The U.S. leads the world in the amount of people regularly using the internet — yet, with all the information it brings into our lives, our media diet is typically pretty myopic. So says internet activist Ethan Zuckerman in his book, “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.” Zuckerman, who is also the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, posits that we can “rewire the world” by rethinking how we get our information, deliberately opening ourselves up to new ideas, perspectives and, eventually, innovation.
Brain World: Some people might think the internet is making us more aware than ever. Why do we need to rewire?
Ethan Zuckerman: The internet makes it possible to be more aware than ever of issues from around the world. But it doesn’t guarantee that you will [become aware], and, in some ways, it makes it more difficult than in the days of edited media. Before the internet, we found much of our news through editors, the people who put together newspapers or broadcast television.
They tended to pick and choose a mix of stories that included a heavy dose of international news, though that’s been changing in recent years. When we choose our own media diets online — through selecting websites to visit, researching topics via searches and encountering news through social media — we have a tendency to look for news that’s familiar and miss stories from places we know little about.
BW: What’s wrong with people wanting to live in comfortable media bubbles?
EZ: There are three problems with living in filter bubbles and echo chambers: One, being surrounded by the familiar tends to polarize us. If you’re liberal, hearing news only from liberals tends to make you more liberal. This makes it harder for us to have compromise in a democratic system and may help contribute to the challenging political climate in the U.S. today.
Two, if you’re isolated in terms of news from your community or nation, you may miss important trends taking place around the world. Those trends might be dangerous (diseases that spread across national borders) or positive (the growth of African economies, which has been a major investment opportunity).
Three, you’re missing out on the benefits of cognitive diversity. There’s a good deal of social-science research that suggests that people are better creative problem solvers when they approach an issue or a problem from different perspectives.
BW: Does our access to the internet make us smarter in any way?
EZ: The internet makes it possible to become very smart on any given topic very quickly. But it doesn’t do much to help us pick what topics to explore. The problems I’m considering are about what topics we choose to pay attention to. I’d never want to give up the benefits of the internet for finding rich information on a wide range of subjects.
BW: How did you find that language factors into the spread of ideas via the internet?
EZ: We have a tendency to be “linguistically locked.” We get information in our own languages and tend not to encounter information that exists in other languages, both because machine translation is quite poor and because search engines don’t point us to information in other languages. The danger is that we’re missing out on the perspectives and knowledge of people who don’t speak English — like [from the] more than 450 million Chinese people online.
BW: How does cognitive diversity benefit the workplace?
EZ: There are two strains of research that suggest that workplaces with a high degree of cognitive diversity are creative and good at solving problems. One branch of research looks at the value of approaching a challenging problem from multiple perspectives. Teams where people with multiple perspectives work together usually have a harder time cooperating at first but usually come up with better answers than homogeneous teams.
Another thread of research looks at creativity as an import-export business, which suggests that many creative ideas are taken from another situation, context, or culture and repurposed into creative solutions.
BW: What is something you recommend that we can all do to rewire our lives?
EZ: I recommend looking closely at what media you encounter for a week or more. I ask my students to keep a media diary, and I ask them to code whether they found anything surprising or unfamiliar and to look at what types of media were most likely to lead to serendipitous discovery. One surprise we found: Radio was often the most surprising medium, as you make very few choices when listening and tend to listen to whatever news is programmed for you. I also recommend that people not try to learn about the whole world at once. Pick a country that you’re interested in and start reading news from it and about it. It’s easier to build a connection to a place you’re interested in the culture of — pick a place where you love the food or the music and start learning the politics and the history.