How the Internet is Shrinking Our Worlds

October 29, 2013
By Jenny Li Fowler, HKS Communications

Ethan Zuckerman wants you to expand your world – and he believes the Internet as we know it today is not going to help you do that.
Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection,” told a group gathered for a Brown Bag lunch on Tuesday (Oct.29) that the Internet is a homophily, which is the tendency for individuals to associate and bond with others similar to them.
“An enormous amount of what we’ve built makes it possible for us to essentially say, ‘I want to know about people who I know matter to me…and I want to know about that possibly at the expense of a wider view of the world,’” Zuckerman said.
“The problem with searching for what you want [on the Internet], is that you get exactly what you want. You don’t necessarily get what you might need to know about the world,” Zuckerman argued. “Here’s where this ends up being a problem – most of the problems we are dealing with that are deep and intractable are actually global in scale. Whether it’s a question of pollution, in climate change…epidemic disease…it’s very, very hard to think of a big problem that wouldn’t require some aspect of multinational perspective.”
Zuckerman illustrated how your world could shrink further through social media since web searches are based on the information that friends provide to one another. For example, “if you want to search for a restaurant in New York City we are by default going to construct the search by what your friends like in New York City,” says Zuckerman. He added that Facebook does this because it’s profitable.
“If you can hand people information that is comfortable and consonant with what they believe and what they want to know, people will load more web pages, and this is why we’re going down this path.”
Here’s where Zuckerman believes policy regulation can help.
“What we really need now is a consumer movement. We need consumers to say, ‘we want and need a neutral Internet.’ If we don’t we’ll get a commercially driven net that tries to protect the commercial interests but doesn’t necessarily protect the citizenship interest."
Zuckerman argued that he is optimistic about the future of the Internet and its users, and as co-founder of Global Voices, he is hoping to build a community which seeks to aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online – shining light on places and people other media often ignore.
Zuckerman's talk was sponsored by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT

“If you can hand people information that is comfortable and consonant with what they believe and what they want to know, people will load more web pages, and this is why we’re going down this path.”

 


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