the Amazing

Ethan Zuckerman, the world’s best live blogger — full awesomeness for his intellect, his writing talent, and his typing skills – is blogging TEDglobal. He is a prodigy of live blogging. I can’t even list all of the talks he’s blogged.

And Ethan’s own TED talk there is brilliant, funny, surprising, and compassionate.

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February 15, 2010

Ethan Zuckerman hides it in plain sight

I’m a little late getting to this because the first time I saw it, I thought Ethan was writing about geocaching, a topic I knew little about because I, well, didn’t care. But Ethan is after bigger game, even while doing a pretty spectacular job of showing geocache’s appeal.

Spoiler:

’m interested in building structures that facilitate serendipity, because I worry that I, you and everyone else spends too much time walking familiar paths and too little time wandering in the wilderness.

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November 28, 2009

Andrew Zuckerman starts a blog

My deepest wishes for happiness go to Rachel and Ethan and their beautiful son Andrew.

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November 11, 2009

ethanz blogs, well, me

I’ve been honored with one of Ethan Zuckerman’s incredible liveblog postings. I gave a 45 min talk at the Berkman Center yesterday. I spoke quickly, waved my hands a lot, and spewed. [Rough draft here.] Even so, Ethan was able to commit an amazing act of streaming journalism, with very few places where I would even quibble with his summary and analysis.

He posted it immediately after I spoke, which I can attest to because if you read it you would never think that it was an unedited draft. It’s too thoughtful and well-written for that. This is Ethan writing on the fly, not merely typing or transcribing. Amazing.

independent of all that, I am very fortunate to be able to call Ethan a close friend.

[Later that day: Here's the video of the webcast.]

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October 7, 2009

Ethanz on Don Tapscott on the passing of the couch potato

Ethan Zuckerman reports — and he’s the best live-blogger there is — on Don Tapscott‘s stories at the BIF-5 conference.

Here’s a snippet of Ethan reporting on Don:

“If you spend 24 hours a week being a passive participant, consuming tv – as Baby Boomers did – you get a certain sort of brain.” If you spend those hours searching, researching and building connections, you get a very different brain.

Tapscott wants to refute the idea that the internet is making kids dumb. There’s no data to support this, he tells us. Instead, we’re seeing radical societal change, especially around the structure of the family. Kids and parents get along as friends, and sometimes they move back in after graduation. He wonders, “is this the first time in history that we can learn from young people and their new culture of work and learning?”

By the way, Ethan told me the topics he was planning on covering in his own 20-minute BIF story. Fabulous. I hope he blogs that as well.

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