Table of Contents
Introduction (outline only)
Chapter 1: Rehabilitating Cyberutopianism
Chapter 2: Imaginary Cosmopolitanism
Chapter 3: When What You Know is Who You Know
Chapter 4: Global Voices
Chapter 5: Found In Translation
Chapter 6: Bridges and Xenophiles
Chapter 7: Stumbling Towards Serendipity (partial)
The Wider World
Chapter 8: The Connected Shall Inherit (outline only)
"It is hardly possible to overstate the value in the present state of human improvement of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar."
- John Stuart Mill
"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."
- Henry David ThoreauIntroduction:
My trip to Accra for the first time in 1993 – discovering my profound ignorance of another part of the world
Discovery on my return to the US of possible parallel paths – life in Ghana was better in some ways than the US, worse in others, but primarily different, equally valid.
Ability to encounter different, valid ways to live – and to explore our connections and responsibilities to each other – incredibly enhanced by internet
Paradox: as internet gets more common, used less often for this sort of connection
Book is not designed to persuade you of the importance of living in a highly connected world. Instead, it’s for people who believe that’s important and are finding they’re less connected than they hoped.
Ultimately, an odd sort of a how-to book – how to fix the internet, media, our attention to thrive in a connected world.
Structure – disconnect looks at the ways media and the internet fall short of connecting us and the reasons why. Rewire looks at three ideas – translation, contextualization – serendipity – that are key ingredients in strategies to use the net better. Last section offers thoughts about what rewiring would mean for us personally and as a society.
Chapter 1 - Rehabilitating Cyberutopianism
Shortly after Wisconsin governor Scott Walker unveiled legislation that would limit collective bargaining rights for most public employees, thousands of protesters occupied the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. They were angry, and as the protest wore on, they were hungry. Late at night on February 15th, 2011, a protester called Ian's Pizza, a small local chain renowned for its Mac and Cheese slices, and asked whether the business would donate any leftover pizza to fuel the protesters. The store responded with a gift of 60 slices, far from enough to feed the thousands assembled, but generous enough to capture the imagination of state Senator Lena Taylor, who announced the gift from Ian's to the crowd.i
University of Washington student David Vines was blogging the protests for the Huffington Post and shared Taylor's 3am announcement with his online readership.ii His passing reference to the donation apparently inspired protest supporters to offer political assistance through pizza. The first order came the next morning from California, requesting two pizzas delivered to the State House to feed protesters. Within a few days, Ian's was delivering hundreds of pizzas a day, increasing its staff from eight to nineteen, and capping off daily donations at $25,000, because that's all the pizza they're able to produce. A chalkboard in Ian's State Street store tracked the origins of donations pf pizza for protesters. By February 24th, the board featured gifts from all 50 US states, 53 countries and Antarctica. iii
The order that inspired the most discussion came from a country engaged in its own political struggle. A server at Ian's told Al Jazeera's John Terrett, "It was really cool, I took a call from Cairo in Pennsylvania, put the phone down and immediately took one from Cairo, Egypt!"iv Less that a week earlier, popular protests centered in Tahrir Square led to the departure of long-serving Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as military forces sided with the protesters and demanded Mubarak's ouster.
Pro-labor demonstrators in Wisconsin saw apparent parallels between their struggle to fight union-busting legislation proposed by a democratically elected governor and Egyptians' struggle to oust an election-rigging dictator. Several signs carried by protesters labeled Governor Walker "The Mubarak of the Midwest". Others featured the soles of shoes, a symbol of disrespect and political anger in the Middle East introduced to most Americans when a visit by President George W. Bush to Iraq featured to shoes hurled at his head by an Iraqi journalist.v
The pizza sent from Cairo was edible evidence of solidarity between activists in the Middle East and the American midwest... though it's impossible to verify whether the caller and his credit card were actually in Egypt. But other pieces of digital evidence suggest at least some Egyptians were watching events unfold in Madison: a photo of a protester near Tahrir Square whose English-language sign reads, "Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers - One World, One Pain", a web video from Egyptian union organizer Kamal Abbas assuring Wisconsin organizers that the global labor movement stood behind their struggle.vi
A few days before, Wisconsinites watched protests unfold in Egypt not just through broadcast television, but by tuning into Qatar-based Al Jazeera, which streamed English-language coverage to hundreds of thousands of viewers via the Internet. Mohamed Nanabhay, head of online media for Al Jazeera, reported that the network's website experienced 200 times its usual webstream traffic during the Egyptian revolution, and that 45,000 American users later emailed their cable providers, requesting that they carry the network's coverage.vii Some tuned into Twitter for a less varnished account, following Egyptian protesters like Mahmoud Salem (@sandmonkey) or Tarek Amr (@gr33ndata) who tweeted from the frontlines. That activists in Cairo would be watching their brethren in Madison and sending pizza in solidarity a few days later seemed almost an inevitable consequence of our connected age.
But not all acts of international connection are as uncomplicated as a transoceanic pizza order.
While protesters in Egypt swept up debris in Tahrir Square and Wisconsin activists scarfed down donated slices, Amina Arraf began writing about her experiences as an out lesbian in Damascus, Syria on her blog, "A Gay Girl in Damascus". Her long, autobiographical essays written in English initially gained little attention, though they provided an unusual perspective on life in a country where sectarian and political tensions were rising. Amina wasn't just a visible, out lesbian - she actively supported the fall of the Assad regime, a stance that helped with her fans like influential blogger Andrew Sullivan. Her April 26th post, titled "My Father, the Hero" detailed a visit from Syrian security forces who wanted to arrest the blogger for her Salafist sympathies, and her father’s defiant response. The harrowing account caught the attention of readers around the world, and of UK newspaper The Guardian, which published a long interview with her, conducted by a journalist working in Damascus under a pseudonym.
On June 6th, 2011, a post appeared on "A Gay Girl in Damascus", written by Amina's cousin, announcing that the blogger had been kidnapped by thugs and was likely being detained by the Syrian government. Her internet friends sprang into action, advocating for her release on Twitter using the hashtag #FreeAmina and quickly gathering 14,000 supporters on a Facebook group. Amina had written about her dual US/Syrian citizenship and Andy Carvin, who had been curating discussions of the Arab spring on Twitter for his employer, National Public Radio, called the US State Department to advocate for her release and seek information on her case. An online campaign poster featured a sketch of Amina and a quote from one of her poems: "Borders mean nothing when you have wings."viii
While hundreds posted their concerns about Amina's disappearance, a much smaller group reacted to the news by questioning her very existence. Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty from online news site Electronic Intifada and Liz Henry, a programmer and activist, began unearthing information that suggested that Amina was either not who she claimed to be. Melissa Bell and Elizabeth Flock at the Washington post also began turning up leads. Photos of Amina posted online and reprinted by the Guardian proved to have been taken from the Facebook account of Jalena Lecic, a Croatian woman living in London with no apparent Syrian connections. Amina's friend (and possible girlfriend) Sandra Bagaria confirmed to Henry that her relationship with Amina had been purely online - she'd never met the woman face to face. The State Department told Carvin that they'd had no contact from Amina's family, or any reports of a US passport holder being abducted in Damascus.
Amina's rapidly unraveling identity began to lead to Tom MacMaster, a 40-year old American pursuing a masters in history at Edinburgh University. On June 12th, six days after the "disappearance", MacMaster came clean on Amina's blog, admitting that Amina was a "sockpuppet", an identity created to allow him to express his opinions through another's voice. His online apology read, in part, "While the narrative voıce may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about."
More than a few of his readers weren't willing to hold McMaster harmless. Gay Syrian activist "Daniel Nasser" detailed the harms in an essay for Foreign Policy: the Syrian government began to seek out and arrest gay Syrians, suspecting they were involved in anti-government protests as Amina was, and the family and friends of out gay men and women urged them back into the closet for their safety. Nasser, who had used his real name and photo online for years, began writing under a pseudonym.ix Other commenters observed that MacMaster had made it easier for Bashar al-Assad to dismiss criticisms of his repressive regime as "foreign lies". Examination of MacMaster's story led to the unveiling of "Paula Brooks", the editor of "Lez Get Real", a site that had promoted Amina's writings as Bill Graber, a 58-year old construction worker from Ohio, prompting designer Adam Greenfield to quip on Twitter, "It's fake lesbians all the way down."
MacMaster told reporters that he'd begun writing in Amina's voice years earlier because he felt his identity as an American man meant his opinions about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict weren't taken seriously: "So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue."x By dramatizing the circumstances faced by activists and dissidents in Syria, MacMaster felt he would bring their stories and concerns to a wider audience. As media scrutiny and public pressure wore on MacMaster, he removed most of Amina's blog and left the remaining apologetic posts with an epigram: "The Image is not the Real; When you realize that you were reading a story, rather than the news, who should you be angry at? The teller of tales that moved you?"
Whether MacMaster illuminated Syrian issues for a wider audience, endangered actual gay Syrians, or a mix of both, his hoax sparked lively debate about the power and limits of participatory media for elucidating events on the ground in countries closed to international journalists. The Syrian/American anchor of CNN International Hala Gorani tweeted: "The most infuriating aspect of Tom MacMaster’s 'hoax' is [his] claim media’s interest in #Amina reveals superficial coverage of Mideast. Please. Media were interested bc MacMaster’s lie put a human face on a story we cannot cover in person. That is why there was interest."xi That hunger for voices from the ground may help explain why The Guardian was willing to post an interview with a person their reporter never met in person, helping validate MacMaster's deception.xii
Speaking at a conference at MIT, NPR's Carvin explained that he knew many of accounts he was curating from Syria were posted under pseudonyms by authors trying to avoid exposure and arrest. The unmasking of Amina raised the important but uncomfortable question of how to distinguish between pseudonyms used to protect an author and those used deceive an audience. Is the chorus of online voices from Syria praising the Assad regime and condemning the protests an authentic response to Amina's inauthentic voice, the product of a PR campaign orchestrated by the government or a mix of both? Recent revelations that the US Air Force has sought an "Online Persona Management" service, which would allow "an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries," suggests an interest from the US government in systems that allow a single individual to perpetuate MacMaster's hoax on a massive scale.xiii
The pizzas ordered in Cairo are one representation of our hopes for the power of connection. We can follow events in every corner of the globe, and we can find ways to lend our support to individuals we see as fellow travelers. Perhaps we can't oppose Mubarak in Tahrir or Walker in Madison, but we can use the power of our communications networks to offer our support in small but significant ways. The Amina story suggests that there's a whole Pandora's box of possible ill-effects of international connection. It's easier than ever to misrepresent our identities, to speak in another's voice to manipulate public opinion and to deceive. And perhaps MacMaster is right - perhaps we are more likely to pay attention to an American man pretending to be a Syrian lesbian than to the voices of people actually on the ground.
Both the solidarity pizzas and the Syrian sockpuppets are the exception, not the rule. Despite the potential for international connection, moments of international attention are rare, and acts of solidarity are rarer. The revolution in Egypt was preceded by a successful revolution in Tunisia, where street protests ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 27 years of dictatorial rule. The protests began in a small town in central Tunisia, Sidi Bouzid, where an unemployed man named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after a policewoman confiscated his illegal vegetable stall, probably seeking a bribe.
Bouazizi and Sidi Bouzid became rallying points for a Tunisian population, fed up with endemic corruption and misrule. Protesters took to the streets in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, the day Bouasisi set himself aflame. They documented their marches by posting video on Facebook, and dissident media site Nawaat, run by Tunisian expats, passed key bits onto Al Jazeera, which broadcast the revolution in a small town across the Arab world. By broadcasting the Facebook videos, Al Jazeera mirrored Tunisia to itself and let people in cities far from Sidi Bouzid make the decision to join in the revolution.
But the combination of social and broadcast media was surprisingly poor at sharing the revolution outside the Middle East. The first appearance of the phrase "Sidi Bouzid" in the New York Times was on January 15th, the day Ben Ali stepped down from power, the culmination of the revolution. (Times blogger Robert Mackey mentioned the protest's center three days earlier, with a post on the Times's website on January 12th.) Once the government fell, a wave of stories swept through English language media for about a week, until protests in Egypt captured the popular imagination. Still, the Tunisian revolution never received the attention the Egyptian protests enjoyed. A Lexus/Nexus search finds that more stories in English-language newspapers mentioned "Tahrir" in a single day (February 1, 2011) than mentioned "Sidi Bouzid" over the two months of the Tunisian revolution (December 2010 and January 2011).
Lebanese-American journalist Octavia Nasr followed the story from early on and expressed her frustration in an interview with PBS: "For four weeks, Tunisia was ignored in our media. They didn’t pay attention to the story until it was so huge and in their face, they couldn’t ignore it anymore.”xiv One explanation offered for American and European media silence was government support for Ben Ali: so long as the US considered Ben Ali a useful ally, media outlets weren't inclined to report on the story. While thoughtfully cynical, this explanation fails to explain why a movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, a dictator far more central to US interests in the region, received widespread coverage in American media, while the Tunisian revolution registered only when it was over.
A simpler explanation is this: most Americans and Europeans missed the Tunisian revolution because they weren't paying attention. The protests began to gain momentum over Christmas and New Years, a time when many people focus their attention on family and friends instead of news of the world. Tunisia's government-dominated press didn't report on the protests, and the independent media sites tracking the events were largely unknown outside the Tunisian diaspora.
As it turns out, the US intelligence community wasn't paying much attention either. President Obama confronted National Intelligence Director James Clapper and told him he was "disappointed with the intelligence community" for their failure to provide adequate warning of the ouster of the Ben Ali and Mubarak governments. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the US Senate Intelligence Community wondered why protests promoted through social media escaped the scrutiny of military intelligence: "Was someone looking at what was going on the Internet?"xv
The Paradox of Connectivity
We are at a moment in time where the potential for human beings to know about what's going on in a distant corner of the world has never been higher. Technologies like the internet, satellite television, voice over IP telephony, overnight delivery, transcontinental airflight and container shipping make it possible for us to interact and transact with people throughout the world. The flow of goods, people, money and ideas means that what happens in other parts of the world has impacts on our economies, our health, our environment and our daily lives. It's a moment when we'd expect people to have an intense interest in news from around the world, to decipher what's going on and position ourselves for the future.
And yet, that's not what appears to be happening. In the US, television news features less than half the coverage of international news than it did 30 years ago. Newspapers in the UK publish 45% fewer international news stories than they did in 1979, though their newspapers have expanded vastly in size. And the internet, which puts news and perspective from around the globe at our fingertips, is used far more for domestic communication than for international. Social networking sites that offer us the chance to befriend people anywhere in the world are at least as powerful - and far more often used - to reconnect with friends closer to home.
It's possible that the internet is connecting people across national borders in unprecedented ways, and that pizzas sent from Cairo to Madison are just a first act in the long process through which technology obviates traditional ideas of nation and draws us together. It's also possible, and worth careful consideration, that technologies that enable international connection are actually serving to isolate us by allowing us to connect primarily with the local and likeminded, rendering us more extreme in our viewpoints and less able to communicate across barriers of language and culture.
My suspicion - and fear - is that the internet is doing a little bit of both and not enough of either. In a few cases, the Internet allows us a front-row seat for events unfolding in far corners of the world and the chance to help fellow human beings shape their histories. In a few other cases, the close connection with people we don't know or understand well leads to deception, misunderstanding and harm on all sides.
Most of the time, however, we simply fail to connect, and our use of the infrastructures of globalization is primarily local. That can be a problem. We're at a moment when the most interesting problems - social, economic, environmental - require solutions that are global in scale and execution. And while the internet may be the most powerful tool to enable human connection and understanding since the written word, the connections we've collectively built online seem to fall far short of our expectations and hopes.
History suggests that we're not the first people to have overwraught hopes and fears about the potential for communications technology to make the world smaller. In an excellent book titled "The Victorian Internet", The Economist's technology editor Tom Standage offers a compendium of optimistic predictions for the telegraph, termed by one contemporary commentator "the highway of thought". Standage examines coverage of the linking of the US and the UK via transatlantic submarine cable and sees rhetoric that sounds familiar to anyone who lived through the rise of the internet to public prominence in the late 1990s. The Times of London declared, "The Atlantic is dried up, and we become in reality as well as in wish one country. The Atlantic Telegraph has half undone the Declaration of 1776, and has gone far to make us once again, in spite of ourselves, one people." Historians Charles Briggs and Augustus Maverick rushed to publish a history of the telegraph that made central their predictions for social transformations linked to the technology: "It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth."xvi
The inventors of new technologies are often the most optimistic about their social impacts. Interviewed in 1912, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi declared, "The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous."xvii Even after the first World War had shown that ridiculousness is no obstacle to armed conflict, Nicola Tesla saw radio as uniting all humankind into a single, thinking organism: "When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance." As befits a man of his genius, some parts of Tesla's 1926 prediction were surprisingly accurate: "...through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket."xviii
Alas, the ability to see each other as if we were face to face hasn't been sufficient for people to avoid conflict and find understanding. Nor has the airplane, which has made it vastly easier and less expensive for people to actually talk face to face. Commenting on Louis Blériot's crossing of the English Channel, The Independent of London suggested that air travel would lead towards peace because the airplane "creates propinquity, and propinquity begets love rather than hate." A similar logic led Philander Knox, secretary of state under US president Howard Taft, to predict that airplanes would "bring the nations much closer together and in that way eliminate war."
Historian and technology scholar Langdon Winner suggests, "the arrival of any new technology that has significant power and practical potential always brings with it a wave of visionary enthusiasm that anticipates the rise of a utopian social order."xix It's possible that technologies that connect individuals to one another - like the airplane, the telegraph and radio - are particularly powerful at helping us imagine a smaller, more connected world. Given the internet's potential for connection, and the sheer amount written about the network in the past ten years, it's not surprising that the idea that the internet can change society for the better has spawned a neologism: cyberutopianism.
The term "cyberutopian" tends to be used only in the context of critique. To suggest someone is a cyberutopian is to imply that they have an unrealistic and naively overinflated sense of what technology makes possible and an insufficient sense of the forces that govern societies. Curiously, the term used to represent an opposite stance, a belief that internet technologies are weakening society, coarsening discourse and hastening conflict is described with a far less weighted term: cyberskepticism. Before considering whether these terms adequately serve us in understanding this debate, it's worth considering why cyberutopianism is so appealing.