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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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February 18, 2011

GlobalVoices live from Bahrain

GlobalVoices [twitter:globalvoices] is all over the Bahrainian protests:

Starting with our coverage of the Tunisian Revolution, Global Voices Online was one of the few media outlets following the story from its inception. GV authors have even become directly involved with the rebuilding of their country. During the #Jan25 Egyptian Revolution, GV authors were breaking through information blockades by reporting the events on the ground as the Egyptian government was switching the internet off. And now as protests begin to gather strength in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, Global Voices will be there to give you the firsthand accounts of citizen media journalists.

We invite you to follow our special coverage pages on Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain, and the rest of our Global Voices articles as we follow and amplify the voices of citizen media from around the world!

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January 1, 2011

Global voices at Global Voices

Global Voices has posted its list of most-read posts in 2010. The list includes blog posts from Haiti, Chile, Jamaica, Pakistan, Thailand, Israel, North Korea, Costa Rica, Russia, Philippines, Egypt, South Africa, Macedonia, Myanmar, Mali, Georgia, Philippines, Poland, India, Guatemala, Ecuador, Indonesia, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Japan, and Iran.

Where else do you get to hear this range of voices so clearly? Who else has a most-read list that so represents the globe?

By the way, the
#1 was the report on The Cala Boca Galvao Phenomenon, a hilarious phenomenon that Ethan Zuckerman helped popularize.

Have a fruitful new year, Global Voices. And to all the globe’s voices: Happy new year!

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November 27, 2010

Rio’s violence bloggified

Debora Baldelli has a thought-provoking post at Global Voices about the reaction in social media to the recent violence in Rio de Janeiro.

My interest was initially piqued because I was in Rio a few weeks ago for a library conference, and found the city fascinating, regretting that I had given myself only one meagre afternoon free. The beaches were empty, and the tourist industry was just groggily waking itself up. Above the eerily unused festive booths, the poor look down, quite literally, from favelas wrapping the bases of the sudden peaks emblematic of the city. The mountains then continue up in inhuman, humbling, vertical lines.

Some cities a casual visitor for a day can fool himself into thinking he understands. Not Rio.

So, I was very interested to read Debora’s round-up of what the local social media had to say about the police reaction to a wave of violence in the city. For example:

The need to know what is true or false, and which areas were or were not being attacked, made @casodepolicia launch two hashtags #everdade (#truth) and #eboato (#rumor), through which information revealed on the web was verified in real time. The tweet reached 10,000 followers on the fifth day of the terror in the city.

Debora is positive about the overall contribution of social media:

… a good portion of the violence reported after this series of attacks was already common before. The sounds of shooting are not exactly anything new in Rio de Janeiro. What is different this time, however, is that everything is happening at the same time, and everything is being spoken of, reported and investigated as part of the same giant problem. The population of the city is being tempted to speak out and be heard (whether through the Disque Denúncia [hotline] or whether on Twitter), and being taken seriously by the authorities. When a person reports via tweet, sees their report being investigated, and hears of police action, this not only stimulates the participation of residents but also gives credibility to the police. Everybody wins.

Of course, the voices being heard in the social media do not come from the favelas, as least in Debora’s report. Matters will be different yet again when we can hear those voices, instead of just feeling their gaze.

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October 27, 2010

Myanmar rebrands

Mong Palatino at Global Voices reports onMyanmar’s new flag and new name.

Here’s the old flag:

Myanmar's old flag

Here’s the new flag:

Myanmar's new flag

Hard not to agree with the anonymous comment that the new one looks like it was done with Microsoft Paint. And it’s very hard to know (especially from my safe vantage point far removed from Myanmar’s repressive regime) why they think the new one is better than the old one, although one of the comments cited at Global Voices points out that the old flag used the U.S. colors.

According to a Reuter’s article quoted by James Bow, “The order stipulated that the old flag had to be lowered by someone born on a Tuesday and the new flag had to be raised by someone born on a Wednesday, he said.” Ah, when astrolgers run countries.

Equally puzzling, at least to me, is the military junta’s decision to change the country’s name from Union of Myanmar to Republic of the Union of Myanmar in advance of the November 7 Parliamentary elections (which will keep the military in power). Why not just go whole hog and rename the place The Free Democratic Republic Union of Myanmar and Picayune-Times Express?

Except that Myanmar is no laughing matter.

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August 14, 2010

September 5, 2009

Bricolage

EatBees has a couple of very interesting posts (1 2) about bricolage in Morocco.

Bricolage is usually romanticized because it is a way those without resources can, through their inventiveness, make something out of scraps. But, EatBees writes about how a friend convinced him that as a integral part of Morocco’s economy, it isn’t just a sign of the culture’s inventiveness:

Bricolage…is a desperate response to a system in disrepair. My friend sees it as a sign of Moroccans’ misfortune, not as something to celebrate. Perhaps it is even a factor in perpetuating the breakdown, by accepting it as normal and multiplying it into the future. More professionalism is needed in Morocco, my friend would argue. The solution is to reform the broken-down system and do things the right way in the first place. However, this requires a material investment that is not being made; and bricolage is an engrained habit that will be hard to break.

(Thanks to Jillian York at Global Voices and Twitter. You might also want to read her post about the sense of otherness Americans (and others) can feel in Morocco.)

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July 3, 2009

Coup Coup Catch You?

Ethan is once again knowledgeable and provocative, this time about what it takes for a coup to get some attention in this country. He compares the media’s interest in Honduras’ institutional coup (as a guy called it last night on The News Hour) with the almost complete ignoring of various coups in Africa.

Ethan concludes (but read the whole thing):

So why does Honduras get the Iran treatment, while Niger is ignored like Madagascar? Proximity? Strategic importance? (though Niger’s got massive uranium reserves – you remember yellowcake, right?) It’s not population – Niger’s roughly twice the size of Honduras. Expectation? Perhaps we’re sufficiently accustomed to African coups (Madagascar, Mauritania and Guinea in the past year) that Niger’s not a surprise.

Or perhaps all the pundits are still trying to figure out which one’s Nigeria and which one’s Niger…

Ethan conspicuously leaves out racism — the soft racism (as that ol’ phrase President George W. Bush once put it) of not knowing, not caring, and not bothering to develop a narrative.

(By the way, be sure to click on the link in the quote from Ethan. It leads to one of The Onion’s funniest videos ever.)

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June 2, 2009

[berkman] Lokman Tsui: Beyond objectivity

Lokman Tsui is giving a Berkman talk called “Beyond Objectivity: Global Voices and the future of Journalism.” This is based on research he’s been doing for his doctoral dissertation.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Lokman has been long interested in the Chinese Internet. He was born and raised in Amsterdam, and says that the Dutch often don’t like difference and diversity; they’re struggling with the idea of cultural complexity. After wrestling with what to study, he talked with Andrew Lih and came away wanting to study something that works but that we don’t understand well. Lokman chose Global Voices.

He’s interested in “how the world comes to know itself.” Lokman thinks journalism is crucial to this. James Carrey [sp?]: The public is what forms when people get together to talk about the news. Now, with the Internet, we have strangers everywhere. “What does that mean for the kind of journalism we want?” Lokman cites Habermas. We need to re-think journalism. “My purpose here is not to celebrate the Internet” or to dismiss the dangers, but to see it as an historic opportunity. By thinking about the global nature of communication, we can design better institutions.

His research begins with a study of GV as a a “newsroom.” What are the journalists’ routines? How do they socialize? How do they get news? E.g., it used to be easy and convenient to get info from gov’t sources, leading to a bias towards those sources. But the GV newsroom is different. Multicultural, global. And the newsroom is online, which leads to different interactions and shapes the news. We need a new conceptual toolkit to understand it.

Is GV journalism at all? GV is the trickster of journalism, in Lewis Hyde’s sense: it provokes us to respond and develop. GV and journalism are both ways of seeing. There are three ideals of journalism, intertwined with ideals of democracy. (1) Professional J, with liberal democracy, aimed at providing information. (2) Alternative media, with participatory democracy, aimed at representation. (3) Public journalism along with deliberative democracy, aimed at conversation.For a long time, we’ve taken objectivity as the “gold standard” of journalism. But this doesn’t make sense for public journalism; it makes no sense to ask whether a conversation is objectivity. How do we judge conversations? GV gives some hints. GV supports “communicative” democracy (a la Iris Young) , aiming at conversation, and replacing objectivity with hospitality. Habermas was thinking of coffee houses where people have to bracket differences to enable conversation. Hospitality enables conversations even when there’s a disparity of power. Differences can be very useful in having a good conversation. E.g., the powerful host serves the guest, subverting the power relationship. That’s hospitality. It’s a way of judging journalism as well, seeking to include difference and diversity.

Hospitality goes back to Kant’s “Perpetual Peace.” His third law suggests that hospitality is a right based on the fact that we share a world. Kant says we cannot refuse a visitor if it will lead to his/her destruction. Hospitality is about access, recognition, and appropriate response. Arendt wrote about intersubjectivity as a way toward truth. We now have an abundance of stories on line. The constraints have changed, so the way we judge journalism should change. The challenge is that, while the cost of speech as gone down, our attention is still scarce.At RottenTomatoes.com, the objectivity is in the dry summary. But the subjective reviews are more interesting and useful. The professionals should aggregate and amplify all these voices. You need to put them all together. What would an aggregation site look like for the news? It’d look a bit like GV. You get curated news and posts and tweets, and then comments and conversation.

Q: [me] Why has the term “hospitality” become less used precisely when we are most in contact with different cultures?
A: It may be partially due to the paradox of choice, and a fear of the unknown that’s come about in recent years. We’re very happy to send our products, our TV programs, and our money everywhere. But the flow of people is restricted. And it’s a matter of being able to listen, which some places are better at than others. I’m playing with the hospitality ratio: how much you listen vs. how much you speak. E.g., how many films you import vs. expert. A few years ago I looked at how many links link back to you and how many links to others. I compared a-list blogs and newspapers. Newspapers didn’t link out much at all.

Q: How do we train people for journalism?
A: J is a craft as well as a profession. The Internet is making us think about J as a craft: pursuing excellence for its own sake in something you care about. Most GV people think of themselves as craftspeople. Q: Where’s the hook in what you’re saying? And, btw, journalist didn’t come out of people seeking the truth but hard-drinking people who were getting paid to present a point of view. Also, you might look at Erik Erikson.

Q: Hospitality is reciprocal. How might the concept of respect apply to journalism?
A: Reciprocity is a huge part of hospitality. It means journalist need to include more views.Q: There are many public spheres, even within GV.
A: Yes.

Q: Does GV connect to other kinds of civic spaces, other than journalism?
A: GV isn’t just a bunch of people trying to do journalism. It’s an infrastructure for other sorts of projects, such as translation, herdict.org… There are tons of other civic practices there. Q: [ethanz] I want to temper some of your optimism. I think it’s great that you’re offering a new criterion — hospitality — for evaluating journalism. I think these ideas get stronger in combination. My main criticism of your work is that you’re not critical enough of GV [which Ethan co-founded]. GV is at best partially successful.

[I missed the last few questions. Sorry.] [Tags: ]

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May 13, 2009

TED translates

TED has started a great new project: Distributed translations of TED Talks. Taking a page from Global Voices, it’s crowd-sourcing translations.

This is exactly what should happen and is a great solution for relatively scarce resources such as TED talks. Figure out how to scale this and get yourself a Nobel prize.

By the way, TED has also introduced interactive transcripts: Click on a phrase in the transcript and the video skips to that spot. Very useful. And with a little specialized text editor, we could have the edit-video-by-editing-text app that I’ve been looking for.

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